They discuss the notion of an auteur and what constitutes a good documentary.
TSM: Nick Fraser, at meetings you have often said that you think that American documentaries are far better than European because the American directors know that they can’t make a living out of it. That’s a pretty strong and provocative comment from a European commissioning editor. What about the films from your own country and the French and the East European?… Give me some examples!
NF: My fate is to watch more documentaries than any other executive. Only Ally Derks of the Amsterdam Festival watches more than I do. Many boring documentaries are made in the U.S., and I am afraid to say that many of them do make money. Only the truely gifted suffer. However, a disproportionate number of terrific ones also come from there. Why? Is it because there’s some fantastic tradition of painstakingly telling the truth in the U.S. – the sort of mentality that created the Great American Novel? Is it because (as I once suggested to you) American filmmakers have to want so badly to make a film for it be worthwhile? Or is it a consequence of the fact that America is teeming with stories that the rest of us want to hear? I don’t know.
Anyway, I often look at our own situation in Europe, and I get depressed. Yes, people have learnt to be professional in the pitching of ideas – nothing wrong with that. Yes, the money is available. Yes, things are better than they were before you lot – EDN, I mean – came along. But I suppose I want to see more ambition. I wonder why some of the most interesting and idiosyncratic work comes from places like Eastern Europe, and not from Britain, Germany and France. But what do you think – are European filmmakers fulfilling their potential?
TSM: Well, Claire Simon’s “Coûte que Coûte and Werner Herzog’s” “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” are great documentaries from the 90s, appealing to a broad audience… I have more difficulty in finding unique examples from your country. Maybe because the Brits have always hesitated when it comes to the ‘auteur’ documentary, whereas you are the masters when it comes to the series format. Think of all the excellent works that Brian Lapping has produced. But in general I think that UK filmmakers suffer a lot from the extreme television stranding where everything tends to look alike. Am I wrong? But back to the Americans and your romantic idea about them being the best! I may have missed some, but apart from “Crumb” and “Hoop Dreams” what else is there to be happy about?
NF: I agree about the Brits. We do best with anything that is based in journalism – that’s where we come from. I have to say I loved “The Death of Yugoslavia” because I was the executive producer. And latterly the extensive showing of documentaries on TV has benefited filmmakers – but a certain cost. You have to see British docs in the context of our having the best and the worst of the world’s press – by which I mean abuses of journalistic integrity as well as brilliant non-fiction writers. In the 1990s, alas, Britain perpetrated the docusoap. That brought viewers to non-fiction TV, but a certain cost.
However, I think there are a number of good young documentary makers, and some not so young ones, too. I like Phillipa Lowthorpe’s work, and Kim Longinotto’s. Angus McQueen is a good filmmaker. And I’m a Broomfield fan, bien entendu… Paul Pawlikowski is an inspired man, too. Leslie Woodhead, who has been making good films for 30 years, is an inspiration to me. Then there many other more than competent folk – people who are better than journeymen, and turn out one good film after another. At its best British filmmaking is sharp and ironic. It makes you think, not always happily, about the human condition. I think we’ve had to learn not to be boring. It isn’t enough these days to present viewers with wodges of uninterest in the name of profundity.
But to the Americans. Alas, I feel you have missed some good films. Berlinger and Sinofsky made “Brother’s Keeper” and “Paradise Lost” – both astonishing films, tabloid in inspiration and deep in their comprehension of violent deviance. The film about the Waco massacre was the best single piece of investigative journalism of the decade. “Nobody’s Business”, Alan Berliner’s film about his father rang all the bells for me. Jennifer Fox’s “An American Love Story” shows everyone how to make use of the new lightweight cameras, and interprets love across the race lines on an epic scale. It’s a film I learnt from – I felt better about life afterwards. And I’ve watched all ten hours of it four times! Jonathan Stack makes open-minded and moving films. Don Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus are great news, too. This is not my ‘romantic idea’, Tue. I’m saying that these films have something in common. They share a relentless interest in the truth, they are painstakingly made, over a long period of time. And they are also ‘democratic’ in their taste, to use an abused notion, in the sense that they neither patronise nor insult the viewers or the people about whom they are made. Sometimes it seems to me as if Americans, so close to the drop over the rapids into the great make-believe of popular culture, with its endless capacity for recycling fictions, are obliged to put themselves out. They do it, they really do…
But I have a suggestion to put you – that we dump the notion of auteur, with its ridiculous pretensions. I mean, come on, Tue, why does creativity have to come dressed in French? I know that hairdressers are called ‘frisør’ in Danish, but here we gave up this form of deference ages ago. Don’t you agree?
TSM: Over my dead body! I’ve grown up in cinemas in Copenhagen watching films by Godard, Truffaut, Visconti, Bunuel and many other great ‘auteurs’. It might be snobbish to use that term, but on the other hand some TV stations (like DR/TV) are not even using the term “director” any more! I was taught and still believe in the personal signature in documentary making. To make a documentary is not always a personal matter, but the best ones, I’m sure you’ll agree, are films where you sense that here is one person talking to you. Herzog, Kossakovsky, Lozinski, Jon Bang Carlsen… it’s documentary as an art form. I think we need to make that distinction from well-made, subject oriented documentaries like the historical ones commissioned by Laurence Rees, to mention some of a very high quality. A way to make that distinction is to say auteur or something similar which communicates Art. For me it’s only important because I fear that kind of documentary is threatened in the documentary landscape today. We need the personal involvement and statements, not only from an artistic point of view but also from journalists like you.
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