Silverdocs’ Hottest Topics: Are Filmmakers Journalists? Can Filmmakers Help Themselves?
Both audience and panelists (Hot Docs curator Charlotte Cook, producer Daniel Chalfen, film producer Esther Robinson, IDA’s Michael Lumpkin and I) noted a rash of doc-related scandals (harassment of Josh Fox; Joe Berlinger’s failed attempt to keep Crude outtakes away from litigants; Fredrick Gertten’s run-ins with Dole over Bananas!; the federal government’s surveillance of Laura Poitras after The Oath) .
Trouble is, of course, one way to measure the rising importance and significance of documentary work in the eye of the public (and of course any interests that a documentarian may rile in the process of making his or her work). By this measure, documentaries have never been more important or taken more seriously than today.
Should documentarians try to claim the mantle of journalism? Journalists can sometimes take refuge from people who want their notes and raw materials behind shield laws. But shield laws are state-by-state, and each provides limited protection.
Daniel Chalfen, who’s been both a journalist and a documentarian, argued passionately that the two fields are very different. I disagreed, since more and more journalists are working on their own, like documentarians, and since both fields produce work intended to reflect reality honestly and intend that people put to use the perspectives and information in them. Others wondered what documentarians get out of more tightly defining their field, and whether claiming journalist status would make their work harder.
I pointed people to the Center’s report, Honest Truths, which shows that documentarians generally are very concerned about accuracy, integrity, and good faith, but lack either institutional structures or shared standards to guide them. The report itself calls for a more organized process of articulating field-wide standards.
Could filmmakers help themselves? IDA’s Lumpkin noted that IDA has taken action on behalf of filmmakers on a variety of issues, including the procedures by which documentaries are nominated for the Oscars. (Another dust-up ensued: do the Oscars matter to documentarians? The audience was split.) It also co-led the effort to get indie docs showcased on PBS prime-time . He also noted, though, that resources are scarce for advocacy, which requires both constant attention and expertise.
Charlotte Cook noted that film festivals do not always do what’s best for the filmmaker (“Thank you!” said Robinson), and that festivals are beginning to develop relationships. She looks forward to an organized body in which festivals can set standards that are filmmaker-friendly as well as festival-friendly.
Of course, the hottest topic of all is funding, and the lack of it. But that is something that mostly is out of filmmakers’ hands. Filmmakers not only had scandals last year, but some achievements, especially the showcasing of indie work on PBS. More awareness of the power of organized action, the panel agreed, would be helpful—and might, if it followed the example of some unions and trade associations, even get filmmakers health insurance.
Helping People Make Media That Matters
We investigate, showcase and set standards for socially engaged media-making. We organize conferences and convenings, publish research, create codes of best practices, and incubate media strategies. More...