“Time” director Garrett Bradley says she doesn’t refer to the people she works with as “subjects,” nor does she view their shared experience as “access.” And for the other filmmakers nominated for Oscars for this year’s Best Documentary Feature race, that issue of trust was key in getting all of their films to the screen.
As part of a panel discussion Tuesday for TheWrap Screening Series, all five nominated directors shared their stories of how they came to make their films and developed trust in their subjects, whether they were activists, investigative journalists or a wild cephalopod in the ocean.
TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman spoke with “Time” director Garrett Bradley, “Collective” director Alexander Nanau, “Crip Camp” co-director Nicole Newnham, “My Octopus Teacher” co-director Pippa Ehrlich and “The Mole Agent” director Maite Alberdi. Not only are all five films drastically different in tone and subject matter, the filmmakers themselves came from across the world and called in to TheWrap’s panel from California, Bucharest, Cape Town and Santiago.
Bradley explained that in the case of “Time,” her work with prison reform activist Fox Rich began as a short film, having agreed together on their reasons for telling the story of Rich’s fight to get her husband released from a 60-year sentence. But everything changed when Rich gave Bradley a small bag that wound up containing 100 hours of Rich’s home family footage dating back 20 years.
“The structure of the film needed to change, the length of the film needed to change, but the intention of the film was not going to change. That’s where trust comes in, and trust doesn’t go away once you’re in post,” Bradley explained. “The Black family archive is a political act. It’s a form of resistance. It shows us in the way we see ourselves in many cases the way mainstream society does not show us. When you think about it in a Black southern context in Louisiana where Hurricane Katrina destroyed most family archives, there was a lot of weight, a lot of trust that went into her handing her archive to me.”
“Collective” director Nanau was operating in a moment where trust had been eroded in Romania’s system of government. In reporting about a healthcare system in which people were dying needlessly, the press had failed in holding authorities accountable. Nanau’s best bet then to obtain access and tell the story for himself was to shadow sports journalists who could still operate without bias or corruption.
“We were aware that it was a manipulation. And the press failed at the time. The press didn’t ask the right questions, they just propagated what the authorities were saying,” Nanau said. “My instinct was, I want to make a movie about power, who are these people who are in power and can lie in such a manner knowing they will kill some of these kids, lying to their parents?”
“Collective” proved to be a big success in Romanian theaters for a documentary, and he says that the number of whistleblowers who continue to come forward about the government has exploded since the film’s release.
In Newnham’s case on “Crip Camp,” the story’s history was quite frequently overlooked. When Newnham began the work on “Crip Camp,” all she had about this summer camp for disabled individuals in the ’70s was a collection of black and white photos. Any footage or history was near impossible to come by, with individual episodes of old shows that highlighted the disabled community being erased or neglected in archives. In one instance, it took pushing a university library for two years to locate footage that had been donated but never properly cataloged.
“History had really been suppressed and forgotten or overlooked,” she said, adding that it all changed when they tracked down the People’s Video Theater and their treasure trove of material. “We got this hard drive and it was like time traveling back and gave us the opportunity to construct that world for people and bring them into it.”
Ehrlich and her team on “My Octopus Teacher” had all come from a background as environmental filmmakers. They knew the importance of telling a story about how it’s a “frightening time on Earth” for endangered species. But what set this film apart was how filmmaker Craig Foster formed a powerful, emotional bond with an octopus and how it helped his own recovery, something they couldn’t ignore.
“I had written so many stories about the destruction of nature and watched so many films about the impact of human beings on the natural world that are often very scary and make you feel incredibly sad,” Ehrlich said. “What I hadn’t seen so much of and what I was fascinated by is a story of what the impact of nature is on a human being. That was the story we wanted to stay true to, and we felt like the fragility of human kind within the huge environmental community that we’re part of, which includes all kinds of weird, wonderful creatures that shares a sense of awe and even reverence for the living planet would be a more powerful message.”
For the Chilean documentary “The Mole Agent,” Alberdi spent months interviewing different private investigators who had all recently opened up shop around Chile. She settled on the story of a retirement community where a client suspected that caretakers were abusing elderly individuals who lived there.
Yet weeks before shooting began, the mole set to pry into the retirement home dropped out, leaving Alberdi without a film. But when the new mole turned out to be “the worst spy in the world,” everything clicked.
“He was the one that completely changed the focus of my original idea, which was more like a film noir, private detective documentary,” Alberdi said. “He changed the focus with the film, and that’s like the gift for me at the end of the film.”
Check out the full panel discussion with the Oscar-nominated directors above.