The New Look of Documentary Film in a Coronavirus World

Filming amid the pandemic poses a danger that’s “much harder to control,” IDA’s executive director Simon Kilmurry says

The documentary of the coronavirus era will be seen through a new light, either with stories being told through video-conference lenses at a safe distance or through a nostalgic lens to the past.

Even as the rest of the film industry remains shut down, documentary filmmakers are finishing editing on projects, racing to tell the stories of businesses and individuals affected by the coronavirus or gathering together archival footage to prep what could be the next “Tiger King,” “The Last Dance” or “Beastie Boys Story.”

But all of those projects, as they’re being filmed and completed, will have to take into consideration the new realities of life during a pandemic.

“Not only are people watching documentaries, but documentaries are the first part of the entertainment industry that is getting back to work,” Bryn Mooser, founder and CEO of the documentary production company XTR, told TheWrap. “The stories that people are resonating with, talking about, watching, sharing are documentaries, so there’s just a blitz in the industry to make more of them.”

He says XTR is continuing production on nearly its entire documentary slate, either those in post-production, ones that are archival heavy or even ones that have a skeleton crew or can use creative ways to ship equipment to subjects overseas and have them tell their own stories, something that can even be a cost-saving measure over sending large crews abroad.

More importantly for XTR, Mooser is looking beyond COVID-19 at stories that will make people “stand up and cheer.”

“The Last Dance”/Getty Images

“It gives us all a chance to be creative and problem solve. Documentary filmmakers historically are great problem solvers, and they’re great at figuring out how to make something great from very little,” Mooser said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of fatigue with COVID-19, talking about COVID-19, hearing about it, so I’m much more interested in documentaries that are nostalgic, hopeful, that are escapism.”

Van Toffler, CEO and co-founder of Gunpowder & Sky, says his production house too is continuing work on documentaries even amid Hollywood’s shutdown and is finding new ways to tell stories in the process.

“You can conduct interviews via Zoom or by the phone, and one of my favorite documentaries as you’ll recall is ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture,’ and there were very cool ways to animate, illustrate visuals that were either stationary or moving footage over voiceover,” Toffler said. “Interviewing people in a room, as long as you follow precautions, that seems to be okay. And again, you can talk to anybody and use footage, whether it’s existing footage of that particular person and the subject matter they’re talking about, so there’s no reason to cease any of that.”

But there’s no doubt that shooting documentaries during coronavirus is an adjustment. Fisher Stevens, who produced “Tiger King” and is the director of the documentary “And We Go Green” on Hulu, says there’s no world in which his sports and environmental film could’ve been made under the present conditions.

“The whole thing is very surreal,” Stevens said. “We shot that all over the world. And we’re used to that, getting on a plane and there we go. it It is really interesting to not have that freedom to let’s just go shoot.”

Tiger King Joe Exotic

Tiger King Records/Netflix

Director AJ Schnack is currently hard at work delivering the final cut of the upcoming ESPN “30 for 30” documentary “Long Gone Summer” about the careers of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. He was in a situation where he knew the film’s premiere would not happen at Tribeca as planned, but ESPN then requested the broadcast premiere for the film be moved up. He says he’s now editing the film himself at a far slower pace than usual, and “Long Gone Summer” too would’ve never been completed under the current circumstances he’s in.

“I’d been editing the film myself, so we closed off the edit space to the rest of the team so that I could work without having anyone else coming into the space,” Schnack said. “That’s made a lot of our processes more difficult, and they’ve taken much longer than they would have, but we found ways to communicate remotely.”

Laura Gabbert, the director of “City of Gold,” is fortunate that her latest film “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” was finished before shutdowns began and that it can be presented to buyers, adding that she would be putting a hold on anything that wasn’t COVID-19 related right now. And prep work on her next film has already begun for the last two months, a film partnering with Ruth Reichl on how restaurant owners, fishermen, farmers and ranchers within the food supply chain are adapting to life under the coronavirus.

Gabbert says she can use Zoom to conduct lengthy pre-interviews with subjects and may do location scouting on her own before sending someone out to location. And when it comes time to shoot, she has a one-man skeleton crew that essentially acts as a field producer who can capture any B-roll or location footage they might need.

“There’s just a huge learning curve in terms of how you capture footage of course safely,” Gabbert said, adding that if her cameramen even see anyone without masks inside a restaurant, they won’t go inside.

Gabbert is finding that Zoom can actually help her capture the moment better than if she were to send equipment to her subjects.

“There’s something about the intimacy of the Zoom call that kind of changes the tone of the interview. It feels much more conversational, it feels much more immediate, it feels more emotional. It’s not as retrospective. They’re talking about how they feel that day, the decisions they’re making that day,” she said. “It feels like the form makes sense in terms of the content. It’s helping you tell that story.”

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

“Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles”

As late night talk shows, TikTok videos and more have demonstrated that not everything needs to look professionally or beautifully lit, Gabbert’s concern has less to do with the look of her film and how to edit within it.

“How do you get reaction shots? Are you going to get some kind of split screen? Are you just going back and forth? How do you edit within seven sentences someone says when you just want one of them,” she says. “I can’t answer all those questions right now.”

Verité style of filmmaking is an even bigger challenge – and is also inherently riskier. Journalists right now have been eager to tell documentary stories about people during the pandemic, but the International Documentary Association (IDA) has urged filmmakers to take ethics into the equation before they go out to film.

“As we look at the power dynamics between ourselves as filmmakers and the participants in our films, and the choices we make ourselves, what types of choices are we asking our participants to make,” IDA’s Maggie Bowman, director of programming for the Getting Real festival, said. “There’s an imbalance of risk there, and I think that those are some of the questions that we actually really need to be asking in the field more regularly to be asking about some of those power dynamics. Particularly in this moment, these are life and death situations.”

Some documentary filmmakers have equated preparing safely for COVID-19 is no different than prepping to shoot safely in a warzone or dangerous area. IDA’s executive director Simon Kilmurry, however, says that’s a “misaligned metaphor.”

“It’s not like a bullet where it hits someone. It’s a bullet that you bring home. It’s going to hit you, and then it’s going to hit other people,” Kilmurry said. “They’re coming into contact not just with their subjects but people in the street or out there who may not be part of that film. So it’s much harder to control.”

Kilmurry points out that no formal guidelines have been established for even protecting more contained fiction film sets, and there are lingering questions about whether freelance documentary filmmakers working in unpredictable environments can get insurance protection should they get sick while filming.

While there’s an appetite for nostalgia-driven films or urgent coronavirus stories, will documentarians in the immediate future still be able to tell personal stories and grapple with subjects unrelated to the pandemic?

“We have to balance that. One of the reasons “Tiger King” was so successful is it got your mind off COVID-19, but we have to figure out what the balance will be, because it’s a new world,” Stevens said. “If you make a documentary, it kind of has to reflect the times. And there’s one big story right now. So if you can find a way to tell that story or the characters to help you tell that story, you’ve got to go with it.”

"Love and Stuff" Judith Helfand

“Love and Stuff”

One of those filmmakers is Judith Helfand, whose film “Love & Stuff” premiered last week as part of the virtual Hot Docs festival. Both “Love & Stuff,” which grapples with the questions of having end of life conversations with your parents, and her “Independent Lens” documentary “Cooked,” which examines a heat wave in Chicago that disproportionality killed African Americans, have taken on a new urgency in the coronavirus pandemic.

She’s now been working to develop virtual workshops that can frame those films’ larger themes in terms of the coronavirus. She’s also written op-eds for The New York Times and The Daily Beast that have provided other resources or guidance to those in need, and PBS even did a rebroadcast of “Cooked,” all of which have allowed her to make the most of a difficult moment.

“I tend to try and utilize this virtual moment as much as I possibly can and use it in the most loving and mindful way that’s possible, which I think people really need right now,” Helfand said. “I feel very called on as a storyteller, and very honored and lucky that I can utilize my skills that way. I might not be making new work, but I’m sure as hell going to be utilizing the work that I just poured the last 25 years of my life into.”

Helfand said those within the documentary community should be thinking about how to use this moment to collaborate and tell local stories that otherwise haven’t been told.

“Maybe we all have to go local in certain ways and combine our local stories at this very interesting and dire moment and celebrate the fact that we all kind of have to stay home or stay in our community,” she said. “I think people telling stories that they can tell in very unique ways that speak to where they are or where they live, the access that they have or don’t have and the desire to forge deep human connections at this moment is really vital.”

Brian Welk

Brian Welk

Film Reporter • [email protected] • Twitter: @brianwelk


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