Sunday, May 20, 2018
  • Friday, Nov. 17, 2017
AFI Fest Heralds A Golden Age For Documentaries--With An Asterisk
Filmmaker panelist Bryan Fogel attends the AFI Fest Doc Roundtable at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on Nov. 12, 2017 (photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for AFI)
Event also reflects an age of discovery with Tech Showcase focusing on immersive content
  • HOLLYWOOD, Calif.
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Bryan Fogel, director of the acclaimed documentary Icarus, affirmed that documentaries are in a golden age, attributable in large part to Netflix which is giving worthwhile work a level of exposure not previously possible.

Serving as a panelist on a Doc Roundtable at the recently wrapped AFI Fest (11/9-16) in Hollywood, Fogel noted that more people are “caring about documentaries than ever before because of Netflix,” which brings a reach of 190 countries spanning 120 million homes and 600 million people. It’s nirvana for documentarians “if your goal is to have your film seen,” he said, whether it be on TV, a computer, an iPhone or any other streaming media device. 

Icarus was released by Netflix, which acquired the film for some $5 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it won the Orwell Special Jury Prize. Icarus follows Fogel as he takes performance-enhancing drugs, investigating if they will strengthen his endurance as an amateur bike racer. Fogel’s filmmaking mission showcasing the effects of doping in the world of cycling quickly escalates when he meets Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian scientist with information that blows the lid off Russia’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program, effectively revealing what some have billed as the biggest scandal in sports history.

Fogel was one of nine documentary filmmakers on the AFI Fest panel, moderated by Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang. And while the opportunities afforded by Netflix were generally heralded, panelist Brett Morgen--the documentarian behind Jane, a National Geographic film that sheds light on Jane Goodall and her groundbreaking work with chimpanzees--observed that the so-called “golden age” does not apply to theatrical documentaries. Streaming may in fact be eclipsing opportunities for theatrical runs which are essential to certain kinds of documentaries. Morgen noted that watching Jane in a theater is a far different experience than seeing it on a small screen. “I won’t spend two years working on sound for a TV documentary,” said Morgen whose next films are planned for IMAX.

Panelist Amanda Lipitz noted that her documentary Step---focusing on a girls’ Baltimore high school dance team, and winner of a U.S. Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at the 2017 Sundance Film Fest--enjoyed a theatrical run on 300 screens for seven weeks via Fox Searchlight. Lipitz said it was important for the girls in the film to be able to see Step in a movie theater.

Kasper Collin, director of I Called Him Morgan--a documentary which explores the relationship between virtuoso jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan and his common-law wife Helen, who was implicated in his murder in 1972--shared that he took painstaking care to  make the film a cinematic experience, including mixing sound for a month to do justice to Morgan’s brilliant music. When Netflix offered him a deal to distribute the documentary, Collin accepted with the proviso that they also commit to meaningful theatrical exposure.

Like Collin, Lipitz, Morgen and Fogel, all the panelists on the Doc Roundtable have films that are not only on the list of entrants up for Best Feature Documentary Oscar consideration but also widely considered as strong contenders for nominations. The other filmmakers on the panel were: Greg Barker whose The Final Year is a fly-on-the-wall insiders’ look at President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team during its last year in office; Feras Fayyad, director of Last Men In Aleppo, this year’s winner of the Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary which shows us the struggle in Syria through the eyes of volunteer rescue workers called the White Helmets; Evgeby Afineevsky whose Cries From Syria is a harrowing exploration of the devastating civil war that has defined that country over the last five years; Steve James who directed Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, centered on a small financial institution which became the only company criminally indicted in the wake of the 2008 mortgage crisis in the U.S.; and Yance Ford whose Strong Island examines the violent death of his brother and the judicial system that allowed his killer to go free.

Several of these Roundtable panelists are also represented for commercials and branded content, including James who’s long been active in the ad/branded content arena via Nonfiction Unlimited; Fogel who recently joined the commercialmaking/branded entertainment roster of Supply&Demand; and Morgen whose spotmaking/branded entertainment roost is Anonymous Content.

Tech Showcase
While documentaries are in a golden age--with some debate over that designation when it comes to in-theater opportunities--virtual reality and immersive storytelling are clearly in an age of discovery as reflected in AFI Fest’s Tech Showcase, which ran for four days (11/11-14) at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The event offered a VR and 360 Film Showcase of work representing what’s currently possible in this emerging cinematic discipline, as well as several presentations and panel discussions.

One of those sessions, Short Films and Their VR Counterparts, moderated by Washington Post reporter Steve Zeitchik, featured a trio of filmmakers who have delved into immersive content: Wes Hurley who directed Potato Dreams, a surreal VR autobiographical documentary that tells the story of his, aka Little Potato’s, journey growing up gay in the Soviet Union before and after the fall of communism, his mother’s struggles to create a better life for them both, and their eventual escape to America via her becoming a mail-order bride; Simon Shterenberg who teamed with director Christine T. Berg to write Wonder Buffalo, the story of a Thai American teen girl finding acceptance and empowerment cosplaying as a superhero; and Cameron MacLaren who worked with director Grayson Moore on Deerbrook in which two strangers show up at a family’s cottage claiming to have spent their childhood summers there, but their behavior seems to be driven by something more sinister than nostalgia. 

The latter short is a standalone VR project while the other two, Potato Dreams and Wonder Buffalo, are VR counterparts to short films--with the VR component providing perspectives and story aspects complementing and going deeper into the tales told in the shorts.

MacLaren observed that people are often disconnected from content. A remedy for that is the shared in-theater experience. But beyond that, he sees VR as another still-to-be fully-explored dynamic helping viewers to tune into a story, enabling them to stand in the shoes--and live in the different worlds--of characters, thus coming closer to the emotions and thoughts that filmmakers are trying to evoke. At the same time, continued MacLaren, viewers’ eyes can go wherever they want in a VR piece, meaning that filmmakers have to relinquish an element of control. The Deerbrook experience, said MacLaren, has whetted his appetite for more immersive endeavors.

By contrast, Hurley is interested in more traditional filmmaking though he valued the VR education he received from doing the counterpart piece to Potato Dreams. But as it stands now, he noted that gaining widespread exposure for a VR piece is difficult given that many people don’t even have headsets--and among those who do, there are different headsets to choose from.

For Shterenberg, the VR piece was needed in order to get the traditional short film made. A Kickstarter campaign was unsuccessful as were other fundraising efforts for Wonder Buffalo. Then the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California came into the picture, willing to offer financial help for the short if a complementary VR piece were also created. Thus the short telling a coming-of-age story became a reality as Shterenberg and his colleagues came of age in terms of experiencing the many facets of VR. Shterenberg said he found the experience of seeing the different perspectives that can be captured with the cameras liberating, providing deeper insights into characters. The prime challenge of immersive content, he said, is deftly balancing storytelling and technology.