DOC U...Haskell Wexler & James Longley appear @ IDA Panel Discussion! Hollywood!

Doc U focuses on filmmakers!

In the wake of innovative new technological advances (where cameras are cooler, niftier, and more flexible in nature) - and in view of a proliferation of in-your-face reality-based shows on TV  touting gladiator-style entertainment programming - the role of the documentary filmmaker is being held up to closer scrutiny.

With that scenario unfolding in mind, three high-profile filmmakers were invited to attend a panel discussion last night at DOC U (under the auspices of the International Documentary Association) in Hollywood at the Silent Film Theatre on Fairfax Avenue to discuss the boundaries of the medium - if any - that exist today in an atmosphere where there appears to an "anything goes" or "take no prisoners" mentality.

The three panelists - at the top of their game right now (and as different as night and day in their approach to their scintillating projects) - openly discussed their roles with the aim of shedding some light on the kind of dilemmas that filmmakers face today.

Richard Pearce moderated the event as part of a DOC U series sponsored by ida (International Documentary Association).

In the old-world charm of the Silent Film Theatre (where publicity stills of Hollywood legends graced the dusty walls), Joan Churchill ("Dixie Chicks: Shut up and Sing"; "Role of a Serial Killer", "American Family"); Haskell Wexler ("Medium Cool", "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf") and James Longley ("Irag in Fragments") succeeded in rustling up a riveting cinematic event that ended up being upbeat, thought-provoking and inspiring to the packed house comprised mostly of aspiring young filmmakers interested in pursuing a mainstream career in documentary filmmaking.

When asked what were some of the ethical problems that documentary filmmakers faced today on the fast-shifting film terrain that has literally transformed the industry, the discussion became a lively informative debate.

For example, Ms. Churchill underscored that it was important to be "inside the circle" - and not outside of it - for a project to succeed.

After all, cementing a trust between filmmaker and subject is of paramount importance in the overall scheme of things.

The low-key down-to-earth filmmaker gave an example.

One day, an unexpected tragedy caused Churchill to shoot a handful of intimate personal scenes - that were highly sensitive, in nature - in respect to a subject featured in her documentary.

Instead of swooping down like a vulture - in pursuit of her prey - Churchill was prompted to act ethically instead.

Once the shy soft-spoken director captured the unexpected turn-of-events on film, she turned the footage over to her subject, and left the matter in her hands.

Whether the footage would be included in the documentary would rest on a decision made by the young lady involved - not the director - Joan Churchill.

In this way, the filmmaker managed to establish a rapport with the individual after-the-fact - and ultimately - gained the woman's trust and respect.

In the end scenario, Churchill was given permission to use the thought-provoking material, which was not surprising in view of the way the filmmaker handled the issue.

In one hilarious moment, out-of-the-blue, Mr. Haskell took the mic and shouted out.

"What am I doing here?  What am I doing here?"

At first, audience members thought the legendary filmmaker was having a senior moment.

However, when Haskell continued, his message - which came across a little off-the-wall a few seconds earlier - ending up ringing crystal clear.

"As a filmmaker, I have to ask. What am I doing here?  What am I trying to accomplish?"

Then, there was the issue of putting creativity - and the artist's vision - on the line.

What sacrifices must be made, if any?

When John Longley's clip - "Iraq in Fragments" - was previewed last night, it was evident that he took risks - personally and professionally - in a nervy bold-faced effort to land his precious footage in the can.

Because of his sensitivity to the subjects - and his keen ability to instinctively tip-toe thorugh a potentially-volatile situation unscathed - he was able to pull a remarkabe coup off.

Film buffs in the audience - myself included - were astounded when the breathtaking stunning images he conjured up on film splashed across the screen with great cinematic style.

Unlike Joan Churchill (who said she didn't care what the film looked like because she was just concerned with the content) Longley's film turned out a remarkable work of art.

Which underscores the obvious.

Documentaries don't have to be boring accounts of mundane subjects thrown together with the express purpose of teaching and/or enlightening the masses.

Indeed, judging from the response of the audience at last night's panel discussion, it is evident that documentary filmmakers are not only breaking exciting new ground in the realm of documentary film, but garnering ia helluva-a-lot of interest to boot!
From the bottom up.

"You don't need a lot of money to make a film if you make it yourself. You just have to pay for your equipment," underscored Joan.

And, it didn't escape my attention, that there were quite a few advantages to working para-military-style with quality hand-held cameras in tow.

After all, the easy-to-use lensers are capable of zooming in, out, and documenting far - out-of-the-way - intimate places that 35 mm cameras can't begin to.

Even the lights can drag a cameraman down and hinder the shooting process as well.

Moderator Richard Pearce ("Hearts and Minds", "Food, Inc.") was a charming inquisitive host who carried off the challenge of fielding questions admirably.

Pearce began his professional career in the late 1960’s as a documentary cameraman.

His early credits as a cinematographer include four Oscar-winning films: Woodstock, Marjoe, Interviews with My Lai Veterans and Hearts and Minds.

Pearce made his feature directorial debut with the period drama "Heartland" which won the Golden Bear at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival and opened the New York Film Festival’s first “Showcase of American Independents.”

Haskell Wexler took home statuettes for his work on Mike Nichols' "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and Hal Ashby's "Bound for Glory".

Wexler has worked with Norman Jewison, George Lucas, Michael Moore, and John Sayles.

He directed two features, Medium Cool and Latino.

I caught a screening of Medium Cool earlier this year in San Francisco which was screened in tandem with a major exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Post: 03/03/10

Both films broke the mold of conventional story telling by using the immediacy of documentary-style filmmaking.

Wexler was  the first Cinematographer to every land a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Joan Churchill began her career doing camera work on a series of music films such as "Gimme Shelter" (Rolling Stones), No Nukes (directed by Haskell Wexler), and Barbara Kopple and Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, (directed by Taylor Hackford).

Churchill is probably best-known for her work on the cult series "An American Family "(which broadcast originally on PBS).

Early on in his film career, James Longley was honored for his work by prestigious organizations.

"Portrait of Boy with Dog" was awarded a Student Academy Award® in 1994 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

He made his first feature documentary "Gaza Strip" in the early months of the second Palestinian uprising.

In 2002, Longley began pre-production work on his second documentary feature "Iraq in Fragments".

The film was awarded jury prizes for Best Documentary Directing, Best Documentary Editing, and Best Documentary Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Iraq in Fragments" went on to win the top documentary film awards at major national and international festivals, garnered an Emmy Award nomination for Best Documentary Cinematography, and an Academy Award® nomination for Best Feature Documentary.

After the panel wrapped - film buffs, the press, and invited guests - strolled back to the patio (under a romantic star-lit sky) to sip on wine, snack on delicious crackers and cheese, and chat each other up.

At this point, a couple of revelations overcame me, which are worthy of sharing.

For starters, steer clear of the talent's "handlers" wjhen mixing and minglimg - and, if possible - alight next to the guest star instead.

For example, when I approached Mr. Wexler and asked if he had any thoughts on Elizabeth Taylor (who he worked with on "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" many moons ago) a woman - who stuck like glue to the Director's side all night - pooh-poohed my query.

"That's not an appropriate question here," she snipped at me with a mean edge in her voice.

But, Mr. Wexler turned to me, and was inclined to follow up.

"What did he say," Wexler quizzed his escort pointedly, as he turned up the volume on his hearing aid.

At this juncture, the rude woman relented, and repeated my question to the honored guest.


The talented filmmaker was only too happy to respond.

"The one thing I will say about Elizabeth is this. When I won my Oscar that night, I accepted it in the name of Art and Peace. Later, Elizabeth came over to me, and thanked me for saying that."

Meanwhile, Joan Churchill - who was apparently choking over a whiff of garlic (?) - didn't have much of a personality to warm up to. She practically faded into the wall, that's how much charisma she exhibited backstage.

When I asked what project was on the horizon next, she stared at me blankly.

To lighten up an awkward situation, I persisted.

"Any scoops for me?"

"No scoops for you," she replied, with all the charm of a worm.


On that note, I waved my good-byes, and headed out.

For the most part,  the Doc U event was a dynamic entertaining one.

See 'ya there next month, eh?

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