Film Historian Discusses New Trends in Political Documentaries





From NPR's 'Talk of the Nation' (June 24 2004):

NEAL CONAN, host: Let's talk now with Michael Renov. Most people's idea of a documentary is more like"Control Room," one that lets the events unfold. But according to Michael Renov, that style is actually a relatively new phenomena in documentary film. He's associate dean of the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California, author of a new about the history of documentaries called"The Subject of Documentary." He joins us from his office in Los Angeles. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Professor MICHAEL RENOV (University of Southern California): A pleasure.

CONAN: Some argue that Michael Moore's film"Fahrenheit 9/11" is not a true documentary. I understand you haven't had a chance to see it yet, but if we assume it's more or less along the lines of the techniques that we saw in Michael Moore's earlier movies, what would you say to that?

Prof. RENOV: The work of Michael Moore fits into a pretty long history of documentary filmmaking which takes an advocacy position that really attempts to be persuasive, has a very strong point of view, an attitude towards the material. There's nothing terribly groundbreaking about his approach.

CONAN: Of making himself as the star?

Prof. RENOV: Well, that may be somewhat of a difference, in terms of the persuasive filmmaking style that includes the filmmaker. He's, by no means, the first.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. RENOV: But this is something that's probably been more prevalent in the last, say, 20, 25 years at least.

CONAN: What might be another example of it?

Prof. RENOV: Well, there's someone named Jon Alpert, who, for a long time, has made--since the early '70s, so I'm guessing about 30 years now, and for a while worked--his work was shown on the"Today" show in the '80s, but has been very consistent with making films, videotapes that were about breaking issues around the world. And he was very much a part of them. He shot them himself.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. RENOV: Unlike Michael Moore, he was the camera person and you could hear him speaking from behind the camera. So that's one example.

CONAN: So what are the examples of the other kinds of documentaries you're talking about, the kinds of films that prevailed--What?--40 years ago?

Prof. RENOV: Well, just on this point of films that may be about the political process, or the American political process, the sort of groundbreaking, the milestone film is a film called"Primary" that was made in 1960, which was the beginning really of direct cinema, or sometimes called cinema verite. But that attempts to let events unfold before the camera without the use of interviews or voiceovers, but that--the interest is in letting things unfold before the viewer so that the spectator is able to more or less make up his or own mind about what happens. And that...

CONAN: Frederick Wiseman uses that technique.

Prof. RENOV: Frederick Wiseman, who came along in 1967, has been making films ever since, is probably the best example, yeah.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. RENOV: And so with Wiseman films--since lots of people have seen his films--you're never going to hear Wiseman's voice. You may get a sense of his point of view towards the material, but you'll have to watch closely, and inferences will be very important. There still be editing that will help to make you a little bit clearer on what his relationship towards the subject matter is by virtue of his choices, his selections. But you're not going to really have Wiseman himself front and center. And Moore chooses to put himself in the middle of things, very often.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's get a listener involved. And Anina(ph) joins us from Portland, Oregon....


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