TIFF’s Documentary Conference: Ethical Choices, Moral Drama
This was the second year for The Toronto International Film Festival’s documentary conference. The day-long event, held in the brand-spanking-new TIFF Lightbox, featured some of the documentary luminaries whose work was also premiering at the fest.
The documentary conference opened with an interview with public-affairs documentarian Alex Gibney, which I conducted. He called himself an “agent provocateur” of better conversations on fundamentally moral issues. “All my films address moral problems, and I want to get people angry about immorality,” he said. Unlike many producers of public affairs documentaries, he always structures his films as mystery or detective stories, he said. “Why did a taxi driver get beaten to death by American soldiers? That was Taxi to the Dark Side. Why did one of the most successful energy companies in America go bellyup almost overnight? That was Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.”
His latest film, Client-9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (in theaters this fall) asks two questions: Why did squeaky-clean Spitzer frequent prostitutes? And why did that fact wreck his career, given that so many other politicians survive scandal? As always, a personal and individual question leads to a sophisticated social analysis. Gibney in fact argued that the detective format allows him to address formidably difficult subjects. “You can introduce a great deal of complexity if you tell a simple story,” he said.
Gibney gets astonishing access to people who have refused to talk, including Spitzer. He explained his success at gaining access to subjects by persistence. “It can take a long time to get people to talk to you. I’m releasing five films this year not because I’m so productive but because it took so long to get some people to talk, and then they all said yes at the same time.” Also, he noted, the good faith representation of figures in earlier films helps to convince people to talk. Certainly Spitzer’s interview is striking for its emotional nakedness. (Spitzer’s wife however steadfastly refused to talk to him.)
Gibney is controversial in some public-affairs documentary circles, especially in public TV, for using dramatic techniques and structures to capture and hold viewer attention. He does not apologize for that. He wants to honor the subjects’ and the viewers’ trust while making moral conflicts into good stories. In Client-9, Gibney faced a challenge. He had found the real prostitute who Spitzer had focused on (not the one who claimed to be that person), and she consented to an interview but not to be identified on camera. Rather than film her in silhouette and distort her voice—a choice he thought would deny the viewer essential information about her elegant demeanor and intelligence--he transcribed the interview and had an actress enact it. The viewer only learns that it is an actress the third time she speaks; by then, Gibney hoped, we would have grasped what he wanted us to learn about her.
Along with a couple of business panels that offered no surprises (do as much of your own distribution as possible; the online market is still emerging), the documentary conference also featured a spotlight on a forthcoming HBO project, War Torn, a historical look at post-traumatic stress disorder. Veteran indie Jon Alpert talked about the devastating cost of war to the soldiers, but also about the price of chronicling it for journalists. “When journalists start out, they all want to be tested in battle. Those of us who have been in battle know that no one should ever have to do that.”
Finally, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris had a big-dog conversation, facilitated by the conference’s organizer Thom Powers. They performed themselves both happily and amusingly. Morris wound up the day by expressing his debt to Herzog for an insight Herzog had shared years before. Morris had been depressed about the constraints of his work, and took solace in Herzog’s comment “that part of art is extending sympathy where it’s never been extended before. Part of the job of an artist is to look in places where people would not normally look. To examine people who normally would be passed over or ignored. I agree with that. If anything gives it a kind of nobility, this tawdry enterprise, it could be that. “
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