(*Editor’s Note: Over the course of this 2020-21 off-season from Greenville’s Drive-In 32, I’m going to be posting a variety of back installments of the Cinema with a Twist column & podcast. This article originally ran in the Greenville Pioneer in 2015.)
We live in a fascinating age with respect to documentary films. Over the past fifteen years, the tools to create and disseminate films have been democratized. The ubiquitous nature of handheld digital cameras and free video sharing sites such as youtube.com has allowed even the most far-flung and often repressed voices to share their messages globally. For Episode 5 of Cinema with a Twist, I interviewed the Egyptian filmmaker of Cairo Drive, Sherief Elkatsha, for my radio program and he recalled with amazement the prolific number of independent documentary filmmakers recording the historic events in the Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring.
Capturing events on video are one thing. Being able to craft what you capture into a cohesive narrative that resonates with an audience is an entirely different matter. I was always taught that documentaries should ‘be objective’. That is, a good documentary should tell its story from a variety of perspectives, not simply the viewpoint of the filmmaker. While this is an excellent goal to strive for, and I do think most of the better documentaries do attempt to provide a well-rounded collection of perspectives on their subject, it is really an unattainable goal. Every decision a documentary filmmaker makes is a subjective one. How is your cinematographer subject lighting and framing the subject? What order and tone are the questions asked? What answers are retained in the final version and what is left behind in the edit suite? Every documentary contains thousands of these decisions and each decision can have a dramatic or subtle impact on the final shape of the filmmaker’s perspective, in much the same way each strike of sculptor’s hammer forms their statue.
So no matter how objective the attempt, every documentary is, in fact, a reflection of the filmmakers’ perspective. That said, I do think the exercise of approaching a documentary from a variety of different angles is a worthy exercise even if perfect objectivity is unattainable. Nothing promotes the much-needed human quality of empathy than trying to see someone else’s perspective through their eyes. You may not agree with that person’s position, but presenting their argument helps you understand why that idea is important to them, and helps you develop and evolve your own thinking to an often complex matter.
Every documentary film is a journey, not just for the audience member, but for the documentary team itself. On average, it takes six years to complete a feature-length documentary. As you can imagine, if you live and work on a project for that length of time, looking at it over and over again, turning it over in your mind, it is going to change quite a lot and, ultimately, change you as a person as well.
In honor of documentary filmmakers, this installment’s cocktail recipe is called The Journalist. The recipe is at least 90 years old, having appeared in 1930 in the seminal Savoy Cocktail Book.
- 3oz gin
- 1/2oz sweet vermouth
- 1/3oz dry vermouth
- 2 dashes of orange curaçao
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- a splash fresh lemon juice
Pour all the ingredients into a mixing glass with ice, stir and strain into a chilled coupe glass, garnish with a twist of lemon.
WATCH: Cairo Drive here on Amazon Prime.
LISTEN: To my interview with Sherief Elkatsha here on SoundCloud.