Documentary, the creative vs the polemic

Andrew Grace doesn’t like documentary films very much.

So he told 30-some people Wednesday at a workshop in Kroon Hall — a workshop he was conducting on documentary filmmaking. Making documentaries is what Grace does for a living. He had come to New Haven to promote his new movie “Eating Alabama,” which was screened Tuesday night at the Yale Environmental Film Festival.

So why his disdain for documentary filmmaking?

Grace doesn’t actually dislike the documentary film form itself. Much to the contrary, he’s in love with it: “Documentary,” he said, “is just an endlessly fascinating exploration for me.” What he’s worried about is where, in the age of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, his beloved form is headed.

“People have started to associate documentary filmmaking and advocacy,” he told me just before the workshop began. “When audiences begin to expect that every documentary they watch will be for or against something, it changes that medium from a medium of art to a medium of propaganda, and I think that’s enormously dangerous.”

Grace, who has a background in creative non-fiction writing and an MA in American Studies, considers himself a “personal essayist” in his film work. In projects like “Eating Alabama,” which he described as “my story and the story of my granddaddy and my family… trying to figure out our relationship to the land,” he’s trying to keep alive the notion that art and storytelling have just as much of a place in documentary as social justice and advocacy: “The creative” need not be overshadowed by “the polemic.”

For Grace, creativity is inextricable from personal connection to both form and content. Perhaps the central point he stressed to the aspiring filmmakers at the workshop was the importance of making films on a personal, human scale.

Keeping things personal, Grace explained, allows a filmmaker to find a subject worthy of attention and investment. “Only a story you truly care about and have a unique take on will sustain you through the deep and dark nights of making a film,” he said. He believes that non-fiction filmmaking at its best is highly subjective and interactive; among his documentary heroes are Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers, whose careers subverted the cinéma vérité idea that the filmmaker should be a mere “fly on the wall.” Making apologies to any anthropologists in the room, Grace said that he “reject[s] the objectivity that ethnography presupposes” and values “the input of the subject.” He does his best, he said, to “let people maintain their own dignity.”

Grace was quick to note that a personal approach does not preclude commitment to social activism. He currently teaches a year-long class at the University of Alabama called Documenting Justice, and his very first film, which he made when he was a college student himself, told the story of a young man negotiating Alabama’s parole system.

A film may or may not have a sociopolitical agenda; in Grace’s view, that shouldn’t be the point. He acknowledged that contemporary filmmakers can use the trendy “documentary equals advocacy” idea to their advantage: with “Eating Alabama,” he “duped [his] funders a little bit” by hiding his family story behind hot-button issues of local food and sustainability. But throughout the workshop, he insisted that good documentarians care about process over product, means over end.

“Young filmmakers [need] to understand… that the process is important,” he said. “With inexpensive digital production technologies, there is a lot of room for mistakes.” Learning from mistakes and being open to unexpected growth and change, he explained, is how he got where he is today. “One of the first things I learned was to be really courageous… to know that you don’t know everything about [a story] and to proceed into that story with a real sense of determination even if that determination is, ‘I need to figure this out.’”

Along with “Final Cut Pro and a camera,” Grace said, that determination is all you need. “Be selfish. Be ruthless. You’ve got to want this to happen so bad that you’re gonna lie, cheat and steal to make it happen.”

After saying that, he paused, and looked over at me.

“The Yale Daily News just quoted me on that, didn’t they?” Yes. Yes we did.

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