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Getting Closer and Closer to Reality

By Annaliese Griffin

This weekend The Reeler spent a pleasant Sunday afternoon at the Sundance Institute at BAM documentary program, Four Independents that Turned the Tide. The set-up worked like this: Pick one of four documentaries then convene en mass for a panel discussion with the filmmakers. The stellar selection of films -- Lumumba by Raoul Peck; Soldier Girls by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill; Shut Up and Sing! by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck; and a selection of shorts and excerpts from the Maysles brothers' vast body of work -- and the chilly gray weather made me wish I could just spend the whole day watching the entire program. In the absence of that option, I chose the 1981 film Soldier Girls, which follows a platoon of female recruits through basic training in Georgia. A quarter-century later, in the age of embedded journalists and the military’s tight control over media coverage of the war in Iraq, the film comes across as amazingly frank and compassionate.


"The philosophy of getting close": A few of the subjects of Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill's Soldier Girls, one of the selections of Sundance at BAM's Four Independents That Turned the TIde event

The intimate relationship with one’s subjects so clearly at work in Soldier Girls was one of the mainstays of the discussion that followed. Sundance documentary film program director Cara Mertes moderated the conversation with Albert Maysles , Joan Churchill, Barbara Kopple and Raoul Peck. Churchill and Kopple both worked on Maysles’ seminal Gimme Shelter, and the trio formed something of a living history of the American documentary. “There’s a scene in Gimme Shelter of a Hell’s Angel onstage by Mick Jagger and freaking out, and it’s maybe my favorite moment in the film," Maysles said. "And for years I’ve thought, ‘That’s my shot.’ And recently I discovered it wasn’t my shot, it was Joan’s.”

“Albert was very gracious," Churchill replied. "He called up and said, ‘I hear that you did that shot,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ And so there was a long pause and he said ‘Well, I’ve enjoyed having it as mine for the last 30 years, but the next 30 years can be yours.’”

As the youngest filmmaker on stage, Raoul Peck expressed an appreciation for his colleagues’ influence on his own development. “What made it possible for me in my own head, that film could be important was Harlan County USA," said Peck, who first came in contact with Barbara Kopple’s work as a film student in Berlin. "It did everything a documentary should do, and I walked through the city for many days with this wonderful film in my head.”

Although the respect the filmmakers’ shared for one another’s work was evident, they disagreed on some of the fundamental aspects of their craft. Kopple, who has directed episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets and Oz, described working in fiction as, “Just another way. You’d delve deeply into what that character was about.” Maysles disagreed: “I don’t believe that the best actor can deliver a real person’s behavior.”

Peck, who grew up in Haiti before moving to the Democratic Republic of Congo, spoke against documentary dogma, focusing instead on the importance of telling stories that were previously silenced. His film Lumumba recreates the story of Congo’s prime minister, Patrice Emery Lumumba, who came to power as Belgian colonial rule was ending and an even more tumultuous era in African politics began. “For me, Lumumba was the film I wanted to see when I was 12,” he said. “I grew up with American cinema, with European cinema but I never saw a film that made me feel at home. It’s always a strange moment when you feel, 'This is not totally mine.' It’s something I saved for the future and from the past.”

In response to an audience member question about point of view in documentary, Maysles advocated for objectivity. “The irony of my life is the one of my best films, Salesman, couldn’t get on television anywhere, except on the PBS program Point of View," he said. Peck, however, seemed frustrated by the idea of strict lines of demarcation drawn around documentary as a genre and by the luxury of objectivity espoused by his American colleagues. “I can’t afford not to have a point of view," he said. "Whether aware of it or not you have a point of view, and as an artist you have to be aware. You have to be non-dogmatic about it."

In return, Churchill brought the discussion back the common goal of documentary -- revealing subjects’ basic humanity and getting to the truth of a story -- with an example from Soldier Girls. In response to a question from a promising recruit, Sergeant Abing, who is shown throughout the movie yelling at young women with tears running down their faces and subjecting recruits to physical and emotional strain that many of them can’t handle, explains that he left part of his soul in Vietnam and that he misses it more with each passing year. “Evil Sgt. Abing tunred out to be someone who had an interesting history," Churchill said. "We actually loved Sergeant Abing too and knew him as a very complicated character, which we endeavored to show at the end of the film.” The scene comes near the end of the end of movie, providing a closing framework that utterly complicates and recontextualizes Abing’s character and perfectly capturing the spirit of what Maysles referred to early in the program as “the philosophy of getting close.”

Posted at June 11, 2007 9:59 AM

Comments (1)

What ever happened to Pvt. Johnson the young woman who left early and had run in with Sgt. Abing? What became of her life?

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