TED’S TALKING: Don’t Knock the Docs!

Originally published in EXPOSITION¹² March-May 2013.

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By Ted Barron

It has been a great season for documentaries at the Browning Cinema. We recently wrapped up our annual ScreenPeace Film Festival which featured sold out screenings of Five Broken Cameras, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, How to Start a Revolution and The Loving Story. Mary Fishman (ND ’82) joined us to present her film, Band of Sisters. This spring, we are looking forward to screenings of Bully, Pink Skies, How to Survive a Plague, Sound City and Brothers on the Line among our premieres. Even French comic master Pierre Étaix (whose films will be screened this May) poked fun at post-May 1968 French society with his satirical documentary, Land of Milk and Honey.

Documentary has always faced challenges because for many viewers it suggests information rather than entertainment but, for many years, Notre Dame has been a rich environment for documentary’s more expressive qualities. Professor Emerita Jill Godmillow received an Academy Award nomination in 1975 for her first feature documentary, Antonia: Portrait of a Woman, and has spent the good part of her career interrogating and rethinking the form. Current faculty Bill Donaruma and Ted Mandell are actively producing documentaries while serving as advisors to an enterprising group of film production students who regularly embrace nonfiction over fiction. The Lost Pastime, a Ken Burns-ian portrait of vintage baseball teams replete with voiceover narration by Professor Don Crafton (giving David McCullough a run for his money!), claimed the audience choice award at this year’s at the Notre Dame Student Film Festival.

Compared to other genres and forms, documentary remains a rich site for diversity in cinema both in terms of its practitioners and its content. I “talked” recently about the growth of opportunity for women in film (notwithstanding Kathryn Bigelow’s surprise omission from the field of Best Director nominees at this year’s Academy Awards). Nowhere has that growth been more robust than in the field of documentary where we see more and more women in the role of director. Many of the aforementioned films are ones in which subjects who typically wouldn’t be represented in narrative film are given voice and vision such as the kids who struggle daily with bullying, the nuns who are steadfast in their commitment to social justice or the heroic figures of the early AIDS awareness movement, ACT UP.

My own interest in documentary goes back to my undergraduate years when I first saw the films of Frederick Wiseman. Wiseman is considered one of the central figures of the cinéma vérité movement of the 1960s in which documentarians were seen as achieving a more faithful representation of the natural world through techniques designed to minimize artifice such as hand-held cinematography, absence of narration and interviews. Seeing Wiseman’s first film, Titicut Follies, during those years was a revelation as I became invigorated by cinema’s potential to provide an infinitely more authentic experience than one could possibly have at the local multiplex. I hope that the documentaries we present can have a similar impact and go beyond simply informing our viewers to providing true inspiration.

Ted Barron, senior associate director at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, is a film scholar and critic with extensive experience in the field of film curating.

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