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Traverse City Film Festival: Documentary Filmmakers Panel Discussion

The Traverse City Film Festival's panel of documentary filmmakers discuss their craft in the City Opera House. Michael Moore, at far right, moderated the dialog.

Caught a big chunk of the documentary makers panel discussion Saturday morning, led, of course by Michael Moore, the most commercially successful documentary maker of all time, with five of the top 10 grossing documentaries to his credit. As my photo reveals, there were many documentary makers on the stage, so as you might imagine, the topics wandered a bit, but was an intimate look into the lives of documentary makers and their views.

For me, one of the most interesting dialogs focused on the various media used to view documentaries. Moore is of the mind that a theatrical documentary, as in, a film made to be viewed in a theater, should be crafted with that singular purpose, that singular delivery mechanism in mind. Show a film in a theater and you have the viewers rapt attention, the theory went. The viewer has done something very intentional—left his/her house, driven to a theater, paid for a ticket, taken a position to view the film, so she’s going to be fully engaged in the message. This, as opposed to a TV nattering in the background while several other things going on in the home. Or perhaps playing on an iPhone while distracted by many other things, or perhaps stopping the film, doing other things, then coming back to the film.

One documentary maker even said, “if you are going to only view my documentary that way (broken up, stop, start, distracted), I’d rather have you not even see it.”

One of the most respected documentary makers on stage, Jon Alpert, countered. Saying he’d often been trying to change some situation with his films and so was interested in reaching the most people possible. So if it’s through DVD or Internet or broadcast TV, it didn’t really matter to him. He described a project he’s working on now about gun violence. He and his team rigged up a big video screen on the side of a bus and it rolls into neighborhoods to show videos that he’s helped kids make about gun violence. “Kids like to see video that other kids have made,” he said.

The dialog reminded me of how it is when we make Traverse Magazine. We take all this time to write cover copy, then write the table of contents and arrange the stories in a certain sequence and they start with headlines and deckheads and we envision this methodology that people follow in consuming Traverse. But then, what really happens? People read it from back to front. Read the photo captions first. Maybe skip the title, maybe skip the deckhead. Really random. So I had mixed feelings about the filmmakers’ views on the “my way or the highway” viewing experience. The controlled media delivery is kind of a thing of the past. But, do I love to watch a movie for all the reasons Moore laid out, certainly.

Other part I liked was simply hearing the passion the filmmakers have for their craft and the sacrifices many have made to do it. Jon Alpert said he heated the old firehouse he bought in New York for 25 years with just a wood stove and wore thick winter clothes to stay warm. “We figured out a way to make it work, you can too,” he said, in offering advice to documentary makers who might have been in the crowd. “Follow your conscience and your heart. There are many lows, and you’ll get your teeth knocked out a few times…but it’s a wonderful thing to feel you’re doing something important, something that might change the world.”

Alpert’s words were on my mind as I entered the next film on my agenda, Waiting for SuperMan, about the dismal state of American education. I’m president of a school board, so this topic is near and dear to my heart. It is a powerful piece, very emotional. A key point: we need to end tenure because it protects bad teachers and our children pay the price. Lots in that film to talk about too. But I’ll spare you. Go see it. And when you do, keep Jon Alpert’s words in mind. Everybody who worked on that film should feel wonderful because it is important and who knows, that film might change the world.

p.s.: if you are looking for great places to hangout in TC during the festival, check out the digital edition of our Filmgoer guide. Also available on newsstands around town.

—Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine

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Tags: Jeff Smith, Jon Alpert, Michael Moore, Traverse City, Traverse City Film Festival, documentaries, documentary

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Comment by Rebecca Reynolds on August 1, 2010 at 8:37am
Same for watching a narrative feature. Jim and I wouldn't let friends, family and even investors borrow a Christina DVD to watch on home TVs. We didn't want polite whispering during a scene, "Would you like anything else to drink?" or "How 'bout more pie?" And pausing doesn't cut it either -- breaking up the rhythym and the build. Although I love the idea of showing anything on the side of a bus.

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