Interviews

Making Documentaries More Real

Performance of The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller at San Francisco MOMA, May 1, 2012. Photo: Charlie Villyard.
Performance of “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller” at SFMOMA on May 1, 2012 (photo by Charlie Villyard)

In an email, a friend of mine mentioned a show taking place at the Kitchen next week: The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, created by the filmmaker Sam Green, with live music by indie rockers Yo La Tengo. The subject matter seemed like solid geeky/arty fare — Buckminster Fuller has long fascinated people across many fields, and recently he’s been the subject of a handful of museum exhibitions and artworks; he’s even got a molecule named after him. But what stood out to me in the event description was the phrase “live documentary,” in quotes. Given the subject matter and the indie music, the first thing to come to mind when guessing what that might mean were the live, touring shows created in the past couple of years by the public radio programs RadioLab and This American Life. Then again, it was being presented at the Kitchen, a venue that has a history of presenting fairly aggressive work spanning visual, performance, and literary arts.

Curious what the form of the show really was and why a place like the Kitchen would be interested in it, I got in touch with Green to talk about it, and to get his perspective on the whole interdisciplinary thing, since he comes out of the film world rather than the visual or performing arts.

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Alexis Clements: I know you started your career working on traditional documentary films. Most people would know your name from The Weather Underground, which got an Academy Award nomination and was also included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Given the success of that film in reaching a wide audience, I’m wondering what led you to move toward this “live documentary” form for your subsequent project, Utopia in Four Movements.

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Sam Green: I always believe that the best form for a movie comes out of the subject matter. After I finished The Weather Underground, I started making a documentary about utopia, or more specifically, why we’re living in an anti-utopian time. People don’t have super high hopes for the future or fanciful notions that we’ll all be flying around in jet packs anymore. I was curious why that was, and rather than make some really boring documentary interviewing experts about it, I wanted to make something that was more of a poem.

I was really struck by a movie that came out about ten years ago, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, by Johan Grimonprez. It was actually pretty well received in the fine arts world. That film spoke a kind of language that was really interesting to me — it was about history and spectacle and terrorism and agency, but in a complex and sophisticated way. So I wanted to make something that was similar in some fashion. I shot these four different stories that were about utopia in one way or another and hoped they would add up to a kind of poem. When I showed it to people I knew, as a rough cut, everybody said, “This doesn’t make any sense, I don’t understand what these things have to do with utopia.” It all made sense to me, but it wasn’t coming across. So I very reluctantly accepted the fact that I needed to explain in the movie what the connections were.

Then somebody asked me to make a presentation on the project when I was still in the middle of it, when I was kind of stuck. I said, “Okay, I’ll just talk and show clips.” I asked a friend of mine to make some music. So I did this live presentation about the project, and I was really struck because people got it, and there was a really excited energy in the room. I thought to myself, wow, this kind of works. Somebody asked me to do another presentation after that, and at a certain point I thought, I don’t know anybody doing anything like this — it’s a kind of weird form, but for a lot of different reasons I like it. For political, aesthetic, and economic reasons it appealed to me. Also, the subject matter — utopia is always about a collective experience. More and more, as a filmmaker, you have to accept that people are watching your stuff on their phone on the subway or while they’re checking their email. The idea of people watching a movie about utopia all alone, in their apartments, on Facebook, just seemed profoundly depressing to me.

This form, where you have to go to a theater or a cinema and sit with strangers and turn your phone off, and be part of something bigger, seemed very appropriate for the subject matter.

AC: I think that helps give readers a sense of what you mean by the term “live documentary”: it’s largely you narrating a series of film clips, accompanied by music. And it’s good to hear that it came out of a very organic process. I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about someone putting forward the idea of “live documentary” as a new or challenging form, particularly because I come from the performance world, where lecture or narration and projection have been used and abused in a variety of ways for a very long time. I’m also vaguely aware that it’s not new in film either. I know that many silent films used to have both live narrators and live music.

SG: There’s also the Benshi tradition in Japan, in which there would be professional narrators who would narrate films. There are a lot of antecedents for this.

AC: Do you have much experience with the performance world and the way that people there have been riffing on the lecture form?

SG: It’s funny because the film world is — and I’m saying this lovingly — very isolated and conservative formally. In many other disciplines, people know about a lot of other disciplines. I think it’s because, until recently, the technical underpinnings of film haven’t changed. Film is sort of its own little world. And I’ve been in that little world for a long time. So it’s a great education for me to stumble out of it. I didn’t even know that in performance there’s this thing called “lecture performance,” where people are doing something very similar to what I’m doing, but approaching it from a performance perspective. I love that. It raises all sorts of interesting questions and thoughts about inter-genre issues.

AC: It’s interesting for me to look at what you’re doing, because, like you, I’m coming from the other side — as someone who has a better understanding of performance than film. I don’t know where a lot of the experimentation is happening in documentary film. I know that films like Foreign Parts and Sweetgrass are a recent attempt to push the form farther, presenting themselves as visual meditations or “visual anthropology,” as a couple reviews I read noted. But that’s most of what I know about what experimentation currently looks like in film documentaries. Where do you see the experimentation?

SG: There’s a lot going on in documentary, in terms of pushing boundaries. But one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of that is pushing tempo and pace and relation to narrative, but it’s still within the traditional form of film. It’s still 90 minutes long and on a screen — that type of thing.

We’re at a time right now where suddenly images have been totally liberated. Until very recently you had to use either a film projector or a video projector in a theater to project a big image. What I’m doing never could have happened before — because I’m projecting HD images from a laptop, and the image looks really fantastic, and it can be projected anywhere. I could get a small projector and set up an outdoor screening on the side of a building, and it would look great. It’s this weird, very striking moment. But the thing that pains me a little about it is that the people who are running with this, who are really pushing what you can do in liberating the image, are a) fine arts people who are doing installation — some directors are doing this, but mostly it’s what you would call video art; and then, b) computer people doing projection mapping, which you can do fantastic stuff with, but the thing that breaks my heart is that, since they’re all computer people, it just mostly looks like screensavers. I went to an event at [the Brooklyn Academy of Music] recently that had incredible projections, but the images were so boring. Literally people were saying that it looked like a screensaver. So I wish it were film people, because we’re storytellers, we know how to use images to create magic and poems and narratives. I wish more filmmakers were doing that.

Sweetgrass and Leviathan, they’re great movies that are pushing boundaries, but I saw Leviathan at the IFC Center. I paid my $13 dollars; I sat in the theater. Though I did hear that at the Berlin Film Festival they made an installation out of it. So, you know, take everything I’m saying with a little grain of salt.

And I know a number of filmmakers who are now making things that are kind of web-platform documentaries. That is, in some way, pushing what a documentary can be. But for me, and this is just my own personal opinion, I don’t want more reasons to sit at home alone on the computer, even though it’s a great way to reach tons of people and there’s tons of connectivity that comes from that. I definitely feel like the world needs more people being together in rooms without computers mediating their experience. But that’s just me.

AC: That actually touches on a question I was going to ask. As filmmaker, you’re choosing to limit the audience for your work in a pretty significant way by moving from presenting your work on screen to presenting it in a live setting. For performance people, that’s not necessarily a choice; it’s understood that by making something live, you have different limitations on who can see it. But I would think a lot of film people would just look at this and say, “You’re only going to reach a couple of thousand people this way, whereas I can reach a couple million.” Can you speak a bit more about why you would consciously choose to limit your audience?

SG: I get that question a lot, and until recently, I would ask people, as a response, what’s the number-one viewed video on YouTube? Until recently nobody knew what that was. Now it’s “Gangnam Style,” but it used to be this really stupid video of a guy doing the history of dance — he’s up on a stage, and he does the mashed potato, the bus stop, the boogaloo. It’s totally dumb, but it’s been viewed like 80 million times. The point, to me, is that number of views does not correlate to the meaningfulness of the experience. All you’ve got to do is look at that whole KONY 2012 thing, which was such an incredible flash in the pan. To me, with people watching things online, the meaningfulness of that experience is so slight. Of course, you can be moved by things online, but the content is so devalued because there’s so much of it and it’s free; it doesn’t, to me, add up to the kind of meaningful experience I’m trying to create. I’d much rather have the number of people seeing my work be in the thousands, but have each of those people have an experience that sticks with them or gets under their skin, than millions of people who can’t remember anything about the piece two weeks later. I really feel like the context for something is a big part of the actual experience.

AC: Part of what I hear when you say that is that you, personally, feel disconnected with your audience when you put work out through online media. Is that fair to say?

TheUniversalLanguage_PosterSG: Yeah, definitely. All artists are trying to figure out how to make work and survive and have a career in this day and age, and those online relationships are so fleeting. Whereas doing shows and meeting people and building an audience over time, an audience built on real, in-person bonds, to me, is valuable. I actually see that as a way to have a long-term viable art practice.

But one thing I want to add: I’m not an absolutist about this, and it depends on the project. I made a short film about Esperanto [The Universal Language], and I distributed that through downloads on a website, which is another thing you could never do until just recently. But that form was perfect for that film, because there are Esperanto speakers all over the world and I would never be able to reach them. It’s hard to send DVDs all over the place. The only way to reach a totally dispersed, worldwide audience, is [the internet]. So it sort of depends on the project. With that Esperanto project, I was very happy to be able to do this.

AC: I want to talk a bit more about placing documentary film within an arts framework. What was your experience like when The Weather Underground was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial? Having come from the nonfiction film world, what was it like to enter a visual-arts-oriented environment?

SG: I was really thrilled to be a part of that exhibit. I was surprised, though. My relationship with the fine art world is definitely arm’s-length, but that was cool. Also, with the Academy Awards and the Whitney Biennial, I thought, wow, this is really a broad collection of people. But I talked to a friend of mine when the Whitney got in touch, a friend who had been in the biennial a couple of years earlier. I said to her, “Oh, man, this is great, what can I expect?” As if I would be feted by gallerists all over the world. And she said, “Absolutely nothing. This is great, and it sounds good, but it leads to nothing.” However, this was around the turn of the millennium, so I’m not sure if that’s true now.

AC: Ha! That’s funny. There’s a lot of tension around the biennial from artists these day, because the Whitney doesn’t pay the artists, and it’s unclear what artists really do get out of the experience.

SG: I mean, it was an honor, and I’m proud to be associated with it, but it didn’t change my life. But I love Ed Halter and Thomas Beard and their programming. I feel a kinship with what they do.

AC: In terms of the audience reception in that environment, did you feel like people were engaging with the film as a work of art, as opposed to, say, a work of journalism?

SG: I was living in San Francisco at the time, and I never went to any of the screenings. So, I — this will sound weird — I have no idea how anybody responded to the movie at all. I never heard from anybody. Which is funny, but there wasn’t a meaty response that I could dig into or ponder. I mean, now you can go on Twitter and see what people are saying, but that was 2004, so it was a lot harder to gauge things like that.

AC: In terms of the reception of this “live documentary” form, you’re being placed in a lot of different venues — still film festivals but also places like the Kitchen, which is steadfastly a contemporary art venue. Since you’re actually present at all of these events, do you feel like the reception among audiences varies depending on the context?

SG: With this newer piece, we’re also doing the show in a rock context. Rock promoters have gotten in touch, and we’ve done shows at rock venues. So I’m totally fascinated by it — there’s a film world, there’s a performance/art world, there’s a rock world, and you can do the same thing in all of them and it’s interpreted really differently. I even have this funny thing where, in the film world, I call it “live documentary”; in the art world, sometimes I’ll just call it a “performance”; and I’ve even done some shows at libraries, and there I’ll call it a “fancy lecture.” That’s kind of silly, but it also shows in some ways how arbitrary the labels and distinctions are.

But getting back to your question about a different response. After I made The Weather Underground, a guy got in touch with me, a choreographer named David Dorfman, who’s pretty well known as a choreographer. He said he wanted to make a dance piece about the Weather Underground, and I thought to myself, oh, man, come on — I struggled so hard with that movie to get across certain facts and historical contexts; all this stuff I really labored to communicate in an effective and engaging way. I thought, how much of that can you do with dance? Nothing. I was very skeptical.

Then I went to see the piece, [Underground]. I saw it at Yerba Buena [Center for the Arts] in San Francisco, and I was amazed. It had no facts, no historical context, but it was incredibly powerful in light and gesture and form and movement and music. It really moved me a lot. And it rocked me, too, because I realized that when you go see a documentary, you expect a kind of literalness and clarity. An audience’s experience is shaped a lot by the context. So my interest in live documentary is something that sort of scrambles audience expectations. I can do something more poetic, less literal, more associative, and people go with it in a live context.

AC: Do you get different kinds of critiques from the film world versus the performance world?

Sam Green
Sam Green (courtesy the filmmaker)

SG: Yeah. Performance people are sometimes like, “It’s not that performative.” Because I’m not dancing around. I’m actually doing a new project with EMPAC [Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center], and I’m working with the performance curator there. I’m excited because the idea is to explore the performative elements of this more. Because, being a film dummy, I’ll just stand here; if there’s a light, then just put it on me. I’m starting from scratch. I’m a little self-conscious because sometimes performance people who, you know, know performance and are damn good at it, are like, “What’s the big deal?” But the film people are like, “God, this is amazing.” At a film festival, they’ll be like, “You need two microphones?” That’s a radical thing at a film festival.

But one thing I’ve noticed is that the opposite is also true. I’ve gone to see lecture-y performances, and I’m always like, “People, your video sucks; it’s the wrong aspect ratio, and you don’t even realize it.” So the same thing is true from a film perspective. We can be very critical of some of the ways that performance is using video, because we’ve been doing that forever’ we’re good at that. Sometimes we’ll just be like, “Man, get a tripod,” or stuff like that.

AC: Right, because ultimately, it’s all well and good to say that genre doesn’t serve a purpose or that the disciplinary categories aren’t meaningful, but as you’ve mentioned, audience expectation is set by the context, and that context is informed by a history of the form. And artists are always drawing on certain traditions or modes of making work.

SG: I think most pieces are in dialogue with a tradition. What I’m doing, in some ways, is in dialogue with the film tradition and the film form. It’s sort of a response to a crisis of cinema in the digital age. And because I’m not engaged with the performance world, there’s less of a dialogue there. So there’s that distinction. And the people making the performance stuff I’ve seen, they’re clearly dealing with issues that pertain to performance.

AC: One thing that the emphasis on the word “live” in the marketing for your event makes me think about is the way that museums have been working so hard to bring in more performance work in the past few years. It seems like, at base, what they’re doing is trying to change their relationship with the audience, as they lose subscribers and members and the exhibitions themselves remain relatively static for long periods of time. This also makes me think of those live versions of the radio shows that aspects of your piece brought to mind for me.

SG: A friend of mine once told me that the film world is always several years behind the rock world in terms of its business model, and it’s true. The music business went through a kind of implosion — is still in the middle of an implosion. No artist, unless you’re Adele, makes money selling records; they make money on tour. And the film world is headed in that direction. When you can get everything free online, why should you buy anything? Why should you go to a movie theater? And even if you’re paying to download it on Netflix, the artist is getting very little of that. This is a crisis for film people. And I’m not saying that it’s an answer for everybody to tour, but for me, it’s been interesting to see that there are other economic models out there.

Sam Green’s The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller will take place at the Kitchen on April 9–10, at 7 and 9 pm. Tickets ($25) are available online.

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