Saturday, October 18, 2008

Docs In Progress returns to Baltimore this Thursday

This Thursday (October 23, 2008), Docs In Progress returns to Baltimore, Maryland for a screening of works in progress by local filmmakers. This will take place at 7:30 pm at The Creative Alliance's Patterson Theatre (3134 Eastern Avenue near Patterson Park). We'll be featuring:

A segment from Charles Cohen's FINDING THE DROVE about master fiddler Dave Bing's quest to teach a new generation of fiddlers the "Old Timey" sound of rural America.

A rough cut of Bernard Threatt's BALTIMORE CITY HAKS, a gritty street documentary which exposes the truths and myths about "hak-ing," a parallel system of transportation for Baltimore's disenfranchised.

More information on the program and tickets here.

Review: Religulous

Another reprint from the Docs In Progress website...

While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available in theaters, through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we occasionally offer reviews of documentary films which reflect a wide variety of styles, but offer something to be learned from a storytelling perspective.

RELIGULOUS by Larry Charles
(Reviewed by Erica Ginsberg)

As this goes to print, the film Religulous has spent two consecutive weeks as the #1 documentary in theaters and will likely be one of the highest-grossing theatrically-released documentaries of the year. It is surely one of the most talked-about films of 2008 because it highlights a hot topic (religion), is directed by an acclaimed director (Larry Charles, probably best known for Borat), and stars a successful TV political comedian (Bill Maher). With this resume, the film seems ready-made for success at the box office and in the blogosphere.

But does that mean it is successful as a documentary? While we have spent past reviews discussing films which should be seen as showcasing elements of an effective documentary, I would argue that Religulous should be seen as an example of an ineffective documentary.

I say this without prejudice against the film’s message or its messenger. I watch Maher’s HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, er, religiously because it allows me to see viewpoints expressed that are often not expressed elsewhere…at a least not on television. Going into the film, I knew a bit about Maher’s skepticism about religion which he expresses frequently on his show and in his comedy act. But I was also aware of his ability to re-evaluate his own opinions over time as a thinking person rather than an ideologue. And I expected to see some aspect of this intellectual exploration conveyed in this film, much as it has been explored by Maher’s counterpart religious skeptics in the print world, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. But this was not successfully achieved.

While addressing such a lofty topic as religion can create an enormous structural challenge, I had high hopes that Charles and Maher could pull it off. We would follow them on an intercontinental journey as Maher talks to and challenges different people of faith. As could be expected from a comedian and a comedic director, hi-jinks would ensue. But, between the laughs, we would also discover something new, something which allows us to think more deeply about religious faith and whether it is really necessary in contemporary society.

My concerns about the film have little to do with my own beliefs about religion or concerns with how the film treats such a delicate topic. Some documentary purists believe that a film addressing such a controversial theme should present all sides of a story. But I disagree. Documentary film includes as many sub-genres as fiction films and there is a definite place for point-of-view documentaries and indeed for what could perhaps be categorized as provocateur-documentaries. With an unapologetic POV and an engaging host who takes us on a journey into the absurdities and exasperations of society, provocateur documentaries create an opportunity for an audience to engage, whether or not they agree with the point of view presented. Love or hate Michael Moore, there is no question that he is the master of the genre. But what makes Moore so masterful is that he finds ways through his films to use a surface topic to explore a deeper theme about society. In Bowling for Columbine, for example, a film about America’s love affair with guns ultimately becomes a film about the manipulation of fear and the violence with permeates so many aspects of American society. In Sicko, a film about health care becomes a film about how societies view the individual vs. the group and whether a society should consider human health a basic human right.

, on the other hand, only skims the surface. The film veers between personal film, road movie, and essay. But none of these structural elements is developed enough for it to ever come across as more than a scattershot approach to documentary storytelling. The film starts promisingly with Maher talking to his mother and sister to help explain his own familial religious roots and how religious observance within his own family changed over time. During several different driving sequences (somewhat reminiscent in style of reality television confessionals), Maher offers to the camera additional glimpses into how he has come over time to reject of blind faith. But these moments are few and far between. Most of the car commentary gets us no deeper than a comedy bit.

The road movie takes us from the holy sites to the holy smokes sites, hitting everything from the Vatican to a truckstop chapel, from Salt Lake City to a Florida religious theme park, from Jerusalem to an Amsterdam coffeeshop. We meet a cast of characters who could have come out of central casting for their bizarre religious beliefs. But does so much focus on extremists build Maher's premise that ALL religion is suspect? Much has been written about how Religulous focuses predominantly on adherents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and pays scant attention to eastern or western indigenous religions. Even within the faith traditions the film does portray, the filmmakers are remarkably selective in the believers they spotlight. Nowhere to be found are Unitarians, Reform Jews, or people whose religious faith has been at the core of their involvement with civil rights, environmentalism, the anti-war movement, or other forms of activism (Maher may be capable of making a valid case against the religious necessity for activism, but it is not reflected in the film).

Even the interviewees who are somewhat sane are digitally enhanced with unfavorable reaction-shot editing, snarky subtitles, and cutaways to contextually humorous stock film clips which underscore Maher’s point that religious faith is the province of the crazy. We touch on religion’s impact on politics, on war, on science, on sexuality, and on history. And yet we do little more than touch, only to be swooped off quickly to the next site where Maher can continue to drive home his point.

And that may be the point. This film is like the point of a pencil which has run out of lead. My Docs In Progress colleague Adele Schmidt refers to documentaries as being a use of visual storytelling to explore a hypothesis; a documentary which enters production with the answer already in mind is not a documentary. It is an advocacy film. And this, in my mind, is what diminishes the potential of Religulous to either bring in new "believers" in disbelief or "preach to the converted" because we already know where the film will take us. There are no surprises.

The irony of Religulous is that, for a film seeking to critique the simplistic aspects of religious belief, it suffers from its own simplistic storytelling. And yet plods on for nearly two hours without really building the story beyond a one-trick pony of showcasing the extremes of religion. By not exploring faith in any thoughtful way but that which supports a pre-conceived notion, the film becomes a lost opportunity. A documentary which may do well short-term at the box-office, but will not have the shelf life of a deeper provocateur-documentary which resonates for years to come.

© October 2008, Docs In Progress, Inc.
This article may not be reprinted without permission.

The Art of the Elevator Pitch

Soon the Docs Interactive blog should be totally integrated into the Docs In Progress website so folks can actually realize we're one and the same and every article can have a way for you to talk-back with comments.

Until then, we've been reposting articles here in the blog. Here's our latest "Voices of Experience" feature on the art of the elevator pitch...

Getting in On the Ground Floor: the Art of the Elevator Pitch
(Interview by Erica Ginsberg, Fall 2008)

You get in the elevator on the 20th floor of a hotel. It stops at the 19th floor and in walks a TV executive who you just know would be thrilled to support your latest documentary idea. You have until the elevator stops at the lobby to pique her interest in your film. What do you do?

While it may not be on an elevator, chances are you will run into someone sometime somewhere who could be a crucial part of moving your film forward. It could be at a party, on an airplane, or at a bar or café. And you need to be prepared. Even at places where you might expect such an encounter, it can sometimes sneak up on you.

At an overseas film festival a few years back, I was sitting in a theater waiting for a film to start when I noticed a man next to me looking at an English-language guidebook to the city where we were. I struck up a conversation with him about sights to see in the city and it didn’t take long to learn he was the chief documentary programmer for a major U.S. cable network. Only problem was I was shy and unable to articulate much about my film. While I got some great tips on sightseeing, it was a lost opportunity for making an important connection professionally. The elevator door had closed on me.

To help others avoid the same experience, I thought we would devote this issue’s Voices of Experience article to the elevator pitch by talking to two filmmakers who have mastered it.

Doug Block
is an award-winning New York-based documentary director, cameraman, and producer whose most recent film 51 Birch Street was named one of the top ten films of 2006 by the New York Times and Ebert & Roeper, and one of the outstanding documentaries of the year by the National Board of Review. Block was nominated for an Emmy for his 1999 film Home Page and has produced, co-produced some of the most acclaimed films of the past two decades, including A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory (2007), Jupiter’s Wife (1995), and Silverlake Life (1993). Block is also the founder and co-host of The D-Word, a worldwide online community of documentary professionals.

Aviva Kempner
is an award-winning Washington DC-based filmmaker who has specialized in investigating non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and the untold stories of Jewish heroes. She wrote, directed, and produced The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, an Emmy-nominated film about the Jewish baseball player who fought anti-Semitism in the 1930’s and 40’s. The film won a George Peabody Award and received top honors from the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Kempner also produced and co-wrote Partisans of Vilna and wrote the narration for the Academy Award-nominated documentary Promises to Keep. She is currently at work on Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, a feature-length documentary about television sitcom pioneer Gertrude Berg (segments shown at Docs In Progress in 2005).

Q: What are the elements of an effective elevator pitch?

Doug Block: It's pretty simple - being able to distill what your film is about in a sentence or two in a way that makes it clearly compelling. Being able to tell potential funders or supporters enough about your film in about 30 seconds or less to get them to want to hear more. At any time and place, and at a moment's notice.

Aviva Kempner: Seizing the moment, talking fast and with a concise purpose and having the chutzpah to do it. Then getting contact information to follow up.

Q: What do you need to know about the person to whom you are pitching?

Doug Block: I don't think you need to know a thing about the other person. The elevator pitch is only about you and your ability to summarize your film quickly and effectively.

Aviva Kempner: It's about being in the right place at the right time and encountering someone who you want to be involved in your film. Often times, it happens at a film festival party, but it can happen anywhere. At a restaurant on vacation, I once ran into Harvey Weinstein. Told him about the film I wanted him to distribute and it helped when I later went to him. Even though he did not wind up being the distributor, my project was on his radar screen thanks to Martha’s Vineyard.

Q: What's a big no-no when you make the pitch?

Aviva Kempner: You get their prior work or their name wrong or mention their enemies to them.

Doug Block: Taking too long. Giving too much backstory. Explaining more than needs to be explained. It's about being quick and to the point. And leaving them wanting more.

Q: How important is it to know what it is you want from the pitch?

Doug Block:
It's always important to know what you want. I think mainly what you want from the elevator pitch is to buy the time to give a longer explanation. That may mean giving out a business card, sending a sample reel, asking for a meeting, or just continuing the conversation beyond the "elevator."

Aviva Kempner: Since I always need funding, that is what want from a pitch.

Q: Tell us about an experience you had with a successful elevator pitch. (It doesn't necessarily have to have been in an elevator).

Doug Block: It would have to be when I pitched 51 Birch Street to two HBO executives at a Sundance pitching round-table about five years ago. The film is a personal documentary about what happens when every assumption you've made about your parents 54-year marriage is called into question. I introduced it by saying it was the film I was born to make, and probably the best film I'd ever make. That certainly got their attention. Of course, I said the same thing to them recently about my current doc.

Aviva Kempner: I saw someone recently at a film festival who I almost worked with but did not because he is on the west coast. We have always maintained a good relationship and I pitched him now getting involved in a new project I am working on because of its parallels with another film he was involved in. I guessed correctly as he said to send the script to him.

Q: Let's say you have what you would consider a good elevator pitch. How do you ensure there is follow-up? Is the ball in their court or yours?

Aviva Kempner: Most importantly, get their phone number, address or email address. I pitched a doc project to Brad Pitt at a film party and he seemed interested since I had read he was interested in the topic. I knew going to the party he would be there, and practiced in my mind what I would say. I followed up by sending him a proposal to his office.

Doug Block: It's always in your court. Never go anywhere without a business card, at the least. And if you pitch to someone who could be a potential supporter of your film in any way, try to get their name and contact info. Put them on your email list and keep in touch with them all along the way.

Q: Do elevator pitches get easier once you get more of a track record? Is there anything extra someone who doesn't have a track record should keep in mind?

Aviva Kempner: I always mention up front the movies I have done before and of course a track record helps. Unless of course they did not like your films. On the other hand, it’s the subject of your film that is the real selling point and make sure to talk about it in concise terms and with much enthusiasm.

Doug Block: Elevator pitches are the great equalizer because they have nothing to do with track records. It's all about distilling your film down to its essence, which is extremely hard to do. If you can do it really well, and it takes up less than 30 seconds of their time, then no one will mind. It's only those who drone on and on that get people annoyed. The only way it becomes easier is to keep practicing it. Practice your pitch at every opportunity.

© 2008, Docs In Progress, Inc.
This article may not be reprinted without permission.