My List of (insert adj. here) Documentary Films

If, for some strange reason, I’m in search of something to post on Twitter, I can always count on someone publishing a “best of” list of documentary films. These lists rarely change — each is, typically, a recounting of the usual suspects with maybe one or two recent additions. Or, these lists are the best-of as found on a particular steaming service. Depending on the quality of the service’s catalogue, these lists can run from serious and useful to cringey and hilarious.

Here’s my list in no particular order (except for the first three). But my list of what? Best? No, this is the list of the documentary films that do “best” what I think documentary films should do. What should they do? Well, that will have to wait for another post soon 😉

Rich Hill

Honeyland

The Overnighters

Born Into Brothels

Free Solo

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Man on Wire

The King of Kong

Harlan County, USA

Salesman

Hoop Dreams

Somm

Spellbound

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Street Photography is so Square

I still use Instagram. I still use it for its originally-intended purpose — sharing pictures. It’s become a bit more “useful” over the years. Not a good thing, in my opinion.

I enjoy the square format, although I will sometimes post photos with various aspect ratios.

I don’t shoot for square. I let the subject dictate the shape of the frame. Another way to say what I’m doing: I pay a lot of attention to composition while looking through the (specifically-shaped) viewfinder. It pleases me when I don’t have to crop much at all. If I wanted to shoot for square, I suppose I’d need a camera with a square format.

My street photography has a different look compared to the photogs who “shoot from the hip” or get directly in people’s faces. I tend to negotiate a balance of sorts between the human form as a compositional element and capturing a human moment. I’m also not creating art — something I think many street photographers are trying to do. So, yeah, that statement is crying out for more thought and explanation. But it will have to wait for a later post.

Cropping is also discovering what else an image can be. Cropping an image to fit a specific format — e.g. square for Instagram — is something like writing poetry to fit a specific literary format — e.g. a sonnet. There’s much to be learned, and discovered, by working within parameters on purpose.

Sometimes street photography is square.

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Filming the Culture of Portugal

I have three related projects going on now. All of them focus on Portuguese culture.

This video is one in series of black & white, widescreen (2.2:1 – 1920 x 874) mini-docs I’ve been producing on my Google Pixel phone just for the fun of it. I’m enamored with all things black & white at the moment. I’m expecting this moment to last. I’m editing Trinity (the last documentary I filmed in the U.S.) in black & white. I’m converting many of my digital color photos just to see how they look. And in so many cases I like the results.

I am also filming cultural shorts for GMP!TV — the video brand of the Good Morning Portugal streaming show and podcast by Carl Munson. I’m planning to — don’t hold me to when — turn some of these into higher-quality, black & white, widescreen minis. Maybe. We’ll see.

Here’s one I did recently — notice the GMP!TV branding. I’m planning to film at a large and famous antique car show here in Aveiro at the end of May. My goal is to produce two of these per month. Maybe more. We’ll see.

Finally, I’m working on a web series with Carl Monson and Bobby O’Reilly called An Englishman & an Irishman Explore Portugal. This is a work in progress. Aren’t all shows a work in progress? Well, yes. Except I mean we’re still trying to figure out what this is. It began with a different title. It wasn’t until we’d filmed the first four episodes that we settled on a format — not actually seen in the first four 🙂

I’m open to ideas for all of these. Just give me a holler.

I’ll have more to say about other documentary projects either in progress (e.g. the long-suffering Trinity) or in early planning stages. Because I know you’re itching to follow the progress of all this stuff, keep reading this blog — both of you 🙂 — and follow me on Instagram, Facebook (pro page), and Twitter.

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A24 Releasing (burying?) The Sixth to Amazon Prime

Sam Adams, in Slate, asks why A24 would bury its newest documentary film The Sixth. He calls it buried because there will be no theatrical release. Here’s Adams’ thinking:

Instead of streaming for free on Prime to a potential audience in the tens of millions, The Sixth is currently a $19.99 digital purchase, and although it will be available for rental Thursday, neither price point is likely to reach even a fraction of the viewers—especially when so few of them even know that it’s there. Did the studio behind Civil War get cold feet when it came to the depiction of a nonfictional uprising, or did it simply make the calculation that the documentary wasn’t worth the expense of a theatrical release? The Sixth itself suggests a third, equally troubling possibility: One of the darkest days in American history has simply become too uncomfortable to talk about.

Perhaps we will find out for sure soon enough. But I will quibble with one point: Going straight to streaming is no longer any indication of burying a documentary. It’s really standard these days. There are so many more good documentary films produced globally than ever see theatrical distribution. You’ll find them on streaming services — including Oscar winners. I’ll have more to say about this later.

Despite that minor quibble, I’m wondering the same thing as Adams. What gives?

Is it too uncomfortable or too soon? Or too polarizing, i.e. A24 would rather not piss off a chunk of audience that might be persuaded to see its latest feature Civil War. I haven’t seen Civil War — and I might not — but I have heard the filmmakers try to stay clear of the current political divide. I find the idea of an alliance between California and Texas howlingly funny. When in doubt, head for a parallel universe, amiright? But who knows? Maybe it works.

Might be kinda hard to maintain that teetering position on the fence for your audience(s) if you’re also releasing a film about a real insurrection.

I’m looking forward to more reporting on this.

See also: How a documentary about the Jan 6 insurrection covers new ground.

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A (Short) Tale of Two Photos

Since 1972 when I first picked up, with intention, a camera, I’ve made tens of thousands of images and many hundreds of hours of video footage — much of it I would call documentary. This is a short tale of two of those images — one made in high school in 1975 for the yearbook and one made as part of filming a humanitarian crisis in Mexico near the U.S. border as part of documentary film project.

State Champs Small

This image of celebration in sports is one that I still think of often. It remains in my news/sports portfolio to this day. This moment was the first time as a photographer when I knew I had the “story” the very moment I tripped the shutter. I was paying for my film from various odd jobs (e.g. cutting grass), so I was frugal. I took only six photos of this game.

Img 20200118 155816

This image is the prequel to a catastrophe for this family. They are migrants in the camp in Matamoros, Mexico. The mother has just written names and phone numbers of the arm of her oldest son — maybe seven years old. She’s about to send both of them over the bridge to the U.S. where she hopes they will find a better life. She may never see them again. I was capturing digital images while my crew filmed. I hit the shutter button on my phone like a motor drive. I’ve felt the I-have-it rush many times. But sometimes it’s not so much a rush as it is a knife in the heart.

I’m working on an idea. This post is the first tiny step on a journey. I’m thinking I need to deal with more than 50 years of work. Maybe try to make it make some sense. More soon…

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