Filmmaking | Reports

The Art Form Formerly Known as a Documentary

1 Nov , 1999  

Written by Julie Wolf | Posted by:

A report from a panel discussion about the 'non-fiction' film with Steve Ascher, Margaret Lazarus, Robb Moss, Sandy Forman and David Kleiler.

The moderator wore orange sneakers. It’s not that they clashed with the rest of the outfit–a simple pair of slacks and a sport jacket, both neutral colors. The sneakers were just a little different, distinctive, definitely not a mainstream choice.

Nor is documentary filmmaking, or so said the panel of local documentary filmmakers at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education on October 27. For an evening, the audience of about 25 was let in on what drives independent filmmakers during a panel discussion called Scenes from the Reel World: The Nonfiction Film (Formally Known as Documentary). Moderated by local luminary David Kleiler, the founder of Local Sightings and the former director of the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, the discussion centered around the ups and downs (too many downs, according to one frustrated audience member) to a life as a documentary maker.

Three filmmakers sat on the panel–Sundance prizewinner Steve Ascher ("Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern"); Academy Award winner Margaret Lazarus of Cambridge Documentary Films ("Defending Our Lives"); and Robb Moss ("The Tourist")–together with entertainment lawyer Sandy Forman. Despite the filmmakers’ notable successes, they were quick to emphasize the downside of the film life: the expenses are mind-boggling, as is the red tape; no one cares about your topic as passionately as you do, and therefore no one wants to give you money. The list went on.

"It’s a sad tale."–Sandy Forman
Moss, who studied at MIT with renowned film instructors Ed Pincus and Ricky Leacock and now teaches at Harvard, is interested in "get-up-and-go" filmmaking, where "you sort of make films similar to the way people write books or do paintings; that is to say, you do it all yourself." Doing it all yourself means writing, producing, directing, getting the rights to whatever you need the rights to, and, of course, fund-raising and marketing. Steve Ascher called it "sweat equity."

At times the panelists came across as doomsayers. "There’s no money in it for anybody–for the filmmaker, for the distributor," Forman said. From the business end of things, this point seemed difficult to dispute. Steve Ascher said he and his wife, Jeanne Jordan, had been shooting "Troublesome Creek" for a year before they ever looked at the footage they had; they simply did not have the funds to develop the stock once they shot it. Because of the poor state of funding for the arts in this country, Margaret Lazarus said that independent filmmaking has become a pastime for the rich. "Independently wealthy people get to do the arts," she said, because "money talks." Kleiler called the new breed of "narcissistic, self-serving, appalling" films that have flooded festivals and the indie circuit "trust-fund films."

Money, or lack thereof, isn’t the only headache awaiting budding filmmakers. What about protecting your work? Because of the frequency with which ideas are "stolen," confidentiality agreements have become more common, even at the pitching stage. "If you are an unknown and you present your idea–no demo, no writing, no lawyer–you’re at risk," Forman warned. To protect yourself, Forman said that you should not dilly-dally on acquiring rights that you might need for your project. "Get those rights," she said. "Don’t go and say [to a larger company], ‘I want to do this,’ because the big firm can go around you and acquire the rights itself."

Ascher added that if you’ve started filming, you’re protected. And these days, he said, it’s not difficult to start filming, or even to promote what you’ve done, because of easier access to less expensive, high-quality digital film equipment, and, of course, the Web. The Web is useful for research and publicity, and by putting your film online, you can avoid the expense of entering film festivals but still have your work seen. "The resolution is very poor and looks like hell," he said, but "people can find you."

For all the panelists, at one point or another, their idea of living as filmmakers collided with the reality of making a living. Each of the three has taken a different approach to earning a livelihood, but each of their approaches is entirely film-centered. As Robb Moss said, "You create a world around the work." Margaret Lazarus, who began her own distribution company and concentrated on institutions like libraries and schools in the ’80s, now makes not only her own films but the films of others as well. When the economics of film distribution changed with the advent of video, so did her means of earning money. Moss has stayed in academia, making his own films on the side. In addition to providing Moss with income and security, teaching, he said, "frees me from the marketplace, in a good way."

For Ascher, as for Lazarus, making films is his livelihood, but he works in a different arena: TV. Prompted by some of Lazarus’ anti-public television comments (her concerns revolved around the independents’ struggle for a slice of the public-funding pie), Ascher touted the merits of working within the already-existing framework of a television series. "I don’t think it’s fair to say there’s this dichotomy between TV films and documentary films." Acknowledging that the same audiences who refuse to see documentaries in theaters can’t seem to get enough of "real-life" TV, from investigative newsmagazines to "Cops," Ascher feels that there is still room on television for artful documentary films, and he recommends pitching an idea as part of a series instead of as a stand-alone piece. Forman agreed: "If you get into ‘The American Experience,’ even if you don’t own the project, you can make a living and still do interesting things."

"The strongest center for documentary film in the country." — David Kleiler
All of the panelists were unified on one point: that Boston is the best place to be if you want to make documentaries. What Kleiler described as "fundamentally a lonely process" is made easier, or at least less lonely, by the strong filmmaking community that has developed here since what Ascher called "the golden age of filmmaking"–that period years ago when aspiring filmmakers flocked to MIT to study with Pincus and his gang. Moss described Boston as "a unique area where there’s an appreciation for ideas, for exploring the world." He stressed its academic environment as being crucial. "There’s a lot of intellectual content, a history of appreciating ideas that I don’t think is so common in other metropolitan areas."

Forman put it more simply: Boston, she said, is "the best community in the world for documentary filmmaking."

WHERE TO TURN? For more information about documentary filmmaking, the panelists recommended these organizations: Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers,, 212-807-1400 Boston Film & Video Foundation,, 617-536-1540 Center for Independent Documentary,, 508-528-7279 Independent Television Service,, 415-356-8383 PBS,

WHERE TO TURN? For more information about documentary filmmaking, the panelists recommended these organizations: Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers,, 212-807-1400 Boston Film & Video Foundation,, 617-536-1540 Center for Independent Documentary,, 508-528-7279 Independent Television Service,, 415-356-8383 PBS,