A Call for More Immediate Cinema

By  · Published on January 31st, 2017

Life is moving too fast these days to stop and look around.

Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and Trials of a Free Press

Three films at Sundance this year are notable for their direct address of the Trump presidency. All of them documentaries, there’s Quest, a portrait of a family during the Obama years that ends on Election Day 2016, Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and Trials of a Free Press, which is so current it features footage of Trump’s inauguration and the following day’s Women’s March – both of which happened after the festival began – and of course Trumped: The Inside Story of the Greatest Political Upset of All Time, a sort of spinoff of the Showtime docu-series The Circus, which will have its broadcast premiere on the same cable network this Friday.

These days it’s not hard for nonfiction cinema to be so immediate. Filmmakers can work alone with small cameras and finish on their computers, if they wish, but even with some semblance of a crew there’s an allowance for quick turnaround for script-free productions. For example, Brian Knappenberger, who directed Nobody Speak, previously made The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, a perfectly crafted crowdfunded feature that screened at Sundance just over a year after Swartz’s suicide, which had prompted the project.

We see it more often these days with journalistic documentary shorts, such as those made through Field of Vision, a film unit co-created by Citizenfour director Laura Poitras. She had a Field of Vision short at Sundance, too (Project X, co-directed with Henrik Moltke), though even more timely is the group’s first official 2017 release, Alex Winter’s Trump’s Lobby, which recaps then-President-Elect Trump’s meetings with potential cabinet members and other high profile guests ahead of his taking office.

But where are the fiction equivalents? We’ve seen autonomous guerrilla filmmaking done where the end result is primarily a display of cheap and easy yet impressive visual effects – and even then it’s been seven years since Gareth Edwards’s achievement with Monsters. It’s been four years since the Sundance debut of Escape from Tomorrow, remarkable for its covert shoot on-site at Disneyland, but that too is a genre film requiring extensive post-production. Is there too much legal concern for run-and-gun filming now, especially in the wake of Midnight Rider, the notoriously negligent Gregg Allman biopic that cost the life of camera operator Sarah Jones?

Next month marks half a century since John Cassavetes began filming his debut feature, Shadows, a mostly improvised effort that coincided with the dawn of the Direct Cinema documentary movement. For both fiction and nonfiction, there was new freedom allotted with handheld cameras as mobile sound recording devices. But it still took a long time to edit these films. Often for fiction works, there’s also more pre-production time needed to have an organized shoot. Soon after, video cameras permitted even more immediacy and ease, but there was a substantial loss of image and sound quality. Fiction movies were made in the format, but video documentaries received more respect because there the content mattered over picture.

When docs really began to flourish in the early years of this century, it was mostly thanks to the availability of even cheaper cameras and editing tools. The fact that the largely liberal nonfiction filmmaking population had much to respond to with George W. Bush’s election and presidency was coincidental, though maybe also fortuitous for the growth of the form. Docs became more and more timely, from Michael Moore prominently and poignantly featuring 9/11 footage in Bowling for Columbine, which premiered just eight months after the tragedy, to The Square, a feature so up-to-date it was reworked following its Sundance debut in January 2013 and re-premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival that fall.

During the same time we’ve occasionally seen fast turnarounds for fiction productions. Inspired by Haskell Wexler’s classic guerrilla drama Medium Cool, a lot of which was filmed documentary style amidst the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests, the indie feature This Revolution, starring Rosario Dawson, was shot during the Republican National Convention in New York City in August and September 2004 then debuted at Sundance in January 2005. And in January 2008, Oliver Stone announced his Bush biopic W., then it began filming less than five months later and it was released only five months after that. It’s understandable that people are already requesting a Trump biopic from Stone.

‘Medium Cool’ is Still the Most One-Of-A-Kind Movie Ever Made

But it’s too soon for that kind of movie about Trump, and Stone’s last biopic, Snowden, actually felt dated by the time it arrived in theaters. There’s also the question of whether we need fiction films that are so immediate, especially when so many features that took a long time to make can inadvertently feel or be read as timely when they debut – see our look at the indirect Trump movies of Sundance 2017. The world is changing so fast right now, hour to hour even, but people remain people and their stories remain relevant so long as these stories are fundamentally told well. The only reason for there to be immediate cinema is because it can be done and there’s room for films situated in the context of and in reactin to what’s going on in the world.

There will always be lots of escapism to turn to when you don’t want to be reminded of current events, but there ought to be an alternative cinema – one that needn’t even be political, just set during these significant times as something recognizable and identifiable. Such films wouldn’t need to hit the festival circuit or have a theatrical release, maybe not even show on selective SVOD outlets such as Netflix and Amazon. Like we see with the Field of Vision model, there are so many other ways to deliver fresh and often urgent content to viewers. We don’t see enough raw indie cinema in America anymore, maybe occasionally with something like Tangerine, that looks made by the seat of the filmmaker’s pants and feels more alive as a result.

There are so many filmmakers online, many focused on video essays, fan films, and weird-funny meme entries. Everyone has stories to tell, but it’s true that few are as wide appealing or as simply produced as brief YouTube uploads celebrating hip directors or popular superheroes. Perhaps some of them can follow the lead of Kogonada, who just made his feature debut at Sundance with Columbus. But that film, shot late last summer, sounds like a more composed and timeless drama than I’d hope for from someone whose name sounds like an underground graffiti artist. Maybe there’s another who can be the Bansky of fiction cinema? Or Banksy himself should be making immediate fiction films. Either way, someone please answer the call.

Related Topics:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.