Watching Docs with Strangers
I hosted a backyard screening
Before COVID when we talked about movies, most of the time it is going to the theater, not watching at home. In the past 18 months that has entirely flipped, it really has not been possible to go to the theater if you wanted to.
But has much really changed for Documentaries, when was the last time you saw a Documentary with people you didn’t know?
It would not surprise me if majority of self-proclaimed documentary fans have not seen a documentary in a theater and that is no fault of their own. Outside of film festivals very few documentaries end up in theaters and the ones that do are super niche (Ski/Snow/Skate films), experiential (Antarctica on IMAX or some other remote location on earth) or they are a particularly famous white male filmmaker (Ken Burns, Michael Moore and you could include Werner Herzog and probably Errol Morris into this). These are all great and deserve to be in theaters but when that is all that makes it into theaters; it is hard to say the genre is accurately represented in theaters.
Recently I joined a group of non-fiction filmmakers called “Video Consortium” that has chapters all over the world (you should start one in your city if it’s not already there!) and this past week they put on a screening of two short films in my backyard. There were 50 attendees, and it was great to network and just be around other documentarians. Both screenings included a quick Q&A after the film with the directors. The films were both strong, well made with solid production value but they were clear and direct with what the film was trying to say. One film will most definitely be making the rounds in festivals as it focuses on a man famous throughout Los Angeles for his dancing at concerts and the film’s production included the start of COVID. While the other film was already purchased by the New Yorker and released just a few months ago. It follows a group of volunteers in Arizona that search the desert for migrants who do not survive their attempt to traverse it; check it out here.
It was so great to network, obviously. Even within the film world documentary is small and finding spaces that are documentary specific is a lot harder than I expected. But what I took away the most was nice it was to watch a film with strangers. Hearing them react the same way I did at certain moments but also hearing others react when I did not or vice versa. It makes me think about the film differently, I am self-aware in a sense, not self-conscious. I begin to think about why I’m reacting the way I am. It’s important to do this after the film though, otherwise you run the risk of not being present for the actual film. I’ve begun trying to bring a notebook with me when I watch a documentary so that I can write ideas and notes down and then re-visit it later, this was a great time for that.
Mixing up how we watch is important; the same people in the same location will become habitual and turn into an action that happens at the same time and place instead of sitting down and experiencing another human’s lived experience through film. When we are watching something that happened and represents someone’s viewpoint there should be a discussion, internal or external. It’s not a matter of simply liking and/or agreeing with the film.
I wish we had more opportunities to watch non-fiction work with strangers.