Where Does Independent Documentary Go From Here?

From Landfall (2020), dir. Cecilia Aldarondo (image courtesy Cecilia Aldarondo)

Cecilia Aldarondo’s documentary Landfall was scheduled to premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival before being sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, Robert Greene’s latest feature film had to halt production in March. Hyperallergic has invited the two filmmakers to discuss their respective projects, and how the 2020 quarantine has impacted their field.

Robert Greene: Documentaries are inherently dangerous. When you introduce a camera into a situation, it changes things. But what happens when the world itself is dangerous? When the air around a filmmaker, camera, and subject can be loaded with contagion? When the problems of making films take a backseat to real questions of survival?

The final shoot for my latest film was scheduled for mid-March, and we’re still working to reschedule. Of course, the reality we’d spent over a year documenting has irrevocably changed in the last six months. Will the film survive? Will the people making it survive? Will the act of making a documentary, or the industry that supports it, survive? Reality has been rewired, and it’s not so easy to adapt — not even for documentary filmmakers, some of the most resourceful people I know.

One of things I told the brave subjects of this film is that they’d get “their moment,” that their sacrifice and willingness to tell their story would lead to that surefire thrilling time when they’d walk onstage and feel an audience’s appreciation for what they’d shown. I couldn’t guarantee where they’d get this moment, but none of that matters now. Making a documentary with someone is a contract, and the terms have changed dramatically. What I promised is no longer possible. Cecilia, how are you navigating all this?

From Bisbee ’17 (2018), dir. Robert Greene (courtesy Grasshopper Film)

Cecilia Aldarondo: How am I navigating? I’d have to say it depends on the day. Most days, I just plow ahead with a kind of numb stubbornness. Other days devolve into cynicism and despair. And every once in a while, I smile. As hard as things have been, I feel like “survive” is a tricky word to use. We could possibly die of COVID, but we will probably survive this pandemic. As relatively established filmmakers with paying day jobs as college professors, you and I are also more likely to survive professionally than a lot of our peers. Yet I do believe that the kind of filmmaking we believe in is facing a possible extinction event.

I’m one of the directors with the unfortunate luck to release a film in 2020, just before the pandemic shuttered movie theaters across the country. In March, I was eagerly awaiting Landfall’s world premiere at Tribeca. My team had booked flights and accommodations; we were planning parties and strategizing. How naive we were. In the six months since, Landfall has been limping along in a perversion of what in previous years would have been a powerful festival run. Minus Tribeca (which officially “postponed,” but never rescheduled), every festival to invite the film has since pivoted online. But while the industry has embraced the economic potential of virtual festivals, no one prepared me for the emotional fallout of this shift. In-person festivals offer filmmakers a kind of creative mirror. Through an audience’s reactions in a darkened theater, we feel our artistic intentions brought to fruition, and our sacrifice is suddenly worthwhile. Virtual screenings offer no such comfort. Instead, as a friend wrote me the other day, “each festival feels like a phantom limb.”

One of the grim ironies is that Landfall is terribly relevant. It’s about the aftermath of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, exploring how it wasn’t the hurricane that crippled the archipelago, but rather preexisting US economic policies that left this colony in a state of fragility. We can say that the independent film landscape had similar preexisting conditions; before COVID, there was a lot that wasn’t working. Almost no filmmakers I knew were able to make a living from their work. A handful of Sundance titles were getting the lion’s share of eyeballs and awards each year. After several years of steady acquisitions, Netflix had stopped picking up most indie films. Everywhere were signs of what I’ve come to see as a creeping “Walmartization” of independent documentaries, with well-resourced production companies and broadcasters commissioning high-profile projects, taking final cut from directors, and expecting returns on their investments. 

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get into documentaries to make money. I fell in love with the serendipity of discovering the world through image and sound, and I believed documentaries could trigger political awakening. I signed on to make films with a nonprofit ethos, only to find that a hyper-capitalist one was beginning to rule. This was all troubling me before the pandemic. Now that we are six months into it, I fear that these forces are only accelerating. 

Robert Greene on set (image courtesy Robert Greene)

Robert Greene: The hurricane metaphor is apt. Like you, I never had a pretense that making documentaries was some sort of stable life decision, even as I started a family. It’s been more of a desperate compulsion, and you’re right to point out the privileges a “day job” affords both of us. But I can’t help feeling that so many of the kinds of films we make and cherish are always “lost,” in the broadest capitalistic sense. We make our movies, it seems, hoping to find real audiences and real connections, but we often end up just showing our work to each other. Independent film is a niche, documentary films are a niche within that, and character-driven or idea-driven independent documentaries are within an even smaller bubble. 2020 may indeed be the Year of Lost Films, but I can’t help feeling that it’s just a grossly exacerbated version of every other year.

But! When I see your wonderful film, or when I think of others struggling to find audiences for their bold work, I do feel hope. To me, this long era of filmmaking — the post-1998 digital video revolution — has been defined not by audiences, but by artists like you, who make things within technological/economic boundaries but without aesthetic limits. The work remains vital, even when “lost.”

I understand your despair, however. One thing people don’t usually understand about what we do is just how complex it is to make films with real human beings, our so-called “subjects,” who ultimately remain the folks we’re most indebted to. You will make other films, but the people who let you film them likely won’t have this same outlet again. For me, filming with survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the expectation of a kind of catharsis that comes with telling their story seems impossible now. I edit every day, with no assurance that these scenes will do what they might have before. 

Like Derrida said, “what is neither true nor false is reality.” But if we documentarians are good at anything, it’s adapting and navigating shifting realities. Do you really worry that artful filmmaking won’t make it out of COVID alive?

From Landfall (2020), dir. Cecilia Aldarondo (image courtesy Cecilia Aldarondo)

Cecilia Aldarondo: I do, I really do. When a disaster grinds on for months, as this one is, we begin to acclimate and normalize things that we’d previously never tolerate. I think the extinction of creative nonfiction films may be more like a slow, hard-to-notice erosion, rather than an acute all-at-once attack. You can see the wreckage of a hurricane or an avalanche. It’s harder to see the wreckage of debt, or tax breaks for the wealthy, or this pandemic. 

Before COVID, it was already incredibly hard to find resources for creative nonfiction. Sundance’s Art of Nonfiction program folded in 2018 after funding just a handful of filmmakers (including you). For-profit Tribeca Enterprises used the pandemic as a reason to shutter its still-solvent nonprofit grantmaking arm, the Tribeca Film Institute. Fewer grants mean chasing more investors, debt, or unpaid labor. The money has to come from somewhere. It’s just math. 

It’s not like documentaries themselves will ever go extinct. In fact, we may see even more hours of nonfiction getting churned out by the big streamers and profit-seeking production companies. Netflix Originals has a 17-billion-dollar production budget, but with a tiny number of exceptions, the kinds of films they have been making aren’t the kinds of films we make. You and I didn’t get into film so we could direct the next celebrity profile or ripped-from-the-headlines true crime nail-biter. 

And the pandemic hasn’t exactly inspired creative solutions. With productions halted, buyers have a ready influx of finished films, but they’ve acquired few of 2020’s best indie documentaries. I know this because I have friends in debt from making their excellent documentaries who can’t get Netflix, Hulu, Apple, or Amazon to watch them, much less make an offer. I’m incredibly lucky that Landfall was funded through public television, but there just aren’t enough taxpayer dollars to go around. As they told me at the ITVS orientation, it’s easier to get into Yale than it is to get funding from them.

I want to address your concerns about the people you’re filming with, because that gets to the heart of the matter. What separates us from fiction filmmakers is that deep ethical bind to others. And that is the main reason I can’t accept the losses of 2020. I didn’t make Landfall to satisfy my narcissistic creative urges; I made it because the people of Puerto Rico are facing the most profound and transformative political upheaval in their history. What has been happening there isn’t just a cautionary tale; it’s a beautiful, maddening, empowered story of people who find out who their true friends are when a crisis hits. Just as your production’s stoppage impedes the healing of the people you’re filming with, my film slipping through the cracks robs the people who entrusted me with this image of their recognition, dignity, and opportunity to heal. 

Before COVID, the US media landscape was already pushing us to devolve from being artists to being “content creators.” This is what capitalism does: It flattens nuance, numbs our senses, and convinces us to sit back and accept the new normal. I hope I’m wrong. But right now, I feel like I’m standing at a precipice, and I will honestly admit that I do not know where to go from here.

Leading filmmakers Cecilia Aldarondo and Robert Greene discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their field, and what the future might hold.Read MoreFilm, COVID-19, DocumentaryHyperallergicRead More

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