Doc Blog

Complicated Lives

The series Doc Talks was open to public audiences this year.  Each one gives us a chance to hear what filmmakers encounter while creating a documentary.  This year, the series has three foci: biographies, filming war and politics.

The first talk dealt with filming biographies; hence, its title Complicated Lives.  The biographies showcased at this year's Reel to Reel program have exposed us to individuals who have been blacklisted, exiled from their homes, achieved amazing success in their craft and in their personal lives.  The panel consisted of Peter Askin (director of Trumbo), Peter Raymont (director of A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman) and Scott Hicks (director of Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts); all accomplished filmmakers.  The moderator was RTR programmer Thom Powers.

First, each of the directors discussed how they came about filming the story of each of his subject.  In the case of Peter Askin, someone gave him a copy of the play Trumbo -- based on Trumbo's letters to friends, family and enemies.  Trumbo kept carbon copies of all the letters; thus, they were used to create the play.  These writings are what attracted him to the subject.  Askin stated, "the letters were also wonderful to perform."  For Peter Raymont, the case was slightly different.  He met Ariel Dorfman at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, at which Dorfman was moderating a panel much like TIFF's Doc Talks.  They stayed in touch and became friendly and one day Dorfman sent Raymont a copy of his memoirs; that's how he got the idea to make a film about Dorfman's experience while exiled from Chile.  Scott Hicks was approached by someone with the idea to make a film about Philip Glass, the prolific, minimalist composer, as a way to celebrate his accomplishments and his 70th birthday this year.  Hicks had not thought about making such documentary but it sounded like a good idea; he was already friends with Glass and wanted to show the world this "captivating" individual.  Thus, he bought a small camera and began following Glass around in his day to day routines.  In all three films, the connection that each filmmaker had to the subject aided in creating a very personal look at the lives of these three men.

When making documentaries, it is likely that there could be challenges or limitations.  Hicks mentioned how he "didn't want [the film] to be a hagiography to St. Philip."  He wanted to show someone still looking for balance in is life.  The challenge was more in keeping balanced for the purpose of the film.  For Askin, the issue could have been the fact that he was filming the story of a man who died over 25 years ago, who'd written his pieces that long ago also.  Before starting the project, Askin met Chris Trumbo (Dalton Trumbo's son) and began a relationship with him.  Through getting to know Trumbo's family and friends, Askin was able to get to know the man -- Dalton Trumbo.  Peter Raymont said it best, "the strenghts in these films is trust" between filmmaker and subject.  This trust allows the viewer get inside the head of the subject.

In each film, we come to know very intimate details of these three men.  In Trumbo, we come to know him through archived footage of interviews he'd done, family videos, and the actors reading his letters.  Askin said that by having interviews of Trumbo, it was as if Trumbo was also telling his own story.  For the other two films, the subject himself tells his story.  The directors take us on each of their journey as each of them, Dorfman and Glass, live their daily lives.  There are some very personal moments shown in each documentary.  Ultimately, the purpose of filming such complicated lives was not to give people all the information about the subjects.  It is to give us a glimpse of who they are through their work and their relationships.

Trumbo and A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman will be playing on Saturday September 15th. Check out the links for times and location.

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