International Documentary
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International Documentary Magazine July 2003

by Kathleen Fairweather

Documentary filmmaker Andrew Jarecki knew he had something special with his first feature length documentary, "Capturing The Friedman's," an Alice in Wonderland-like journey into a Rashamon account of an upper middle-class Long Island Jewish family's descent into child molestation hell.


Winner of the Sundance grand jury prize for documentary filmmaking, "Capturing the Friedman's" begins innocently enough as a day-in-the life of a birthday party clown and quickly unravels into a compelling look at the un-making of a family. It is a documentarian's dream and nightmare come true with its' quixotic quest for the truth built on the evershifting sands of human memory.


ID Magazine caught up with Jarecki at his home in Rome, Italy for an in-depth interview the filmmaker and a look at how he captured the Freidman's.


KF: First of all, what are you working on now?
AJ: I have been living in Rome for two years and have started cooking an idea for a documentary that would take place between here and the states. It is about a Venetian family.

How has your Capturing the Friedmans experience effected your views on documentary filmmaking ?
Since this was my first documentary, I think it's been a baptism by fire in the best sense. As you may know, I started out making a totally different film. My plan was to make a documentary about professional children's birthday party entertainers in New York City. After working for six months on that film, I discovered that one of my characters, New York's most successful birthday party clown, had a secret story. It took three years to dig it out, but it was the most fascinating journey I've ever taken. In many ways, it was like a mystery.

My key collaborators, my producer Marc Smerling, my editor and co-
producer Richard Hankin, and our associate producer Jennifer Rogen, often worked on unraveling different aspects of the mystery simultaneously. I might be in upstate NY visiting Jesse in prison, Marc would be meeting with a witness who refused to be on camera, Richard would be discovering some obscure but important piece of Friedman home movie footage, and Jenn would be locating some ancient newspaper article that added a missing piece to the story.

Once I had penetrated the first line of secrecy about the story, I found there
were many smart, articulate people willing to talk to me, but the amazing thing was that none of these smart people could agree on anything. So it fell to me to try to develop the truest story I could. If anything, the way it has affected my views on documentary filmmaking, is that it has demonstrated for me in the most direct way, the elusive nature of truth. It has shown me how difficult it is for a filmmaker to capture the truth in a story where the sources are at odds with each other, and how important a responsibility it is to get it right -- or at least make it fair -- since your version of the events is often the one that will be most remembered.

How do you see "truth" as it relates to documentary filmmaking?
I think that just as we found here, it is often elusive. With Capturing the Friedmans, I would talk to a person on Monday and he would answer some difficult stubborn question I'd been grappling with, and then that night I'd breathe a sigh of relief that I'd figured out this tricky part of the story that hadn't been making sense to me. Then Tuesday morning I'd interview someone else and they'd make me realize the person I spoke to Monday was selling me a bill of goods. One thing I recognized early on is that memory is totally dynamic. We talk about a "memory bank" as if we store memories in our minds as static images. In fact, I think our memories sit there and bubble and churn like the electrical impulses they are, evolving over time to suit our needs. So if we need to remember our father in one way, we will do so whether or not that image comports with the facts or other people's recollections. I also felt that while not everyone in the film tells the truth, I don't find most of them to be consciously lying about anything. They are adjusting their memory at the same time they are adjusting their story. So when the police detective in this story tells me something, and we see a photograph a moment later disproving what she says, I don't think it means she was deliberately trying to mislead me. Or at least that's not how she would see it.

How did you gain the family's trust? And, how did you feel about Seth not participating: Did you have any contact with him?
First, I became an expert in the case and their family history. I knew that I needed to be the most knowledgeable person about the story if they were going to entrust it to me. After I had spent many months learning about their strange situation, I had to some extent proven my sincerity in telling their story. They had been very negatively portrayed by the media, so there was that hurdle to overcome, but by the same token some of them were quite happy for me to record a version of the events that was more accurate and complex than the salacious and oversimplified version that appeared in the paper and on TV at the time. In addition to this logical reason, I guess I'd say that your subject, like anyone you deal with in life, has to trust you intuitively. In this case, I did not mean the family harm, I meant to tell the fairest story I could, and it was clear that they had an intuitive sense of comfort that that is what I would do. I never made them feel that I would tell their version of the story -- just that I would do the work to dig out the truest story I could, and they accepted that. Another interested element of this is that the amazing thing about family secrets is that not everyone in the family wants to keep them secret. So in the Friedman family, like most, there were people, like Elaine (the mother) who were more willing to be open about the story than some others. But once one person gives you their view, the other family members are more inclined to do so, since they want their side to be represented.

As for Seth not participating, I didn't have much of a view about it. Obviously I made an effort to get him to participate, but I respected his view which was, in essence, that the last time his family was represented in the media it didn't work out too well and he did not want his current nuclear family influenced by the film.

How do the Friedman's feel about the film now? Has this film
changed their lives?
Everyone in the family has his own view of course, but here are a few in brief...

David: he likes the film very much, though he is obviously concerned about whether it might have a negative impact on his career. In the end, I think he is proud to have done something that he feels can help his brother, who had a very hard time these last years. David has recently decided he is willing to speak to the press about the film and his experience. You can talk to him if you'd like.

Elaine: I think Elaine was gratified to be able to speak out after all these years, uninterrupted, and to have her views represented in the film. She came to Sundance and, at the age of 70-something, participated in the after-midnight Q&A. I talk to her regularly. Just last night in fact.

Jesse: Jesse is very enthusiastic about the film. While it may be more balanced between the opposing views than had he made the film himself, he knows that the attention the film has gotten goes a long way toward opening people's minds to the idea that the events were not as reported in the media at the time, and that is very important for him. He was granted special permission by his parole office to come to Sundance. After 13 years in jail, he was elated to be in the mountains, and having this new experience.

Seth: Seth has not seen the film yet, and I have not spoken to him.

Howard (Arnold's brother): Howard said that he learned a lot seeing and participating in the film, and that while it was an emotional experience for him, he feels he grew as a result. He also came to Sundance and got a chance to reconnect with Elaine after all these years. They both seemed to appreciate this aspect. There is a lot of healing to be done in that family, and it seems like some of it started as early as Sundance.

Any repercussions for you? for them? Is David still working as a party clown?
David's life hasn't changed much. Elaine remains in the Berkshires. Jesse has had the most change in that he's been interviewed a lot about the film, he's traveled with the film, etc. But remember that Jesse is now subject to the harshest provisions of Megan's Law (Judge Boklan, the same judge who sentenced him, recently had to adjudicate at his Megan's Law hearing, and he was judged to be a "Level 3 Sex Offender" (the highest level) also known as a "Violent Sexual Predator." As a result, he wears a monitoring device at all times, can't live in a building with children, was recently evicted as a result of a letter from parole to his apartment building informing them of this, etc. His life is not easy and will likely continue this way for many years.

As for me, it has meant that I spend less time in Rome and more time in the US. Because we struck an unusual distribution deal for the film (a sort of three way deal between Magnolia Pictures, HBO, and me) I am managing the theatrical release very closely. I felt this was important, particularly because I feel I have a responsibility to keep a careful eye on the way the family and the film are represented in the advertising and publicity for the film. So this is time consuming but a great learning experience.

Did you have any moral issues regarding your participation and howthe family would be portrayed? Did you speak with any other docfilmmakers about their experiences (i.e. Alan and Susan Raymond of An
American Family?
I was concerned at many junctures about my own role and how to manage the situation so that I was telling the story without inflicting any collateral damage, or being insensitive to the family, or even to the other characters in law enforcement, etc. I spoke to many documentarians including Barbara Kopple, Liz Garbus, etc. I got some key advice from Al Maysles, who helped me with the film in a number of ways (and actually shot the first day with me when it was the clown movie). Al recently saw the film and said to me "Well, you did right by this family." I felt very good about that.

About halfway through the process, I felt I needed an ethics advisor, so I sought out Dr. Robert Coles who was the James Agee Professor of Ethics at Harvard, but is also an expert in both child psychology and documentary filmmaking (and publisher of DoubleTake magazine). I found him to be uniquely tuned in to the odd combination of issues that I was grappling with. He essentially said to me "The fact that you are here talking to me, tells me that you are going to deal with this family in a humane way." And he also said that I needed to mentally shift from feeling like I was telling David's story, and how the film would impact David, to realizing that the constituency was much wider and included the whole family, and that in light of that, it was more important than ever to make the film and to consider everyone's relevance. Those two insights gave me a lot of comfort.

Was there any time that you felt you were in over your head as the story evolved?
I never felt that I was in over my head. I thrive on complexity (maybe because I've had a lot of it in my own family) and this was just a giant knot to be untangled. I wasn't sure if I'd ever get to the end of it, but I knew the journey would be fascinating. I do think that the film called upon me to work at my highest level.

How were you able to maintain your objectivity? Were there any moments that you disliked your subjects?
I never disliked the subjects of the film. The more they show you their humanity, the more you have to sympathize.

What was your biggest surprise in making this film?
I have to say my biggest surprise was the surprises themselves. The subject never got old for me; I am literally still learning new things every day about the case and the family. For example, just last night I was on the phone with Elaine, and she mentioned to me the name of a character who I have always been curious about and who is only in the film for a second. I asked her to tell me a bit more about the person and Elaine was kind of cagey about it. When she finally told me how that woman fit into the story, my jaw dropped. It was a total revelation. Luckily, it didn't change the mix of views we express in the film, but like so many things, it is something a viewer would find amazing. So the story just continue to morph and to defy understanding in many ways.

What have you learned in hindsight?
I think making the film just confirmed for me something I have known all along; that you should follow your intuition. When I started out making a film about professional birthday party clowns, a lot of my friends sort of gave me this blank stare. But Maysles looked at some of the footage of these quirky, interesting, sweet, heartbreaking, inspiring people and said to me "well, there's a lot of humanity there." He really put his finger on it. That is why I was attracted to this subject to begin with, and felt that if I delved into this little unknown world, I would find an interesting story. So following that intuitive feeling often turns out to be a good idea for me.

What have you learned about yourself as a doc filmmaker?
I am good at knowing what questions to ask, and that is because I have genuine sympathy for the subject. I don't think you can fake that, or be secretly snickering and distancing yourself from your subject. If you don't love people in some fundamental way, you probably can't do this kind of work, or you'll just frustrate yourself. I don't see people as good and bad and see some of them as "monsters." I think when you do that you are putting tremendous distance between yourself and the subject. If you can't see something familiar in these subjects, and you just act like they are "those" people who are somehow of a different brand or type than you, then you won't be very good at bringing their stories out.

Do you have any advice for first time doc filmmakers?
Follow your intuition. If you think something is interesting to you, keep asking about it. And when the subject is important and even controversial as it often is, you have to apply an even higher standard of care in researching it.

You have become part of the Friedmans family history? Were you aware of this when you went in to he project?
Again, I'm reminded of what Maysles said to me when I showed him the film. He said "you know, these people are going to be part of your life forever." He described how that happened with the Bouviers after Grey Gardens, and with the salesmen after Salesman. I am comfortable with that. I think I couldn't have it any other way. Otherwise it would feel like a one-night-stand that lasted 3 years.

Were there any scenes you cut for legal or moral reasons?
There were a very few moments that the family asked us not to include from their home movies, but in no case did I feel like they altered the content of the film in a meaningful way. In fact, as is often the case with the Friedmans, they object to something that you don't really see as negative or controversial in any way, but then they have no problem with the most personal intimate moments being displayed.

Are you still in contact with the family?
Yes, I talk to David, Jesse, Elaine, and Howard regularly. Also I talk to other characters like the lawyers, the DA, the judge and the police officers. I do not have much contact with Seth.

Who are some of your influences in doc filmmaking?
As you could tell from my answers, I like Maysles work and his thinking very much. It is very humane and straight. This film is far more stylized than a Maysles film of course, and I'd say that I draw some of that from Errol Morris, who I think uses images and music so beautifully. But, partly because of the importance of the Friedman's home movies that document both their family life before the events in the film, and their life after the police showed up. this film is sort of its own animal.

My editor and co-producer, Richard Hankin and I, spent lots of time honing a look and feel for the film that was organic to it, and a way of integrating the Friedman home movies that would feel right.

My key collaborators, my producer Marc Smerling, my editor and co-producer Richard Hankin, and our associate producer Jennifer Rogen, often worked on unraveling different aspects of the mystery simultaneously. I might be in upstate NY visiting Jesse in prison, Marc would be meeting with a witness who refused to be on camera, Richard would be discovering some obscure but important piece of Friedman home movie footage, and Jenn would be locating some ancient newspaper article that added a missing piece to the story.

Once I had penetrated the first line of secrecy about the story, I found there were many smart, articulate people willing to talk to me, but the amazing thing was that none of these smart people could agree on anything. So it fell to me to try to develop the truest story I could. If anything, the way it has affected my views on documentary filmmaking, is that it has demonstrated for me in the most direct way, the elusive nature of truth. It has shown me how difficult it is for a filmmaker to capture the truth in a story where the sources are at odds with each other, and how important a responsibility it is to get it right -- or at least make it fair -- since your version of the events is often the one that will be most remembered.

How do you see "truth" as it relates to documentary filmmaking?
I think that just as we found here, it is often elusive. With Capturing the Friedmans, I would talk to a person on Monday and he would answer some difficult stubborn question I'd been grappling with, and then that night I'd breathe a sigh of relief that I'd figured out this tricky part of the story that hadn't been making sense to me. Then Tuesday morning I'd interview someone else and they'd make me realize the person I spoke to Monday was selling me a bill of goods. One thing I recognized early on is that memory is totally dynamic. We talk about a "memory bank" as if we store memories in our minds as static images. In fact, I think our memories sit there and bubble and churn like the electrical impulses they are, evolving over time to suit our needs. So if we need to remember our father in one way, we will do so whether or not that image comports with the facts or other people's recollections. I also felt that while not everyone in the film tells the truth, I don't find most of them to be consciously lying about anything. They are adjusting their memory at the same time they are adjusting their story. So when the police detective in this story tells me something, and we see a photograph a moment later disproving what she says, I don't think it means she was deliberately trying to mislead me. Or at least that's not how she would see it.

How did you gain the family's trust? And, how did you feel about Seth not participating: Did you have any contact with him?
First, I became an expert in the case and their family history. I knew that I needed to be the most knowledgeable person about the story if they were going to entrust it to me. After I had spent many months learning about their strange situation, I had to some extent proven my sincerity in telling their story. They had been very negatively portrayed by the media, so there was that hurdle to overcome, but by the same token some of them were quite happy for me to record a version of the events that was more accurate and complex than the salacious and oversimplified version that appeared in the paper and on TV at the time. In addition to this logical reason, I guess I'd say that your subject, like anyone you deal with in life, has to trust you intuitively. In this case, I did not mean the family harm, I meant to tell the fairest story I could, and it was clear that they had an intuitive sense of comfort that that is what I would do. I never made them feel that I would tell their version of the story -- just that I would do the work to dig out the truest story I could, and they accepted that. Another interested element of this is that the amazing thing about family secrets is that not everyone in the family wants to keep them secret. So in the Friedman family, like most, there were people, like Elaine (the mother) who were more willing to be open about the story than some others. But once one person gives you their view, the other family members are more inclined to do so, since they want their side to be represented.

As for Seth not participating, I didn't have much of a view about it. Obviously I made an effort to get him to participate, but I respected his view which was, in essence, that the last time his family was represented in the media it didn't work out too well and he did not want his current nuclear family influenced by the film.

How do the Friedman's feel about the film now? Has this film changed their lives?
Everyone in the family has his own view of course, but here are a few in brief...

David: he likes the film very much, though he is obviously concerned about whether it might have a negative impact on his career. In the end, I think he is proud to have done something that he feels can help his brother, who had a very hard time these last years. David has recently decided he is willing to speak to the press about the film and his experience. You can talk to him if you'd like.

Elaine: I think Elaine was gratified to be able to speak out after all these years, uninterrupted, and to have her views represented in the film. She came to Sundance and, at the age of 70-something, participated in the after-midnight Q&A. I talk to her regularly. Just last night in fact.

Jesse: Jesse is very enthusiastic about the film. While it may be more balanced between the opposing views than had he made the film himself, he knows that the attention the film has gotten goes a long way toward opening people's minds to the idea that the events were not as reported in the media at the time, and that is very important for him. He was granted special permission by his parole office to come to Sundance. After 13 years in jail, he was elated to be in the mountains, and having this new experience.

Seth: Seth has not seen the film yet, and I have not spoken to him.

Howard (Arnold's brother): Howard said that he learned a lot seeing and participating in the film, and that while it was an emotional experience for him, he feels he grew as a result. He also came to Sundance and got a chance to reconnect with Elaine after all these years. They both seemed to appreciate this aspect. There is a lot of healing to be done in that family, and it seems like some of it started as early as Sundance.

Any repercussions for you? for them? Is David still working as a party clown?
David's life hasn't changed much. Elaine remains in the Berkshires. Jesse has had the most change in that he's been interviewed a lot about the film, he's traveled with the film, etc. But remember that Jesse is now subject to the harshest provisions of Megan's Law (Judge Boklan, the same judge who sentenced him, recently had to adjudicate at his Megan's Law hearing, and he was judged to be a "Level 3 Sex Offender" (the highest level) also known as a "Violent Sexual Predator." As a result, he wears a monitoring device at all times, can't live in a building with children, was recently evicted as a result of a letter from parole to his apartment building informing them of this, etc. His life is not easy and will likely continue this way for many years.

As for me, it has meant that I spend less time in Rome and more time in the US. Because we struck an unusual distribution deal for the film (a sort of three way deal between Magnolia Pictures, HBO, and me) I am managing the theatrical release very closely. I felt this was important, particularly because I feel I have a responsibility to keep a careful eye on the way the family and the film are represented in the advertising and publicity for the film. So this is time consuming but a great learning experience.

Did you have any moral issues regarding your participation and howthe family would be portrayed? Did you speak with any other docfilmmakers about their experiences (i.e. Alan and Susan Raymond of An
American Family?
I was concerned at many junctures about my own role and how to manage the situation so that I was telling the story without inflicting any collateral damage, or being insensitive to the family, or even to the other characters in law enforcement, etc. I spoke to many documentarians including Barbara Kopple, Liz Garbus, etc. I got some key advice from Al Maysles, who helped me with the film in a number of ways (and actually shot the first day with me when it was the clown movie). Al recently saw the film and said to me "Well, you did right by this family." I felt very good about that.

About halfway through the process, I felt I needed an ethics advisor, so I sought out Dr. Robert Coles who was the James Agee Professor of Ethics at Harvard, but is also an expert in both child psychology and documentary filmmaking (and publisher of DoubleTake magazine). I found him to be uniquely tuned in to the odd combination of issues that I was grappling with. He essentially said to me "The fact that you are here talking to me, tells me that you are going to deal with this family in a humane way." And he also said that I needed to mentally shift from feeling like I was telling David's story, and how the film would impact David, to realizing that the constituency was much wider and included the whole family, and that in light of that, it was more important than ever to make the film and to consider everyone's relevance. Those two insights gave me a lot of comfort.

Was there any time that you felt you were in over your head as the story evolved?
I never felt that I was in over my head. I thrive on complexity (maybe because I've had a lot of it in my own family) and this was just a giant knot to be untangled. I wasn't sure if I'd ever get to the end of it, but I knew the journey would be fascinating. I do think that the film called upon me to work at my highest level.

How were you able to maintain your objectivity? Were there any moments that you disliked your subjects?
I never disliked the subjects of the film. The more they show you their humanity, the more you have to sympathize.

What was your biggest surprise in making this film?
I have to say my biggest surprise was the surprises themselves. The subject never got old for me; I am literally still learning new things every day about the case and the family. For example, just last night I was on the phone with Elaine, and she mentioned to me the name of a character who I have always been curious about and who is only in the film for a second. I asked her to tell me a bit more about the person and Elaine was kind of cagey about it. When she finally told me how that woman fit into the story, my jaw dropped. It was a total revelation. Luckily, it didn't change the mix of views we express in the film, but like so many things, it is something a viewer would find amazing. So the story just continue to morph and to defy understanding in many ways.

What have you learned in hindsight?
I think making the film just confirmed for me something I have known all along; that you should follow your intuition. When I started out making a film about professional birthday party clowns, a lot of my friends sort of gave me this blank stare. But Maysles looked at some of the footage of these quirky, interesting, sweet, heartbreaking, inspiring people and said to me "well, there's a lot of humanity there." He really put his finger on it. That is why I was attracted to this subject to begin with, and felt that if I delved into this little unknown world, I would find an interesting story. So following that intuitive feeling often turns out to be a good idea for me.

What have you learned about yourself as a doc filmmaker?
I am good at knowing what questions to ask, and that is because I have genuine sympathy for the subject. I don't think you can fake that, or be secretly snickering and distancing yourself from your subject. If you don't love people in some fundamental way, you probably can't do this kind of work, or you'll just frustrate yourself. I don't see people as good and bad and see some of them as "monsters." I think when you do that you are putting tremendous distance between yourself and the subject. If you can't see something familiar in these subjects, and you just act like they are "those" people who are somehow of a different brand or type than you, then you won't be very good at bringing their stories out.

Do you have any advice for first time doc filmmakers?
Follow your intuition. If you think something is interesting to you, keep asking about it. And when the subject is important and even controversial as it often is, you have to apply an even higher standard of care in researching it.

You have become part of the Friedmans family history? Were you aware of this when you went in to he project?
Again, I'm reminded of what Maysles said to me when I showed him the film. He said "you know, these people are going to be part of your life forever." He described how that happened with the Bouviers after Grey Gardens, and with the salesmen after Salesman. I am comfortable with that. I think I couldn't have it any other way. Otherwise it would feel like a one-night-stand that lasted 3 years.

Were there any scenes you cut for legal or moral reasons?
There were a very few moments that the family asked us not to include from their home movies, but in no case did I feel like they altered the content of the film in a meaningful way. In fact, as is often the case with the Friedmans, they object to something that you don't really see as negative or controversial in any way, but then they have no problem with the most personal intimate moments being displayed.

Are you still in contact with the family?
Yes, I talk to David, Jesse, Elaine, and Howard regularly. Also I talk to other characters like the lawyers, the DA, the judge and the police officers. I do not have much contact with Seth.

Who are some of your influences in doc filmmaking?
As you could tell from my answers, I like Maysles work and his thinking very much. It is very humane and straight. This film is far more stylized than a Maysles film of course, and I'd say that I draw some of that from Errol Morris, who I think uses images and music so beautifully. But, partly because of the importance of the Friedman's home movies that document both their family life before the events in the film, and their life after the police showed up. this film is sort of its own animal. My editor and co-producer, Richard Hankin and I, spent lots of time honing a look and feel for the film that was organic to it, and a way of integrating the Friedman home movies that would feel right.


A Brave New World?
Considering Career Opportunities in DVD


Today it seems hard to believe that it was less than ten years ago that Sony and Phillips launched a video version of their hugely successful compact disc (CD) digital audio format. The new heir apparent was originally known as the Digital Video Disk or DVD. It was designed along the lines of a compact disc with an increased capacity allowing for the transfer and storage of an entire feature film in high-quality digital video.

Today DVD appears to rule the motion picture delivery universe. For the consumer, DVD provides a viewing experience with superior picture and audio quality – not to mention multiple audio tracks, subtitles, multi-camera angles, seamless branching alternate endings and director's cuts. Plus, thematic menus with animated transitions, interactivity, random and instant scene access, and, all of the fun extras the studios throw in.

Documentary or “special interest” titles have found new audiences as well. Bob Chapek, president, Buena Vista Home Entertainment and president, DVD Entertainment Group says that, “Special interest DVD sales have more than doubled in the first quarter compared to the same period last year, demonstrating the format's growth beyond theatrical blockbusters and family programming. There are nearly 23,000 DVD titles currently available from all genres.”

But what does this mean to the medium? For one thing, it means that the picture is preserved on a medium with an imperishable shelf life. The images and extras had better look the way the filmmaker intended, as it may be the final legacy and a preserved archive of his or her work. And the technology has brought in all kinds of new things that nobody ever anticipated – including new career opportunities for doc filmmakers.

However, before you head out into the brave new world of DVD, there are a few things to keep in mind that will make the journey smoother for both you and the client. DVD production today consists of re-releases of older titles and production of new titles. The obvious difference is that on the new titles, the DVD producer is usually involved in the film from the very beginning and has access to the actors, elements of the film and the director. Typically these producers work for the studios – either in house, or, as independent contractors. Some directors such as Steven Spielberg have a hand-picked, in-house DVD producer they work closely with on every title. As more directors move in this direction, this obviously shrinks the pool of available titles and increases the competition amongst producers.

On the older titles, the DVD producer’s role is not unlike that of an archeologist conducting historical research and unearthing rare and hidden filmic treasures from obscure archives and distant lands. Lee Ferdinand, producer of Home Vision Entertainment’s (HVE) recent release of Robert J. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story and Man of Aran explains his role as a DVD producer.

“The biggest challenge in creating any DVD is -- and should always be -- making sure the film looks the way it's supposed to. So, really it's the people who are involved in that part of the process who have the most challenging (and rewarding) task. For myself, locating and acquiring supplemental material can be difficult at times but it's also great fun and the tools available to researchers these days are numerous and invaluable. In the case of Louisiana Story and Man of Aran, the research quickly led us to a man named Jack Coogan, who heads the Theology department at Claremont College in California. Mr. Coogan is the acting curator of the Flaherty archives, and anyone studying Flaherty and/or non-fiction film must make a pilgrimage.

“My background is largely an academic one. I've been studying film for a long time and until recently I had been teaching one or two courses a semester at Columbia College in Chicago on film history, theory, etc. I think my research skills as a film historian makes me uniquely suited to work for HVE since we primarily release foreign films both classic and newer independently made films. As a filmmaker, of course, it helps to know how to field a crew and shoot basic interviews or edit found footage. And as a documentary filmmaker, I have had some opportunities to interview living filmmakers and producers, and we have also interviewed various actors for some narrative releases as well. For Louisiana Story we worked very closely with cinematographer Richard Leacock who contributed his correspondence to his wife during the shooting. This is as close to a behind-the-scenes supplement we will probably ever get.


“We don't have the opportunity to create making-of's and behind-the-scenes since we generally acquire titles after they've been released. That said, in my opinion these kind of supplements are not worth inclusion anyways. From what I've seen these things amount to big PR pieces for the studios and lend nothing to the viewing experience. At HVE we are very conscious of the DVDs relationship with its owner, as either collector or general film lover. We want the consumer to feel that they have been given the best possible framework to view any given film within their home. We still feel that movies are a collective experience intended for the theater, but we also recognize very clearly that DVD has reinvented the home viewing experience. We are publishers, and although we are not in the filmmaking business we like to think of ourselves as diligent outpost in the extended discussion of films as they reverberate back and forth across a cultural timeline.”

DVD producer John Cork got his start in laser disc with the James Bond collection (MGM) and has gone on to produce numerous docs for DVD titles. Cork believes that “The best documentaries for a film must complement the feature. You are trying to add a layer of knowledge and entertainment for the viewer. I've directed over 40 docs for DVDs, most of them stories about how the films were made. For me, though, films are made by people. Sure, it is interesting to see how they made the robot work, but I like to try to find out about the human challenges that come up during the making of a movie.

“Making of documentaries should be about more than just technology and celebrity. For example, I did a documentary for the international release of the Pink Panther films. In it, we talk about the conflicts between Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards. We talk about the background of these two amazingly talented men, and try to explore why they were able to create such magic together. I also like to do documentaries that are not the kind one would traditionally expect on a DVD. For The Great Escape (out in Europe, but not the US), we located the man whom director John Sturges claimed was the inspiration for the Steve McQueen character in the film. This man had an amazing story, and it gives the viewer a whole new way to look at the film when you find out about the kind of person that survived a German prison camp.

“The big challenges facing DVDs have to do with its own success. I keep hearing that because so few people watch the special features that studios increasingly want quantity over content and quality. I keep hearing stories of producers who produce docs that just never make the DVD because the studios decide at the last minute that they need that space for trailer or to have two versions of the film on the disc. Actors and filmmakers, particularly from older titles, want to be paid for their interviews. This can be a problem.

“Certainly in a journalistic world, it makes everything somewhat sticky, but many of these people worked on a flat salary and never made another dime. On the other hand, the studios are not coming up with budgets that allow for good paychecks for everyone. It is becoming a problem. The other problem is that studios are increasingly segmenting out work. They may have two or three different elements going into one disc from different sources. As a producer, you don't want to be telling the same stories or approaching the same interview subjects, but you find out a television producer in England has struck a deal to get film clips in exchange for his piece being on the DVD. The studio often doesn't even know what that television piece will look like. A DVD producer is left floundering a bit.”

Today as more studios choose the route of commerce over art it not unusual to see EPK (Electronic Press Kits) masquerading as added-value or behind-the scenes done in the form of HBO’s First Look series. Where does that leave the DVD producer, and more importantly, should documentary filmmakers consider a career switch to DVD production?

“I'm going to say something heretical - don't!” says Cork. “The DVD business seems to be swelling, but as DVDs have become more mainstream, as shows like E! True Hollywood Story have plunged into the public consciousness, DVDs are less and less the place to be for documentary filmmakers. More and more, studios are feeling that they need to carefully vet the content of the docs done to accompany the DVDs. More and more, producers tell me they are censored - not about personal gossip, but because the studio doesn't want anyone to know the film went over-schedule or that the star was off the set for three days from a back injury. There are oodles of producers out there. Everyone wants to get a slice of this huge DVD pie because it seems like there is so much money in it. In contrast, I keep hearing about dropping budgets and compressed deadlines and how studios are focusing less on special features that would appeal to documentary filmmakers, and more on features that seem "new" and "different." I think DVD offers a great marketplace for documentaries, but DVD special features is, I'm afraid, already a shrinking market for documentarians.

Ferdinand echoes these sentiments as well. “As a documentary filmmaker I would suggest other filmmakers stay away from producing DVDs. I have a documentary that I began before I started producing DVDs and it's still in the editing phase. Creating good DVDs takes a lot more time and energy than most people think. However it's all very rewarding to see the product on the shelf and in advertisements and to know that I've contributed a tiny portion towards that films exposure and renewed place in history. Also, in my opinion DVD producers are more in line with museum curators, deeply invested in the work of art itself and acting as a facilitator to the potential consumer. . Besides, documentary filmmakers should be making films that will inspire others to make films about them for a future DVD release.”


International Documentary
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