Is the world moving too quickly for documentary filmmakers?
Two high-profile documentaries at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival were overtaken by the inspiring events they initially sought to cover: Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie originated as a portrait of cyclist Lance Armstrong’s comeback attempt in 2009, while the American-Egyptian filmmaker Jehane Noujaim took her cameras to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January, 2011, believing that her film The Square would capture the hopeful birth of Egyptian democracy.
In both cases, though, the news ran roughshod over the filmmakers’ plans.
While documentarians are used to adapting as new facts emerge, the processes behind The Armstrong Lie and The Square illustrate the potential peril in trying to tell a story in an era when events both occur with whiplash speed and are chronicled and experienced by people around the world in real time. Documentary filmmakers tracking current events are increasingly under some of the same pressures as their colleagues in the mainstream press to bring original news and insight to audiences that may feel they already know the story.
Gibney, an Oscar-winner for Taxi to the Dark Side, actually completed his original Lance Armstrong film, which tracked the U.S. cyclist’s third-place finish in the 2009 Tour de France. “And then the inspirational story became unbelievable,” he said during an interview this week. “Too unbelievable.”
As other riders came forward, and U.S. federal prosecutors opened an investigation in 2010 into allegations of doping, Gibney had to shelve the film and wait for the news to stop happening. Last January, Gibney and his cameras were in Austin, Tex., with Armstrong when the cyclist sat down for his notorious confession to Oprah Winfrey. Then, in May, the filmmaker shot an extensive interview of his own, in which Armstrong answered all of Gibney’s pointed questions.
“Stories sometimes change as you discover facts,” said Gibney. But in this case, the very premise of the original film wasn’t just wrong: It was a lie. He was lucky that new facts emerged when they did. “Going back and looking at the footage I’d taken, I hadn’t fully realized the meaning of some of that. So that was a revelation.”
He adds: “One of the distressing parts of this story is, yes, I was part of the comeback story, I was chronicling it, at some point I did realize that I had been part of something different – I was actually part of a cover-up story,” he said. “So I had to reinvent what I thought that story meant, and to take a new reckoning of my role.”
If The Square began from a similarly inspiring premise, it too was tracking a lie in the making. The filmmakers just didn’t know that at the time.
“With every film that you start, you sort of have this idea in your head of what the ending could possibly be,” said Noujaim this week. “You know you’re going to be proven wrong, you know you’re going to be surprised, and you know it could drastically change. But in order to figure out the characters you’re going to follow and sort of have a rough idea of where you should be, you sort of have to have this storyline, which continues to evolve and change in your head.”
As events in Egypt unfolded, Noujaim herself became part of the story: She was arrested multiple times and wound up appearing on panels and news shows with updates from the street.
In that sense, Noujaim may be a model for documentary filmmakers finding their way in a new media environment.
Thom Powers, TIFF’s documentary programmer, notes that the filmmaker Laura Poitras is collaborating with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald for his ongoing coverage of the National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
“Laura is preparing a film about these kinds of leaks, and when she was profiled in The New York Times magazine a few weeks ago, she even said she has a certain hesitancy about talking, [in order to] protect her own creative process,” notes Powers. “That case is one of the most dramatic and high profile of a filmmaker balancing these two roles: the role of a traditional journalist putting out information as she comes by it, and that of a documentary filmmaker who sits on information longer, gestates it.”
We may see more of that, as documentary filmmakers chasing current events undertake the same double duty that has long been the practice of some traditional journalists. “Bob Woodward is a daily reporter,” noted Powers, “but he also has a long history of publishing books that have a different impact than his daily news reports.”
As in the case of Poitras, whose reports on Snowden have raised interest in her documentary work, the two sorts of coverage can feed each other.
Documentary filmmakers “always feel pressure,” said Powers. “You’re always looking behind your back, feeling danger of [someone else] scooping your story. However, I’d say that most of the time it doesn’t really work out that way – that whatever headline someone has to scoop, isn’t a real threat to the ultimate documentary, because what a traditional news outlet does – printing a daily newspaper story, or doing a three-minute report on TV – is never going to equal the power of what you can do in a 90-minute film.”
TIFF’s The Square plays at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on Sept. 13 at 3 p.m. The Armstrong Lie will be released theatrically on Nov. 29 (tiff.net).