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Family and the American Documentary

I have been in love with the American documentary from my very first days at film school when I was introduced to the likes of the Maysles brothers and D A Pennebaker. They revolutionised documentary story-telling and the observational narrative, thanks in no small part to the revolution in film technology that took place in the sixties. This tradition of narrative without commentary is something most auteur documentarists in America take as their mantra. However, one of the genres within the genre is the film about families and domestic life.
I have just seen Wolfpack, a remarkable film by Crystal Moselle, who came across six strange guys – all brothers – whilst out walking in New York city in 2010 and immediately started to film with them. I urge you to see this film if you haven’t already. It should be required viewing for any student of film culture. Moselle’s film reminds me of one of America’s finest female documentary film-makers, Jennifer Fox.
Known mostly for her long-running documentaries for television, her 10-hour An American Love Story (1999) is well worth the commitment in time to watch as it is an intimate observation of an American multi-racial family. More recently her autobiographical, Flying, Confessions of a Free Woman (2007), explores the realities of her own life, her personal frailties and complex relationships, aspirations and dreams. See this interview in the Huffington Post, and then watch the series. I met Fox at the Adelaide Documentary festival in 1999 when An American Love Story was first aired on US TV. She, like her mentor and my hero, Albert Maysles, who never went anywhere without a camera in his hand, saw every moment of her waking life as a possible story to film.
Andrew Jarecki made an extraordinary film about a family of child abusers preparing for trial in Capturing the Friedmans (2003). Of course, this subject area is not an exclusive for documentary film-makers. I think too of photographer Sarah Naomi Lewkowski’s photographic essay on domestic abuse, Shane and Maggie which was a cause of considerable debate when it was published in 2013 in the USA and here in Britain I think too of Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh, published in 1996 and now the subject of a film installation recently screened in Swansea.
Currently in pre-production is a feature film on the same subject, Ray and Liz, also directed by Billingham and due for release next year. I shall be looking out for it. Billingham’s work embraces the fluidity of cultural synergy between the still and moving image, especially within our digital universe. And this brings me back to Wolfpack and Moselle as an example to me of what film-makers might aspire to. This is her début feature-length documentary. There is a very interesting Q & A from Sundance which I find most insightful.
As a film-maker you need passion, determination and, above all, tenacity. Whether a stills photographer or a film-maker, having a camera as. literally, an extension of oneself is maybe not the only way to find great images and compelling narrative, but it is one of the best. Without that camera to hand you will miss the story. Moselle is something special as a documentary story-teller and students of the form should take note.

Posted by author: Adam
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2 thoughts on “Family and the American Documentary

  • Great post – off to root out the work of Jennifer Fox. The Wolfpack I found interesting but was marred by the strangely fractured editing, which I found infuriating! I am however, looking forward to hearing more from this very promising director. Thanks for the link to her Q&A.

    • Hi Wendy, glad you liked the post and enjoy more viewing! I met Jennifer in Australia back at the end of the last millennium along with Alfred Maysles, my hero. It was quite a party hanging out with two such great film-makers. We even shared a platform where I felt honoured beyond belief!

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