Codes & Modes at Hunter College


As a documentary filmmaker, I am always going to interesting events and conferences to expand my horizons. I went to a panel called “Documentary Film: Art or Agenda? Competing Paradigms in the World of Non-Fiction Film” at Hunter College. Joslyn Barnes hosted, while Whitney Dow, Julia Haslett, Jonathan Oppenheim and Jennie Livingston discussed documentary form and funding.

First, in regards the title of the panel, “art or agenda,” I feel that the panelists definitely expressed their views in interesting ways. Towards the end of the discussion, an audience member asked a question about documentary serving as journalism and how the filmmakers went about “fact checking.” Their responses resonated with me for the rest of the day. As documentary filmmakers, are we journalists? In response to this, Jonathan Oppenheim said “I believe in fact checking but I don’t believe in including any of those facts in the film.” The way I see it, I feel that the audience of the film needs to take a moment to think about the fact the while it may be a “non-fiction” film, it is still a film; therefore there will be creative aspects to it. It’s one’s personal opinion as to whether or not they believe documentary should serve as a form of journalism. One of the panelists also mentioned that journalists’ main goal is to report, but films typically do not intend on reporting information, but rather constructing a story in a creative way.


This also relates to the question of responsibility. Jennie Livingston commented that fiction in a way, is more real than documentary. She said that in creating a narrative someone is looking deep into the world or at least his or her own world to create some sort of truth. If the film feels fake, audience members feel robbed of their time. However, when creating a non-fiction piece, you are taking a real event and constructing it into something unreal. It is fragments of real life being manipulated.

Another thing that stood out to me was when Whitney Dow said you never know how films are going to resonate with the public. All of the filmmakers seemed to express that for them, the films they have made have been very personal journeys and that it is difficult to envision how an outsider would interpret something personal to them. Dow said, “Film is the way I investigate the things I’m interested in. 90 minutes film is the way I organize the information I have found.” Jennie Livingston also mentioned how it is accepted by society for there to be admirable personal books, such as autobiographies, but when a filmmaker makes a personal film, it’s just “therapy.”


Responsibility and authenticity were major themes that stood out to me during the discussion. It’s true what Livingston said, that in regards to fiction film, no one asked Scorsese if he was actually in the mafia and that no one ever questioned if Spielberg even went to war. However, when it comes to a non-fiction film, viewers will criticize the filmmaker if they are not a member of the community they are portraying. If a privileged woman represents gay black men, it’s false. But no one cares who you’re representing in fiction. Julia Haslett also mentioned that a reporter once asked her, “As a woman, what gives you the right to tell the story of a man?”

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