Last Monday, after seeing The Interrupters, I posed the question: Is documentary filmmaking a form of journalism? I said I would get back to the topic later in the week as I gathered responses from insightful sources, but decided to hold it off until this week in order to re-watch Hoop Dreams.
In the meantime, I tweeted the question. One of the first responders were the good people at Kartemquin Films, the company that released both The Interrupters and Hoop Dreams. Their answer: "The quick answer is: yes, if you want it to be, and no, if you don't. The filmmaker decides."
That was pretty much the same answer I got from Chris Cascarano of the Chicago News Cooperative. Chris's bio describes him as a "Chicago based video journalist," and his twitter bio calls him a "video producer." The CNC often augments their coverage with video reporting, in which a filmmaker produces a documentary short that uses filmmaking to tell the story the writer has just told. This story about a pastor in Roseland doing his own "interrupting" holds a good example of this filmmaking.
"Documentary filmmaking can be journalism, and I think that's exactly what we're doing at the Chicago News Cooperative. We use that style because we believe it's the best way to convey issues and events in a fair, informative and accurate way."
How do you combat the concern that introducing a camera to a situation will alter your subject's behavior? Is that something you think about when you're on a shoot?
"Using cameras is hardly new to journalism. Nonetheless, it is up to the reporter to ensure that people's actions are genuine. If I sense that someone is acting or a situation is staged, I'll stop recording or make note of it in the final story."
Thanks Chris! That's my feeling as well. Wikipedia defines journalism as "the practice of investigation and reporting of events, issues and trends to a broad audience." DictionaryReference defines it as "the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news or of conducting any news organization as a business." And like there are different types of journalism to meet different objectives, the same can be said for documentary filmmaking. Hoop Dreams is long-form narrative. Fahrenheit 9/11 is op/ed. Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story is a magazine feature.
The Interrupters is also a magazine feature, and fitting, since it was based on one. The film matches Kotlowitz's original story in many ways: It burrows into the world of the interrupters, educates viewers on CeaseFire and Dr. Slutkin's theories on violence, sets the scene of Chicago street violence and introduces us to key characters, especially interrupters. In the article, we spent time with James Highsmith, Zale Hoddenbach, and Charles Mack. In the film, it is Eddie Bocanegra, Ameena Matthews, and Cobe Williams. In the article, the research and the epidemic were the story's focus. The film shifts that focus slightly to the three interrupters and their relationships with those they are trying to help. This is a necessity of filmmaking and audience expectation, and serves the film well...
I can feel this morning slipping away, so I am going to wrap this here. More to come as the weeks go on, I'm sure.
For now, let's have a look at the past week at Eye on Chi, and an eye on what's to come.
Along with Chris Cason on the week in sportswriting, Dot Claybourne on the end of RedEye weekend, my People with Passion interview with the Reader's Mick Dumke, (with a shout-out at the Reader itself) and the latest social media report card (this one on Billy Dec) from our fabulous social media e-words Jen & Katie, last week brought two additions to Eye on Chi. One was an opinion column from our tweeter Daniel Schell in which he documents his distaste for the scoop race and its discarding of factual accuracy. The other was my ode to the 2011 ChicagoNow softball team. Let's hope Mr. Schell decides to pen a few more opinion columns now and again -- send him encouraging tweets @thedanielschell!
Stay tuned this week at Eye on Chi for all of your favorites, including a new Chicago journalism People with Passion with Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times. For now, I leave you with more from the men behind The Interrupters: The Interview Show's Mark Bazer and his June 3rd interview with Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James.
That's all for this Monday morning report. As Studs Terkel and Avon Barksdale once said: "Take it light, but take it."
--- JMS, 8-29-11