'Freakonomics' Dream Team Talks About the State of Documentary in 2010

A report from the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.


This post was originally published on Cinematical during the Tribeca Film Festival on May 2, 2010.

The all-star directorial team behind Freakonomics stopped by the SoHo Apple Store in NYC Friday to talk with indieWIRE’s Eugene Hernandez about the making of this new anthology documentary, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend. Joined by author Stephen Dubner, whose same-named best-seller is the basis of the film, the six acclaimed documentarians and three producers also got into a discussion of the general state of non-fiction filmmaking in the first decade of the 21st century. This non-promotional part of the discussion caught my interest most, primarily because there could be no documentary “dream team” without the rise in popularity and esteem for documentary cinema that’s occurred over the past ten years.

Without this surge, how else would Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki, and Seth Gordon all be renowned enough to be specifically sought after by producer Chad Troutwine for a non-fiction compilation akin to his successful fiction anthology, Paris, Je T’Aime. And how is it that such a film becomes one of the hottest tickets of the fest, as the prestigious event’s closing night film? The full reason may not be easily determined, but with so many brilliant representatives of non-fiction cinema together in one place, it couldn’t hurt to start a conversation bent on unraveling this mystery.

“We had come to a kind of dead-end in terms of … cable television at a certain point had channelized everything. And everything had a kind of a corporate brand,” explained Gibney, who with three films at Tribeca this year and constant jokes about the event being renamed in his honor, not to mention being the sole Oscar-winner of the bunch (for Taxi to the Dark Side), is certainly the biggest darling among the six acclaimed co-directors. “But Morgan’s film Super-Size Me was released in theaters and everybody went to see it because it was so fresh. And it had a sense of personality. It was like the experience you get when a non-fiction author speaks to the reader through a book. You’re reading the facts, but you’re also hearing the voice of the author in a way that’s so engaging and personal. All these filmmakers have been so inventive and also very giving in terms of sharing something personal with the audience.”

So, these assembled filmmakers, as well as many other celebrated documentarians of the decade, are considerably more like auteurs than most non-fiction filmmakers of the past. However, just as each has their own personality and style, which will clearly be noticeable in a collection like this, they also have different thoughts on why and how documentary film has garnered so much more respect and visibility than in prior decades.

“I think that audiences have been trained over the past decade or so to expect more.,” Grady added. ” So filmmakers have to have their game up. Part of why they expect more is — look where we’re doing this today — we’ve been absolutely 100-percent saturated with information, stories. It has to be good. Or it’ll disappear.”

Grady, who has collaborated with Ewing on such features as Jesus Camp and the recent Sundance entry 12th & Delaware in addition to their one segment for Freakonomics, needs to be good at what she does to make highly remarkable films on topics as widely covered as evangelicalism, abortion, and education. And even with this film she and her partner seem intent on breaking through with newly explored circumstances and fresh perspectives. Earlier Ewing described their part of the film as a necessary divergence from being a straight adaptation of their assigned chapter because such a rehash of information doesn’t fit their style of observational documentary. She also had something to contribute to the discussion at hand:

“We’ll look back and see this confluence, a perfect storm of things all lining up together,” Ewing said. “A frustration with conventional news and media sources, the cheapening of technology, the easier access to technology from people who might not have had the means to make these films 20 years ago. Also, the scourge and the awesomeness of reality television, because people sitting down and watching regular people — or semi-regular people — and being interested in regular people has probably been good for us. It’s hurt us in other ways; subjects think we want them to perform or that they’re going to get paid. Especially young subjects. That sort of confluence of factors has allowed this medium to flourish.”

Did she leave out an important factor? It’s okay because with ten people on stage someone was obviously going to bring up the decade’s political climate and its influence on documentary. That someone was fittingly the guy who gave us Why We Fight and The Trials of Henry Kissinger:

“For the ten years that were the Bush era,” Jarecki noted. “And the prelude to the Bush era with how American politics was shifting rightward even during the Clinton era, I think documentary filmmakers found themselves in the Bush era dealing with all those shatterings of confidence in mainstream media. There was a very Orwellian quality to what you could and couldn’t say, and it meant if you were trying to make a living being a journalist you were being very frightened and very repressed in your communications. I think doing a disservice to history. And if you were a courageous filmmaker not willing to make a living and not have a real prospect, you might be very, very animated in critiquing the Bush Administration, as a lot of us were.”

Spurlock, who followed up his seemingly light-topic attack of the fast-food industry with the political satire doc Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? and the TV series 30 Days, offered his own take on the combined influence of George Bush and reality television:

“I’m a big believer that reality television and politics push people toward documentary films,” he said. “Documentary films became one of the real last bastions of a place where you could express something unique and different that wasn’t under the guise of one of the five media companies that control the majority of what we get to see and read and hear on a daily basis. The fuse was lit and I think it’s going to continue for a long time now. The door’s been open and it’s a good thing.”

But will the majority of documentaries really continue a focus on heavy stuff like politics and the Iraq War, as they did in the 2000s? Or could we expect something else from the medium now that Obama is in office? Jarecki went on to share thoughts on the future of non-fiction film and why Freakonomics could be more popular than, say, the combined past work of its six directors.

“There’s a new moment now,” he claimed, “for good or for bad, with this new era, where you can take stock of things in where you don’t feel what you’re doing is a reaction, one way or another, to a repressive American regime. You’re much more just saying, ‘what do I think of this Apple, and is the inside of it an orange?’ You can have a whimsy in your inquiry about the human condition that isn’t just 24-7 about the news cycle, which is failing you. Jon Stewart covers most of our subjects better than we do every night. And so that liberates me to take up a hobby. And that’s what’s happening in a film like this.”

For those who missed Freakonomics at Tribeca, Magnolia will release the film this fall in theaters and through its video-on-demand service. To watch the complete conversation, check out indieWIRE’s video coverage of the event, via The Lost Boy blog. Or download the audio on iTunes.

Here’s that six-part video coverage, which is no longer up on IndieWire:

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.