Herzog and Oppenheimer draw lines regarding documentary filmmaking
January 26, 2016
Although both forms of communication attempts to reveal the truth of an issue, there is a difference between documentary filmmaking and journalism, and that was what Werner Herzog and Joshua Oppenheimer discussed at the Sundance Film Festival’s Filmmaker’s Lodge Monday morning.
"You see too many documentaries where you see all of this investigative reporting that is finding out that this guy is bad and not only did he expose himself to a woman, but that he also has a bad political agenda," Herzog told the audience. "It goes on and on ad nauseam, but it’s just journalism."
Oppenheimer concurred and said he and Herzog are aware that documentary films must divorce themselves from journalism.
"Yes, most documentary films are an extension of journalism, so do them and declare them journalism," he said. "I think it’s a pity that nonfiction cinema and documentary filmmaking in the United States in particular, is colonized by this. It may be perhaps because of the mainstream media’s failure to deeply investigate, what we, as nonfiction filmmakers, care about in the world."
Sundance Film Festival veteran Herzog’s new film, "Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World," which looks at the perils and possibilities of life connected to a vast network, premiered Saturday.
Oppenheimer directed the 2012 film "Act of Killing" and the 2014 follow up, "Look of Silence" which examines the horrors and effects of the Indonesian Massacre of 1965 and 1966, where government officials and the military conducted mass killing of suspected communists, Chinese nationals and left-wing sympathizers. This year’s festival was his first.
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The award-winning documentary filmmakers’ panel was part of the Sundance Film Festival’s Cinema Café TimesTalk program, moderated by Kathleen Lingo of the New York Times.
During the hour-long presentation, Herzog and Oppenheimer, who are good friends, showed mutual respect for each other’s works.
"Throughout your nonfiction films, you make up stories with your voiceovers," Oppenheimer told Herzog. "Sometimes they are outlandish and sometimes fictional, but as viewers we know that you are taking us to a hidden truth."
Herzog said his narrations are a guide for his viewers.
"I want to take the audiences just under the arm and take them with me into pure poetry, fantasy and illumination," he said.
He then told the audience that Oppenheimer’s films are just as powerful, especially when he crafts a scene with little or no dialog to emphasize a statement.
"These moments are of silent contemplation and the notion of memory that has been wiped out and silenced," Herzog said. "[That’s when] you know this is a film that has unprecedented depth and that’s what brings me close to Joshua and his films."
Lingo said both the filmmakers’ recent works appear to come from two different realities, but also reflect the current state of humanity and asked if there was anything for the human race to be hopeful for.
"I think I’m more hopeful," Oppenheimer said to Herzog, lightening the mood. "So you go first and we’ll end on an ‘up.’"
Herzog said his films aren’t made from the notion of being hopeful or not.
"I find it odd that people are striving for happiness, as if it’s the primary goal in life and I find that silly," he said. "Americans take it seriously because it’s even in their Constitution, ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ But that doesn’t touch me. It doesn’t interest me.
"You find these people stepping on the bus with the frozen rictus of a smile to show how happy they are," he said. "It’s just awful."
Lingo then asked about the pursuit of justice.
"That’s something else, something more meaningful," Herzog answered. "Of course, being part of something meaningful like striving for justice or equal rights for humanity is a much more dignified goal than just personal happiness."
Oppenheimer jumped in and said that people have tricked themselves into thinking everything in the world is OK as it should be.
"What [Werner and I] share is our profound disgust with pretense, denial, facade and the collective lies that naturalize and makes everything unjust and terrible, small and debased around us feel inevitable," he said. "What we’re trying to do is make visible the fantasies, lies, delusions and self deceptions that constitute immoral imagination, which allows us to feel everything is fine, when it is really catastrophic."
When those things are exposed, the audience may be taken aback.
"In that moment everything looks strange because a world that is depicted as a world of delusions, lies and fantasies, looks strange and we try to resist it," Oppenheimer said. "But I think if there is any power to my films or Werner’s films, it’s because, in fact, it’s not the shock of [seeing] anything new, but the shock of recognition."
Getting to the objective heart of the subject is a documentary filmmaker’s goal, Herzog said.
"It’s always an illumination of what we are at our best and our worst, and your approach is one from deep compassion," he said. "You go into the deepest spot of human suffering and human pathos and I walk away from [Joshua’s] films illuminated. That’s what you do not have in cinema nowadays."
Oppenheimer said that’s what he feels Herzog tries to do, even though the elder filmmaker tries to hide behind a state of anger.
"That openness you bring to everyone you film, even if you are ridiculing their delusions, is never from a place of sarcasm, but from a tragic sense of, ‘ we’re in this together and this is the wrong path,’" Oppenheimer told Herzog. "I think that is hopeful. It’s the opposite of cynicism."
With all that is going on in the world, it is understandable why nonfiction filmmakers have taken on the job that Oppenheimer says journalists aren’t doing.
"It’s a pity, because this is a colonization of our art form by something else," he said. "I think that we have to distinguish between journalism that pretends to understand, but really condemns, and confuses that with comprehension.
"You can’t divorce great filmmaking, even fiction, from empathy, and from the sense we need to strive to understand how we as human beings create these monstrous conditions and the inseparability of the violence, fear and silence which is seismically rocking the United States right now in our inner cities and the criminalization of huge swaths of our fellow countrymen," he said. "You can’t divorce that from trying to understand how we in an everyday way, lie to ourselves to justify that. We can’t do that, with out understanding, empathizing and opening our hearts."
The Sundance Film Festival will run through Jan. 31 in various venues in Park City. For more information, visit http://www.sundance.org .
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