Notes on Notes, Trust and the Documentary Promise
Earlier this summer, filmmaker Penny Lane premiered her Creative Capital project, NUTS!, about a Great Depression-era doctor who claimed to have cured impotence by implanting goat testicles into his patients. In making the film, Penny has been considering truth-telling and how documentaries are affected by dramatic story telling and creative editing. Today, she launched NOTES ON NUTS!, a footnote-like website that offers a critical look at her film NUTS! as well as documentary-making itself. Penny sent us this essay on the continuation of her project.
Trust is paramount in nonfiction. Your audience needs to trust that you’re honoring the documentary promise—the promise to in some essential way tell the truth—and so does your subject. That trust is your most valuable currency. Violating it is a tricky business.
What I want to suggest today is that the practice of annotation is a powerful act of transparency that nonfiction filmmakers might adapt to great effect.
By creating NOTES ON NUTS!, a database of over 300 footnotes tied to my Creative Capital project NUTS!, I had the idea that I could create one case study in order to instigate a whole new conversation: what would happen if documentary filmmakers started to regularly use footnotes?
This is meant as a provocation to my field, maybe even a call to action. Certainly a call to debate. I hope people will look at NOTES ON NUTS! critically. It is a kind of pioneer work; its flaws will be instructive to the next filmmaker who dares tread here.
A Tale of Two Retreats
The idea of footnotes for documentaries occurred to me with lightning precision at the 2015 Creative Capital Retreat, chatting on the lawn with Shola Lynch, Travis Wilkerson, Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen. It felt like a very simple idea whose time had clearly come. Wondering if I was crazy, I wrote to documentary wizard Paul Sturtz (co-conspirator at True/False), who encouraged me to go for it.
Over the past year I’ve noticed other people having similar ideas. (So much for the Great Man theory of history, right?) Rick Prelinger mentioned the idea of annotation in a Facebook post a few months ago, arguing it is absurd that doc filmmakers aren’t expected to provide sources for archival imagery and other information. Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice) wrote to me that he is planning to employ footnotes for his next film (about our disappearing coral reefs), telling me he hopes footnotes would “uphold the principles of the scientific process, and at the same time, demonstrate to viewers that this is information that is accurate and trustworthy.” Theo Anthony, whose beautiful debut feature Rat Film just premiered at Locarno, told me he is thinking of creating footnotes as “an additional hypertextual map for the film,” saying he “would also love to have a way to cite sources and to point people towards more topics and resources that I didn’t have time or space to explore in the film.”
One year after I had the original idea for NOTES ON NUTS!, I found myself back at the Creative Capital Retreat, this time chatting with Scott Macauley (film producer and Editor-in-Chief at Filmmaker Magazine). I told him about my urge to write, how I had been writing bits and pieces of things without any sense of purpose. I spontaneously said, “Hey, why don’t I write a column for Filmmaker?”
So this week actually marks the launch of two ideas born at Creative Capital, both linked to the digital release of my Creative Capital project NUTS!: NOTES ON NUTS! and my new monthly column, NOTES ON REAL LIFE.
The first installment of the column goes into great detail about how and why I decided to create NOTES ON NUTS!
NUTS! premiered at Sundance 2016 where it won a Special Jury Prize for Editing. This week, it is available worldwide on iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo On-Demand, Vudu and BitTorrent. Find out more about where NUTS! is screening on the official movie website.