The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019), about the infamous biotech company Theranos and its enigmatic founder, Elizabeth Holmes, is the latest documentary from Alex Gibney. The Theranos/Holmes story is a perfect vehicle for Gibney, a writer-director who specializes in essayistic films that detail the complex nexus of dishonesty, ruthlessness, hubris, and painful reckonings. His filmography is filled with documentaries that fastidiously recount the dark underbelly of outrageous acts by rich and powerful people who eventually get their comeuppance—such as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), The Armstrong Lie (2013), Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010), and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015).
In what trade papers termed an escalation of the so-called streaming wars, Hulu “rush released” Fyre Fraud (Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, 2019) on January 14, 2019, four days before Netflix debuted Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (Chris Smith, 2019). Both of these documentaries, each racing to be first, provide insider knowledge about the infamous Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, a fraudulent luxury concert experience turned notorious social-media disaster. Festivalgoers, who had paid anywhere from $450 to $250,000, went to the Bahamas expecting the “once-in-a-lifetime musical experience” promised by Fyre’s glitzy advertising, only to find a logistics and public-relations disaster: canceled musical acts, disaster-relief tents as accommodations, and dysfunctional management.
Back in 2016, when Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States, there was considerable public discussion about whether or not he would be able to govern by trafficking in the same falsehoods and public prejudices that he peddled as a candidate. To much horror and dismay, four years later, he has proven unequivocally that he can. Popular film and television have answered this mass erosion of truth and justice with narratives about powerful deceivers and sophists. Some, such as festival hit Bad Education (Cory Finley, 2019) and Ryan Murphy’s The Politician (2019–), are vehicles for political commentary, while others, such as Evan Peters’s story line in Pose (2018–), directly link to Trump.
It’s been called many things: the Golden Age of Fraud, the Golden Age of Conspiracy Theories, the Age of Fake News. Call this moment what you will, but one thing is clear: studying fabrication has perhaps never been more pressing in US history. Trump’s administration has brought with it an onslaught of lies, from the turnout figures at the 2017 inauguration to the sugar-coating of its family-separation policy; then its lies started killing people en masse with the advent of COVID-19. The blatant months-long governmental repudiation of lockdowns and mask-wearing has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and counting. It’s time not to simply turn away from the false, or to try to combat it with truth, but to study it, regardless of the election results of November 2020.
Marina Razbezhkina is a well-known Russian documentary filmmaker, educator, and founder of the largest independent documentary school in the country. Her very original approach to documentary, which combines intimate proximity to the protagonist with raw observational aesthetics, revolutionized the Russian film landscape and became the trademark of her school. Her students most often work as a one-person crew with a lightweight hand-held camera shadowing their protagonists up close. This “hunt for reality,” as Razbezhkina terms the practice, usually results in deeply engaging observational documentaries that completely absorb the viewer into an unfamiliar reality. In this interview Razbezhkina talks about the beginnings of her career, explains the origins and the core of her filmmaking method, and discusses the changing role of documentary in the modern world.
There was a dustup last fall over an op-ed by Martin Scorsese in the New York Times and his earlier interview with Empire magazine.1 Controversy erupted after he compared the movie franchises based on Marvel comic books to theme parks, saying they weren’t cinema, that he’d never go watch them, that they are ruining cinema. Hardly surprising! With the exception of his own delightful Hugo (2011) and his tireless World Cinema Project rescues of global film history, Scorsese is known for his own brand: a cinematic realism of hard streets, hard men, and hard mob battlegrounds, always set in specific pasts (New York, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Boston) and always etching the DNA of masculinity onto the screen with unfailingly precise craftsmanship.
It was the Year of Julia: in 2019 documentarian Julia Reichert received lifetime-achievement awards at the Full Frame and HotDocs festivals, was given the inaugural “Empowering Truth” award from Kartemquin Films, and saw a retrospective of her work presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (The International Documentary Association had already given her its 2018 award.) Meanwhile, her newest work, American Factory (2019)—made, as have been all her films in the last two decades, with Steven Bognar—is being championed for an Academy Award nomination, which would be Reichert’s fourth, and has been picked up by the Obamas’ new Higher Ground company.
On the morning of August 20, 2019, a man hijacked a bus with thirty-five passengers in Rio de Janeiro, causing a standoff with the police on the bridge that connects that city with its neighbor to the east, Niterói. As the hijacker threatened to burn down the bus with gasoline, helicopters hovered over the scene, and news channels recorded every move they could capture from both parties. A few hostages had been released by the time the hijacker was shot—and killed—by a sniper in the police force.
Historically, the study of the idea of black film has been a fraught, insightful, and generative enterprise—be it a matter of industrial capital and its delimitation of film practice in terms of profit, or the tendency to insist that the “black” of black film be only a biological determinant and never a formal proposition. In many ways, the black film as an object of study mirrors the history of America, the history of an idea of race. While the field continues to shift and change, and the study of black film becomes more common, it is often still tokenized by the industry. Discussion about black film and media is booming in academic programs (e.g., American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, English) and in Film and Media Studies, but it is doing so even more in nonacademic spaces, with blogs, podcasts, and think pieces proliferating at a rapid pace. We offer our manifesto, recognizing that film manifestos never whisper. Their messages envision political, aesthetic, and cultural possibilities. They demand and plot. They question and insist. What follows are expectations bundled as concerns for not only the renderings of black film to come but, as well, the thinking on blackness and cinema that we hope will thrive and inspire future discussions. We are devising new terms of engagement with current developments in mind.
News flash: recently, my faith in the power of film was restored. Paradoxically, this lift of spirits was occasioned by witnessing film’s power in cultures where it cannot be taken for granted, where threats and constraints make access fraught or impossible, where public assembly is more difficult yet ever more desirable than back home in the United States. As much as I love the joys and ease of streaming, the surprise of online discoveries, and the thrill of privilege when a DVD or Blu-ray lands unbidden in the mailbox, I am still a sucker for the theatrical experience and the transformative power of people assembling, all together in a hall, to share a screen.