Editor | Peter Bowen
People Who Need People: Bio Docs at Sundance
Posted January 23, 2008
"I guess, I'm a people person," jokes Marina Zenovitch trying to explain why she makes films that focus on complex, fascinating individuals. Her documentary ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED is not exactly a bio-doc, but rather an attempt to understand a particular historical moment, in this case, the 1977 arrest of Polanski for sexual assault, and his subsequent flight from the United States. "I saw an article in the LA Times five years ago which talked about whether Polanski could come back to America if he was to be nominated for The Pianist. I had been looking for something after Tapie (Zenovich's earlier documentary WHO IS BERNARD TAPIE?) to do and I had remembered that case, but the story never seemed to add up." As Zenovich started to put all the pieces together, she realized that she would have to add more and more of Polanski's history — his life in Poland, his swinging London days, the horror of his wife Sharon Tate's murder — to frame the story.
But more than anything, Zenovich traces out the image of the man through the many, often conflicting stories that others tell about him. As Zenovich readily admits there is a difference between the Polanski one pastes together from newspaper accounts and the flesh-and-blood one that she met in Paris late in the making of her film. Her Polanski "is a media figure," the man produced by the news accounts and television interviews. And as she pulled the news stories from around the world, she noticed a glaring difference between the American Polanski and the European one. Stateside journalists cast him as a sinister, decadent, short foreigner (the character noted in the title's "wanted"), while the European press (represented by the title's "desired") painted him as a maligned, misunderstood artist caught in a web of injustice who needed to be saved for his cinematic contributions.
Bio docs, unlike their fictional counterparts, need their subjects to be media figures. Indeed one often makes a biopic to recreate a life for which there is no footage. But it is nearly impossible to create a documentary with no visual record of your subject. At Sundance this year there are a number of bio-docs, all representing the lives of celebrated, controversial figures. Alex Gibney's GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON uses footage, re-enactments and interviews of friends and enemies to map out the life of the erratic, reckless writer of the American Dream. Steven Sebring's PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE is the product of an 11-year friendship and collaboration with the rock poet. And Isaac Julien's DEREK, a touching tribute by one filmmaker to another, weaves together letters, super-8 films, and personal interviews to commemorate the great British filmmaker Derek Jarman.
For each director, the project of recreating a person's life took them in very different directions. Alex Gibney was approached to direct the film GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON by a group of interested producers, including Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. For Gibney, making the film was also getting to know the man. Alex Gibney only partially jokes, "I can't say what was that I directed in this film. It feels like I was the one who was directed – in five directions at once – by the spirit of the hydra-headed Hunter." For Gibney, getting a sense of the man meant retracing his steps, both as a writer, an activist, and American icon. In the process, he talked to such disparate voices as Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Buffett, Tom Wolfe, and his wives and children. He read – and reread – all his work. He revisited Thompson's many haunts, searching for the ghosts of the man and writer Gibney wanted to channel.
Steve Sebring's approached his documentary PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE, not as a filmmaker, but as a friend. Sebring explains, "It all happened so organically. I was just interested in her and in getting to know her as a person. As our friendship blossomed over a decade, and as I got to know her, my lens was getting to know her as well." Ask to shoot Smith in 1995 for Spin magazine, Sebring struck up a friendship with her. Later when he saw her perform at Irving Plaza in New York City, he wondered if any one had ever caught her on film. A fashion photographer by trade, Sebring started filming her, and, in the process, getting to know her. As Sebring reminds audiences, "No person is just one thing. I know I am not just a fashion photographer. And Patti Smith is certainly not just a rock icon. She is much more. For me, this movie is about discovering who Patti Smith is. This process of discovery has been over the course of eleven incredible years of filming."