Documentary Filmmakers Talk About Covid-19’s Effect on Filmmaking During DocLands Discussion

On March 8, the 17th annual True/False documentary film festival in Missouri came to a close. Unbeknownst to filmmakers, the conclusion of the fest also marked the conclusion of in-person film festivals for the foreseeable future due to Covid-19.

The disrupted festival circuit has many implications for doc filmmakers, who often spend years – sometimes decades – making nonfiction fare on miniscule budgets. The reward for the struggle that is doc filmmaking is often a film festival premiere where the documentary can finally be seen, appreciated and hopefully sold to the highest bidder.

To give visibility to films that had been scheduled to screen at 2020 film festivals like Tribeca, South by Southwest and DocLands Documentary Film Festival, Variety Streaming Room and California Film Institute’s DocLands hosted a virtual discussion called “DocTalk From Home” on Sunday. Moderated by Variety senior features writer Andrew Barker, the virtual conversation featured eight nonfiction directors with films that were selected for the DocLands 2020 program.

Participants included: Garrett Bradley (“Time”); Yael Bridge (“Socialism: An American Story” – working title) David Garrett Byars (“Public Trust”); Don Hardy (“Citizen Penn”); Kirsten Johnson (“Dick Johnson is Dead”) Jeff Orlowski (“The Social Dilemma”); Dawn Porter (“John Lewis: Good Trouble”); and Sanjay Rawal (“Gather”).

The live virtual discussion showcased trailers of all eight docus followed by an interactive Q&A with the directors, who spoke about their films and the future of the documentary ecosystem.

Hardy’s “Citizen Penn,” about Sean Penn and his foundation’s decade-long efforts to help Haiti after the January 12, 2010 earthquake, was set to have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April with Penn in attendance. But when Tribeca announced it was offering a virtual experience by unveiling some programming online, Hardy pulled “Citizen Penn.”

“Having that premiere go away (means) trying to hustle with this film and find a distributor,” said Hardy, who had to convince Penn to let him turn footage into a feature length doc.

“(Sean) certainly didn’t want it to come off as a vanity project and seem like this white savior riding into (Haiti) and doing something,” Hardy said. “I understood his reluctance. It was something that myself and the whole (film) team kept in mind — that if it steers in that direction we are doing something wrong.”

Porter also pulled “John Lewis: Good Trouble” from Tribeca’s virtual festival. The withdrawal may have been slightly less painful for Porter because her doc, about the life and career of Rep. John Lewis, was commissioned by CNN Films and acquired by Participant and Magnolia Pictures in December. That said, Porter said that she is mourning the loss of her film’s festival debut.

Watch the Full ‘Doctalk from Home’ Panel

“Film festivals are not just about publicity and awards,” she said. “They are about connecting. The reason I make movies is because it’s a form of connecting with people. I miss having people in the room watching my film. It’s a very special moment that really only festivals provide and I will definitely miss that.”

Porter also discussed what Covid-19 means for documentaries economically.

“Just in the last couple of years the audience has been finding documentaries theatrically,” Porter said. “We were just having our moment of being able to get out there (successfully into theaters). That had a couple of different benefits not just for that film, but also for all the people who are helping (doc filmmakers) finance documentaries. (Financiers) were looking at our films differently — as if people want to go see them in a theaters.”

Johnson and Bradley, who premiered their respective films at the Sundance Film Festival in January, are hoping that Covid-19 leads to change in the nonfiction community.

“Covid in many ways is offering opportunities for the work and for filmmakers to come together that is unprecedented in this sense that it’s public,” said Bradley, who won the Sundance 2020 U.S. Documentary Directing award for “Time,” a look at a family torn apart by a 60-year prison sentence. “There are a lot of positives that can come from that. It’s going to force us not to just deal with this current moment but to really try to shift the way in which we reach people and the way in which we engage audiences as a whole once this is over.”

Johnson hopes the pandemic will lead to a more inclusive documentary ecosystem.

“We want more people in and more people to see the work,” the helmer said. “We want more people to make the work. We want as many different voices as possible to express themselves, but one of the things that we are all trying to understand is how do we support independent theaters and how do we make sure that artist’s (films) don’t just go up for free onto the internet.”

Later this year Amazon Studios will release “Time” while Netflix will stream Johnson’s “Dick Johnson is Dead,” which garnered the Sundance 2020 Innovation in Non-Fiction prize.

Netflix also picked up Orlowski’s “The Social Dilemma” after its Sundance 2020 premiere. About the ethics and impact of social media, Orlowski is currently re-editing so he can include the rise in social media use due to Covid-19.

“Just when I thought everything was done, good and out the door for the last couple of months we have be working to make huge, huge shifts to the whole film both tonally and then also specifically around Covid and the misinformation we are seeing around Covid,” said Orlowski. “Now there is a whole new section of the film that we have tried to figure out how to weave (into the film) over the last couple of weeks.”

“The pandemic is horrible for so many reasons, but for our industry I think this will be a real turning point,” said Porter. “We are going to have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to achieve all of our aims.”