An array of the most acclaimed documentaries of the last 50 years bear the stamp of one singular talent: Joan Churchill, filmmaker and cinematographer.
Her first credit, in 1970, came as a camera operator on Gimme Shelter, the classic documentary about the Rolling Stones at Altamont directed by the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin. She’s been shooting films ever since, including Jimi at Berkeley (1971); Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987); Kurt & Courtney (1998); Biggie & Tupac (2002); Shut Up & Sing, the 2006 doc about the Dixie Chicks, and the Oscar-nominated Last Days in Vietnam (2014).
She also co-directed a number of award-winning films with her former husband Nick Broomfield, including Soldier Girls (1981); Lily Tomlin (1986); Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003), and 2011’s Sarah Palin: You Betcha!
In honor of her career in cinema, Churchill is being recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Award at DOC NYC, the country’s largest all-documentary festival, which opens today.
“I’m humbled,” Churchill says simply, adding with a laugh regarding such honors, “I blame Julia Reichert. I think she started the trend of recognizing OGs.”
Pressed further about her feelings on receiving the award, Churchill deflects attention onto the other Lifetime Achievement honoree at DOC NYC this year: filmmaker Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro).
“Thom [Powers, DOC NYC’s artistic director] called me out of the blue and when he mentioned Raoul Peck, that the two of us were going to be honored, I was just like, ‘Oh my God, it’s amazing.’ Just to be in the same sentence with this man,” Churchill tells Deadline. “I think he’s the most fabulous filmmaker, important, important artist.”
Churchill is a person used to keeping the focus on others, quite literally.
“With her, the camera is a character,” observes her husband and frequent cinematic collaborator, the sound recordist Alan Barker. “It’s a part of the action, and she relates to the people she’s filming while she’s filming, to varying degrees. Sometimes it’s a strong relationship, and sometimes it’s not that, but her approach is that the cameraperson and the camera is engaged in the action.”
Churchill tells Deadline her outlook is informed by her background in other disciplines within film.
“I started out as an editor,” she notes. “I’m thinking, while I’m shooting, am I getting everything I need to make this work? And making sure that I have a beginning and an end. Of course, the middle. I will shoot cutaways, but I make it as part of a continuous shot. So if somebody else is editing it they’ll be able to get the cutaway they need.”
On Thursday night, DOC NYC will host a special conversation between Churchill and another renowned documentary cinematographer and filmmaker, Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson, Dick Johnson Is Dead). The festival is also screening a new short documentary directed by Churchill and Barker called Shoot from the Heart, which features priceless moments with filmmaking legends Haskell Wexler, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.
Churchill and Barker were longtime friends with Wexler, the late two-time Oscar-winning DOP and director. They wanted to make a film about Wexler for years, but found him a very elusive subject.
“Haskell was not happy being [filmed] publicly… I was in despair of ever making a film he would let me shoot,” Churchill recalls, citing one example of Wexler’s reticence. “He was getting ready to speak at Studs Terkel’s memorial… So he’s working on this speech and let me film it. I had just assumed I’d be able to go with him. And he was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, you’re not coming.’ He wouldn’t let me go. And he was always saying, ‘Well, look, it’ll be filmed and you can use that.’ I’m saying, ‘No, that’s not vérité footage and the sound will be awful.’ [He would say], ‘Well, just subtitle it.’”
She adds, “We had to devise some way of filming him so that he would be comfortable. And that meant doing it in our living room or around our dinner table.”
One of those dinner table conversations, which included Pennebaker and Hegedus (The War Room), becomes the centerpiece of Shoot from the Heart. Each participant elucidates their philosophy of documentary filmmaking, and fascinating differences of opinion emerge.
Pennebaker (Penny, as he was known), the seminal figure behind Dont Look Back and Monterey Pop, comments, “I’m never trying to film ‘reality.’ That never occurs to me. I’m trying to film what I see happening in front of me. Reality—I don’t know what reality is, really.”
“In Penny’s ‘fly on the wall’ point of view… he is not engaged in the action. He is observing it,” Barker tells Deadline. “Joan’s approach is that the cameraperson and the camera is engaged in the action. Haskell is completely manipulating [the action], ‘Get what you want, do retakes. Do wardrobe, do makeup…’ It doesn’t mean that he’s abandoning the truth, but he is certainly manipulating what’s on the screen in order to make his point. He’s functioning more like a theatrical director. Joan is functioning more like a participant. And Penny is functioning more like a dispassionate observer.”
If one accepts that documentary filmmaking is a subjective practice (Barker says, “Cinema vérité style filmmaking is actually one of the most subjective styles of filmmaking”) then an argument can be made for Wexler’s approach: If documentary is subjective, why not stage certain things so long as it’s in service to getting at a fundamental truth?
That’s not a viewpoint with which Barker and Churchill concur.
“We disagreed with Haskell strongly about how documentaries should be made,” Barker says. “He was game for any level of manipulation or faking things or staging things, which we are adamantly against. But it was never a source of friction between us.”
Barker and Churchill advocate for an approach that doesn’t disguise the subjective nature of documentary. Vérité comes closest to that standard because, with its single camera perspective, the audience implicitly understands they are seeing the action from one subjective point of view.
With cinema vérité, “You’re experiencing what’s taking place in front of you… And it’s not objective because human beings are not objective, objectivity doesn’t really exist,” Barker says. “[But] when you film in a more conventional sense with interviews and cutaways and broll and other camera angles, all of those things are basically hiding your subjectivity.”
He continues, “One of the things we are really annoyed by is these multi-camera interviews, with a side camera. Maybe there’s four or five cameras. It’s just a way of manipulating the information. It’s a way of providing the ability to cut content. They’re concealing the fact that they’re cutting the content. You can cut the content—but you don’t have to conceal it. If you just keep it from one camera and do a jump cut or a quick dissolve then you’re not trying to hide from the audience that you’re cutting the content.”
Churchill notes, “I find, if I’m really into what somebody being interviewed is saying and then suddenly there’s another angle, it takes me out of the power of what the person’s saying. I’m just like, ‘Oh, there’s another angle, that’s interesting. Look at that background.’ I’m distracted. I am a simple girl. I just want be able to pay attention to what the person is trying to tell me, and I don’t need all this adorning.”
A conversation with Barker and Churchill often centers on matters of ethics in documentary practice and on foundational aspects of the art form, like the very origin of the term “cinema vérité.”
“It was simply a direct translation of the Russian ‘Kino Pravda’ from [director] Dziga Vertov,” Barker explains. “And what Vertov meant in ‘Kino Pravda’ was, it’s the truth as the camera sees it. It’s the camera’s truth. It’s not the truth. And that’s what the term cinema vérité was, just a direct and very unfortunate translation of ‘Kino Pravda.’ And so, ever since then the genre has been cursed with these endless discussions about whether it’s truth or not.”
A scrupulousness about the appropriate way to shoot documentaries makes Barker and Churchill old school, or as Churchill put it, OG. There are other respects in which she sees herself as old school.
“Like this film that we’ve done about Haskell and Penny,” she says, “we never raised any money for it and we’re not beholden to anybody. I’ve never, ever–except for once, which was an unfortunate experience–been told how a film should be edited. I’ve always had the luxury of taking as much time as it takes to shoot and then to edit. That’s not the way people make films anymore… I am one of the last of the true independents.”
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