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Documentary Q&A with UPenn Lecturer Ellen Reynolds

As my Oscar nominated documentaries blog-extravangaza comes to a close, I wanted to get an outside and more knowledgeable perspective on these films that I’ve been watching. I was lucky enough to get in touch with Ellen Reynolds, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, who specializes in documentary film. A filmmaker, Ellen has taught film and video at both the University of the Arts and UPenn. Here is what she had to say about the Oscars, a few of her favorite docs, and her love for the genre as a whole.

Documentaries are your specialty. Why do you like studying this particular genre? What do you think makes it interesting?
Real life is just more interesting to me than fiction, though I do admire the craft of fiction storytelling very much. I am fascinated with how people live their lives and make choices, and the unceasing variety of human experience, even as it exists with it’s timeless aspects and constraints. It is extremely demanding to be inside life and looking at aspects of it as a filmmaker that provides a lot of challenges that appeal to me. There are serious ethical questions of representation which I like grappling with. Personally, in my work, I feel a calling to represent with respect the stories of the unheard and unseen, for the historical record but also to serve as an affirmation, a guidepost, for anyone who’s interested. The (old fashioned?) idea that documentaries matter also moves me, I am at heart a keeper of that flame.

Can you weigh in on what “kinds” of  documentaries usually win the Oscars? Is the content and the subject matter more important than how the documentary is actually made?
The content is very important, naturally. But what seems to be “in vogue” are documentaries that follow a clear three-act structure. Everyone loves a good story. New forms of documentary (essay, or a blurry blend of fiction and non-fiction that calls into question “reality”) are not quite mainstream enough to be popular, though innovations in the form and asking the hard “inside” questions are super exciting to makers.

The movie that comes to mind with this next question is Restrepo. It’s clearly about a very touchy and emotional topic. Do you think that will effect its chances of winning (either positively or negatively)?
I think that personal stories that emerge out of situations a lot of people care abut are very attractive to the jury, and to anyone! I haven’t seen Restrepo but I think I will admire it, even though I hate the subject (war, warriors, unwinnable and tragic situations).

Do you think Energy in Depth’s attack on Gasland will effect its chances of  winning?
Not sure. I hope not. Other things might – it’s not very innovative in form nor demanding for the maker – it’s kind of a folksy story about a guy on a quest for knowledge who finds out more than he bargained for – a similar theme to King Corn that I loved too and is also very solidly made and important, but won nothing.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is another Oscar nominated doc that has been accused of being “fake.” What are your thoughts on that controversy? How do you feel about documentaries that might not be as  truthful as they appear (especially since, I believe, the majority of people go into a documentary expecting to be told the “truth”)?
Tricky question. Sometimes “the truth” is the subject (Capturing he Friedmans for example), so to manipulate the truth to show the possibilities of manipulation is interesting but requires a somewhat sophisticated viewer. The “truth” of “reality” is a big subject now in our “reality tv” dominated media landscape so it’s a very legitimate subject in my view. Otherwise, I think the maker has an obligation to show their allegiance transparently. This is the basic reason why I don’t see Michael Moore’s work as propaganda – we know exactly what side he’s on, he’s just making the best case possible for it which I believe is his right. Editors know well the practice and possibilities of manipulation – it is therefore incumbent upon them (and their directors) to be sure that they treat this responsibility ethically.

What was your favorite documentary you saw this year (even if it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar) and why?
I love Wasteland. Lucy Walker made The Devil’s Playground a few years ago as well, an amazing piece of documentary work. Wasteland does what Docs (I think) should do- connects contemporary events to transcendent themes.

The Last Train Home was astonishing. It’s an incredible, beautiful, film, though not American.

Gasland was amazing. The personal voice really works on this one, gives urgency and locality to a huge scientific and controversial subject. It has the power to effect change, without resorting to propaganda – the old fashioned ideal of all documentary makers. But I doubt it will win.

I’m interested in 12th and Delaware. I haven’t seen it yet. It’s by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing who made the phenomenal Jesus Camp.

I loved, as an Editor, the Art of the Steal about the Barnes Foundation. It’s a great local story, but this film would be dry as toast without the great editing job.

Of the few that you have seen, do you have any idea which documentary will win this year?
Restrepo probably. It’s nonpolitical about a political subject, centers on a personal story, and obviously a very difficult film to make. (But I haven’t seen Exit Through the Gift Shop. It depends on if the jury wants to stay nonpolitical as it sometimes does.)

Thanks so much to Ellen Reynolds for taking the time to answer my questions. Tell us your Oscar doc pic in the comments. And don’t forget to tune into the Academy Awards this Sunday, February 27, at 8 PM on ABC!

– Laura Reeve
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