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In praise of film researchers

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Posted (edited) · Report post

Alright, so this is an excuse to toot my own horn following the first review of the film I was researcher for. Nonetheless, the point stands: research is a skill rarely discussed with respect films, and I posit this to be a forum in which to discuss the art of film research. Any others out there? Any particular instances stand out for you? Any films that don't live up to the potential of the research? What do you think is good research with respect film? Just some subjects to get us started.

"One Thousand Pictures: RFK's Last Journey" reviewed

Edited by gigi

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Posted · Report post

I don't have anything to add to the conversation here, except kudos to you, Gigi!

I was born 6 days after RFK died, so have no personal memories of him to draw upon, but I became interested in his life and values after reading of him in Kurlansky's book '1968.' I hope this film becomes available to view in my vicinity, as it sounds like a visual and informational treat.

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Posted · Report post

That is excellent news. Long time coming!

I confess that film research is a topic I have never really considered. I am sitting here trying to think of films that I have seen that strike me as very research intensive. Herzog and Morris come to mind as filmmakers that get interested in certain themes or events and study them until the real narrative appears. I actually was very impressed by how historical Malick's The New World felt in terms of period and emotional detail.

But when we come to straight documentaries, I am not sure. When I watch many documentaries, I tend to start them with a feeling of mistrust because of this very question. If a film is only as good as its research, then how can I assume this filmmaker has actually put in the required library and interview time?

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Posted · Report post

Nice one Gigi,

DeMille's second stab at the Ten Commandments springs to mind if only because the lead researcher for that film wrote up his research as a book, but there's also a great deal in the film that DeMille just made up (the writing on the stone tablets IIRC).

I've got a copy on my shelf still, sadly, unopened.

Matt

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Posted · Report post

Gigi - thanks for sharing this and congrats on the film.

I'd love to hear a little about what it took to do research for the film.

How long did it take you?

Was this something you did as a labor of love or is this a career?

Where did you do most of your research?

nate

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Posted (edited) · Report post

Apologies for delay in responding, I posted this just before heading out of the country for a month and wasn't online much whilst away.

I think the first thing to be said is that there is often a great divergence between the quality of research and the quality of the final film. M Leary, I too share your scepticism about documentaries, I think the majority of academics do which is ironic as we love gracing them. I have to admit that my own experience demonstrated the truism that finance and time pressures result in a lack of methodical rigour. I expect that this is less so on a documentary series, particularly if it is sold as a flagship show that is demonstrative of the channel's reputation (for example, the BBC2 series on Auschwitz from 2005 which was hailed by historians and tv critics alike, and which no doubt ticked the boxes for the beeb's 'public service' licence fee requirements). Having said that, there are occasionally films that really do make you sit up and take note, and feel as though you have learnt something in an informed manner.

With respect fiction film, it is harder to judge as good research is often kept to the background. The fiction films that, for me, always stood out as examples of good research are The Age of Innocence and The Remains of the Day. This is in part because they are period dramas which do seem to stand out. (I expect this is also why they regularly win oscars for best costumes.) However, these two films are also particularly atuned to how the nuances of social behaviour affect individuals, which may be why they stand out: the research is absorbed into the story. I remember reading an article about The Age of Innocence in which the journalist visited the set during filming and witnessed a historian that was an expert on 19th century New York society. The journalist reported that they corrected things such as how people held their cutlery, patterns on plates, etc. Tiny tiny things but all of this affects performance and feeds into understanding the experience of living such restricted, controlled lives.

As for documentaries, whether they would stand up to a second viewing, I dunno, but The Thin Blue Line and Capturing The Freidmans blew me away when I saw them. I am sure there are many many more that do not see a wide public release that deserve recognition.

As for the experience of researching this documentary, it was certainly interesting. We had two months to do the research and complete the interviews. I had researched the photographs for my Masters by Research thesis, and contacted the producer at the time. She remembered me and, when the project was green-lit, she got me on board. I had worked with the 1500 odd pictures at the library of congress and was the only person that had said to her 'yes, you can find the people in the pictures'. Everyone else said it was an impossible task. Thankfully, Fusco took pictures most of the way along the track so the photos were like one giant jigsaw, covering approx 250 miles. From there, it was a matter of identifying places. Some were obvious (stations), others took a little more work (business signs, street signs), and some would have been impossible without the help of a friendly Amtrak employee who proved invaluable. On the basis of otherwise insignificant details such as how the track lines and overhead wires ran, etc. he was able to give us cross roads for many of the photos. Then the legwork began, and it was literally a case of knocking door to door and visiting community establishments (churches, schools, clubs, etc.). Obviously I had a lot of contact with local press between NYC and DC, and also had to field a lot of phone calls from people that came out to see the train. On the basis of their descriptions, I had to try and identify them in the photos.

All in all, it was fun and I really enjoyed the experience. I worked like a dog and was exhausted by the end of it, I think if it had been any other project I probably wouldn't have given quite so much to it. On average I was doing 15 hour days, and had 3 days off in 2 months. I had met Paul Fusco during my MRes research, though, and he is a really interesting and generous individual. I felt I owed him, I also loved his photographs (hence the thesis) and thought they deserved wider public acclaim. Also... I have to admit... I am a geek and love puzzles. This was one huge puzzle from beginning to end.

At the end of all this, though, I still haven't seen the film! I may yet end up cringing at the film I researched. Having witnessed a few interviews taking place, though, I expect it will be pretty darn engaging.

Edited by gigi

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Posted (edited) · Report post

Oh and I should also say, the photographs I was working from are on Magnum photos website (a small sampling of the collection).

Edited by gigi

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Posted · Report post

gigi wrote:

: On the basis of otherwise insignificant details such as how the track lines and overhead wires ran, etc. he was able to give us cross roads for many of the photos.

I love this sort of thing, I really do. :)

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Posted · Report post

gigi wrote:

: On the basis of otherwise insignificant details such as how the track lines and overhead wires ran, etc. he was able to give us cross roads for many of the photos.

I love this sort of thing, I really do. :)

Yeah, me too. When I first spoke to this guy - who has a senior post in Amtrak - he said that really he didn't have the time but I happened to hit on someone that loved trains, cartography, and a good puzzle. I developed an instant crush. I could have carried on with this job for years. The photos have so many mundane details that could be followed up on. You have no idea how much time I spent on google maps & earth, virtually travelling this train journey in an attempt to distinguish some of these characteristics. I now know far more about trains on the East coast of the US than any girl should. It makes me feel oddly proud.

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If anyone is in Rhode Island, this doc will be playing at the Flickers Film Festival on the 13th August, at the VMA Arts & Cultural Centre, at 4pm.

details of screening here

If you go see it, you'll get to see the finished product before I do, so be sure to let me know what you think!

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UK board-ers, it's on tele tonight: More 4 at midnight after the Monroe documentary. Awful slot, but More 4 in all their wisdom seemed to have judged that this double bill will bring more attention to it.

(note title change to "Bobby Kennedy: The Last Journey")

Also available to watch on 4On Demand.

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Posted · Report post

This doc is finally available to watch in the US. Sorry for the late notice, but you can watch it online anytime on HBO on demand.

HBO site

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