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Exclusive Interview With Kirby Dick - Part Two

Documentary vs. Narrative Feature According To Kirby Dick


MERIN: It’s interesting that you’ve answered my question about differences between docs and narrative features by telling me something that’s inherently similar about them…and that has to do with both having characters that are presented by -- or molded by --the director in certain ways. So, what would be some of the differences between documentary and narrative films that are, say, products put before an audience?

DICK: Well, let me put it this way, I think what appeals to an audience is the unpredictability of the documentary. The dramatic form has -- although there are great filmmakers making great films -- become a little stale. That’s been my observation. And that’s why people are turning to documentaries. Because they can see that the filmmaker is unsure about what’s going to happen. Even in the editing stage. They can see how the story comes together in an unpredictable way. They can see that the filmmaker has half a story, or elements of a story, that those have to be put together, and that the filmmaker is on the edge. So they’re on the edge, too, and that’s exciting. They’re not getting everything -- as they would with a fully flushed out script -- so they have to figure out the process, too. I think that’s one element that’s very different in the audience’s experience.

Considering Linear Storytelling

MERIN: In many narrative features, these days especially, the linear style of storytelling is being toyed with…

DICK: Exactly….

MERIN: So, that, then, would eliminate the audience’s safety factor -- the predictability you speak about -- in narrative features. So, when you compare those films -- the narratives that are playing with, experimenting with, doing a riff on linear storytelling and the narrative structure -- with documentaries where there’s no predictability, as you’ve pointed out, what’re the differences in form and process from director’s point of view?

DICK: Well, I guess that it is -- to put it most simply -- that in my films, I don’t work from a script. But some documentary filmmakers do work from scripts, tho. They can -- but, it’s interesting, I’m again going back to similarities -- certainly have an idea in advance of what they want to show.

Are Documentarians Journalists?

MERIN: Well, let me as a related question, then: what’s the difference between documentary filmmaking and journalism?

DICK: There are a couple of differences, but they’re not always black or white. One is that journalism has a clear protocol that has to do with multiple sourcing, and sometimes working with unnamed sources. Documentary really has no protocol, and I think often times that can be abused -- but it also opens for form up considerably. Journalists have constraints going in, and that protocol is a good thing, and I’m definitely not saying it’s not. But it’s good that there’s another form, the documentary, where there are no constraints of protocol, because it allows people to develop much closer relationships to their subjects, to get at the truth in a different way.

On Objectivity and Truth

MERIN: That you mention ‘getting to the truth in a different way’ raises another question: do you think it’s possible for a filmmaker to be objective?

DICK: I think it’s possible for a filmmaker to bring some objectivity to the process. But I’m surprised at how quickly audiences are ready to accept documentary as THE TRUTH. The truth is elusive, and audiences give filmmakers their credence, give away their judgment much too easily when they’re watching documentary films. I find it amazing. When a documentary filmmaker watches a film it’s different. In my films, I’m very careful to include something in that’s not actual and factual. But sometimes you want to get at a story by focusing on an aspect of that story that’s not all inclusive. Because you want to point to something that’s deeper than just the facts. But for audiences, it seems there’s just this quality of truth that’s associated with documentary, which is really not the case. There’s usually an aspect of the truth, because, in general, documentary filmmakers have great respect for truth -- whatever that is. But it’s certainly a mistake to assume that if you’ve seen it in a documentary, it’s true.

The Artist's Reality

MERIN: Well, let’s return to your process an artist and filmmaker, and your perception of truth. Each artist, it seems, has a unique perspective, an individual way of seeing the world, and that vision seems to be dependent on not only their social thinking, but on the way they organize information -- visual, audio and all sorts of information. There’s a relationship between their mental constructs and the way they use their art -- their medium, whatever it might be -- to reflect what might be defined as the external world, the real world, or reality….

DICK: Sure, that’s true. I think that’s very true. And I would have to say that based on my art training I do everything, and I start everything I do as an experiment.

I’m asked on a daily basis the same question: Is there a cathartic moment when you finish a film? And the answer is no, there is no cathartic moment. Because I never stop thinking about the work I’ve done on a film, or about the film itself. My work is a continuum of experimentation.

The Filmmaker's Arc

MERIN: So, in your filmography, how do your films lead into each other in style and subject matter. And, regarding subject matter, you've often focused on sexuality. why do you pick the subjects that you pick?

DICK: I like subjects that are controversial, complex, have gray areas, potentially -- and it’s not choosing a subject that interests you, because you’ve got to get real people to become a part of the project. You're not just examining a subject, you’re asking people to live in the world defined by that subject.

The reason I choose that kind of complex subject is that you spend a year or two or three making a film, and I don’t want any moment during the making of that film to be boring.

I know that the minute I’m bored, that film is going to be horrible. I know that. I’ve seen that when I made a dramatic film and I wasn’t interested, and the film was horrible. So it’s almost just a working technique. I make sure I pick a subject that will keep me fascinated.

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