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Alex Gibney on What Makes A Good Documentary Film

A Matter of Signature Filmmaking Style


Alex Gibney on What Makes A Good Documentary Film

Detainees in Taxi To The Dark Side

MERIN: Your documentaries--Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room and Taxi are really extraordinarily well-researched, but they’re also extraordinarily well-crafted films, far above most docs, I would say. Can you define for me what makes a good documentary? And, what makes a documentary a good film?

GIBNEY: At the end of the day, the subject itself is not a movie. You have to--like a good nonfiction book, you can be sure that the civil rights movement a good story, but unless you tell that story well, it’s not a good book. The same thing is true with a documentary. I mean, I think you have to get all ‘the stuff.’ But then you have to put it together in a way that makes it compelling viewing for people who’re going to come to see it. And, hopefully, there’s enough of the author, too, sometimes in indirect ways, that makes the documentary interesting.

MERIN: How do you as the author appear in this film--I know you’ve voiced the narration, but where is, what is the Alex Gibney signature?

GIBNEY: Well, sometimes the author is--well, I’m not in my films like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock are in their films. We tried that a couple of times, and it’s always been an embarrassing failure. In Taxi, you see me a couple of times in Guantanamo, but in an incidental way. You know, there are certain stylistic things that I do, and certain ways I have of telling a story--that‘s me.

MERIN: How would you define those?

GIBNEY: I don’t know. Um, you know, part of it is that I’m very much intrigued by the idea of detective stories. I like detective stories. And Enron, in it’s way, is a detective story, and I think, Taxi to the Dark Side, too, is a detective story. So is my next film--about Hunter S. Thompson. That seems like a good mode because it’s a way of asking questions--sometimes basic, fundamental questions, but you keep asking those fundamental questions and they show you a path that you follow. First of all, the path is interesting to walk along. But then the idea that you’re moving ever more slowly to bigger and bigger and bigger crimes, that’s interesting, too. ‘Cause I always like--the other thing that unifies my stories is I tend to be--there are a lot of documentaries that tell about victims. Now, Dilawar is a victim, a pure victim. But most of the people who are in this film are perps. They’re not victims. Same thing with Enron. So, in these films about corruption, I tend to be more interested in the perps. And then there are certain other stylistic things I tend to like. You know, I borrow techniques from other filmmakers…

MERIN: Like what?

GIBNEY: Well, I don’t know whether I’d call it techniques, but I like to think of sequences in my films as I would think of sequences in a narrative movie: the taxi moving sinuously through the landscape, as it does during the film’s title sequence. That, to me, is…telling a visual story. A compressed visual story. The way that we went at the Mohammad al-Qahtani sequence, too--there’s a lot of different styles in the film. The way they’re put together, I like to think of them as different textures. You know, each section has a little different texture--and that distinguishes from other sections. So, so you’re there, in that section, and then you’re finished with that texture and you move on to the next. That’s what keeps an audience refreshed. So, in other words, I mean to say that sometimes I approach things not as ‘let’s record it’ and put it together. But I think about how might we shoot this more effectively to tell the story.

MERIN: The cinematography in your films is phenomenal. It’s gorgeous and serves as a very strong directive for the audience.

GIBNEY: Well, I’m an editor--and I actually see the camera as my weakness. But I surround myself with pretty good photographers who have good eyes. And I have a good sense of story, so I’m able to say what this or that sequence means, and together we find a good way to visualize it. Like we used a scheme for the Bagram interrogator interviews, we photographed them in a way that would put us in that place, even though we were shooting the interviews elsewhere. That turned out to be terribly important in terms of creating a mood and also a sense of place, a visceral sense of place for the viewer--it’s part of what makes the story.

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