I think every documentary filmmaker, if they're realistic and love their work, knows that you take not only a vow of poverty but anonymity. At best, your films are going to be shown at film festivals to a few hundred people, and that there might be a showing on public television that might bring in a larger audience, but traditionally even public television tends to marginalize documentaries. I was living in New York and shooting my first film on the Brooklyn Bridge and moved to the house I'm talking to you from twenty-two years ago in 1979 so that I could live inexpensively—remember I'm not getting investments; I'm writing grants and begging foundations and various entities to support my film with no possibility of return. And then all of a sudden, whatever it was in the particular alchemy of how we made films—the first film was nominated for an Oscar and people got starved for that sort of thing and the next few films so blazed a trail in PBS's schedule that they themselves initiated the American Experience. And then all of this is before Civil War, which was a flabbergasting thing when, all of a sudden, you go from being a filmmaker who's just barely now beginning to survive comfortably and feed the family on what you make from the sale of films and cassettes to something that is this huge public event, and I'm still pinching myself, and that was twelve years ago almost.
To the general public, the word documentary or nonfiction film is a narrow band. And we think that the feature film is this huge magnificent spectrum. But if you really look at it, the feature film is governed by a formula and laws of plot that make it, I believe, the narrow band in the spectrum. And it's the documentary, it's the nonfiction film, that has so many glorious possibilities. I work in one small corner of it doing a particular style that works for me. And style, of course, is just a solution to the inevitable problems of production that are authentic and organic. There's Errol Morris doing these highly stylized films. You've got films that border on the dramatic. You have the traditional classic cinema verite that continues to astound and reveal. You've got Fred Wiseman owning a whole peninsula of ways of approach and many, many other people that deserve mention that, I think, represent a vast, vast spectrum. So when we say documentary and we say nonfiction, we're speaking of some unbelievably potential-filled medium that has almost limitless areas of exploration and, more important, means of expression.
I love seeing every other form. I think the video revolution is helping. I think access to the Internet is helping. I think that we're pushing and exploring in lots of ways and I have only the greatest respect for those people who are outside the industry. And remember, Hollywood warns us about what they're really about by calling it the industry. We don't call documentary filmmaking the industry. We call it documentary filmmaking. They put palm trees in silhouette over their logos, but, in fact, they're smokestacks. This is an industrial project that doesn't get made unless somebody somewhere thinks it can turn a profit. But the documentary has its soul firmly planted outside of the marketplace, and if, in my case and others, it actually has one foot tentatively in the marketplace, then that's good news. It just means there's an appetite and we've been able to awaken people to the commercial possibilities of this. But if you told me tomorrow that the film that I was about to do wasn't going to make any money, I'd say, "Okay, thank God I still live in New Hampshire." Where, although I'd miss the society of my colleagues, I am nonetheless protected from the economic slings and arrows that inevitably blow in the documentary world.
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