The following is the second half of a two-part interview with Godfrey Cheshire by House Next Door contributor Jeremiah Kipp. Part one focused on Cheshire’s influential two-part New York Press article “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema”, and explored how Cheshire’s predictions had or had not come true. This installment focuses on nonfiction film, the hazards of independent distribution, and Cheshire’s own filmmaking debut, a documentary titled Moving Midway.
Do you think that the Death of Film, and the major changes in the world, have been an impetus for documentaries to gain the level of attention and prominence that they have? The death of film leads to the emergence of video, and the proliferation of video has allowed a lot more documentaries to be made.
The technology of low-budget filmmaking through video has allowed more people to make documentaries. It has made the whole food chain of documentary production, exhibition and distribution much more cost effective and easier for people in terms of making the films and getting viewer access to them. That has definitely stimulated things. Also, documentaries allow people to engage with what’s happening with the world, as I said before. Documentaries in many cases aren’t being produced by TV networks, which are doing the same sort of thing but very much under the corporate mandate. People understand that. You’re able to presume that what’s represented will be an independent viewpoint. In most cases, it’s a liberal or progressive viewpoint, but the key thing is that it is individual. A lot of that is in reaction to how corporate the media has become, especially television media, because whether or not Edward R. Murrow was the great hero that George Clooney would like us to believe, there was a greater chance for a strong individual point-of-view in the [news and nonfiction programs] of decades past. The corporate mandate has soured people on recent TV, and they distrust the coverage of such things as the War in Iraq [seen in such theatrical documentaries as Occupation Dreamland]. TV has tried to make up some lost ground with its Hurricane Katrina coverage, which has been the answer to Iraq. Michael Moore or Barbara Kopple or any individual documentary maker and can go out with relatively little money, make something, and get it in front of people that is heretical to any corporate party line. This is why movies are going to retain a certain cultural importance for a long time to come—specifically because of this.
But the rise of documentaries is related to the decline of European auteurs, and the failure of significant American auteurs to arise from and remain in the independent world in very significant numbers. If you look at the whole Sundance phenomenon, there was such promise there, but while you’ve got a few interesting directors coming up, most of them just go on to the majors or whatever. In the past, people would go to the independent theaters and art theaters for foreign films, and specifically the great tradition of European films. That has dried up.