Six directors of standout 2023 documentary features gathered at The Hollywood Reporter’s Los Angeles offices in mid-November for THR’s annual Documentary Roundtable.
Among them were two revered veterans with Oscars to their name: Davis Guggenheim (2006’s An Inconvenient Truth), who helmed Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, a film about the life and struggles of the beloved actor who was stricken at a young age with Parkinson’s disease; and Roger Ross Williams (2009’s Music by Prudence), director of Stamped From the Beginning, a film about the history of anti-Black racism in America. Meanwhile, the first-time filmmaker, twice-Grammy-nominated producer D. Smith profiled four Black transgender women who have performed sex work in Kokomo City.
Nicole Newnham made a documentary portrait of a person once famous but now largely forgotten: The Disappearance of Shere Hite, about the titular sex researcher and her landmark 1976 book about female sexuality. And two other directors embarked on projects without knowing where their story would lead them: Madeleine Gavin, whose Beyond Utopia follows a South Korean pastor and some of the desperate people he tries to help escape from North Korea; and Oscar nominee Matthew Heineman (2015’s Cartel Land), who, in American Symphony, shadows musician Jon Batiste and his wife, Suleika Jaouad, during a year in which Batiste experiences his greatest professional success and Jaouad faces her greatest personal battle.
The sextet discussed their paths to these projects, expanding notions about what techniques are acceptable in doc filmmaking, and why, despite this being a golden age for docs, many in the community are terrified about the future.
Madeleine, one doesn’t really see many documentaries from inside or even about North Korea because it’s almost impossible to make one. How did you learn about the network of people trying to help North Koreans escape, and what convinced you to make a film about them?
MADELEINE GAVIN One of our producers had acquired the rights to a memoir written by Hyeon-seo Lee called The Girl With Seven Names. Hyeon-seo had defected from North Korea in the late ’90s. I read it, and it was stirring, haunting and began to intrigue me about that world. I embarked on months of research, becoming obsessed about what was really going on inside North Korea. Then I found hidden-camera footage that was being shot by incredibly brave, determined North Koreans who were literally risking their lives to get the truth of their country out. Seeing what they’re being exposed to, the way they’re being educated, the way they’re being shrouded from the rest of the world, I became outraged. I met Pastor Kim, a South Korean pastor, and eventually he and I formed a bond and decided to work together, and he opened up a whole world for me.
Davis, you’ve made docs about a wide variety of prominent people, including Al Gore, Malala Yousafzai, Bill Gates and now Michael J. Fox. Do they have anything in common? And what led you to Michael?
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM The thing that I look for is a character that moves me and can influence my own life. During COVID, I was depressed. My family was fine, but my kids and wife would all be laughing and I’d be on the couch by myself, just feeling like I was getting older, my kids were getting older and my best films were behind me. Then one morning, I picked up The New York Times and read an interview with Michael J. Fox, and he had such wisdom about him. I read his book, and then I read his other book, and I was like, “Wait a minute.”
MattHEW, you’re known for gutsy docs that have brought you into crazy situations: vigilante groups taking on Mexican drug cartels, ISIS-occupied Syria, a New York City emergency room during the early days of COVID And Afghanistan during the U.S. military withdrawal. American Symphony is no less powerful, but different. Were you looking for a change of pace? And how did you wind up in the orbit of Jon Batiste?
MATTHEW HEINEMAN Jon did the score for my film The First Wave. We were having dinner afterward, and he was telling me about the next year of his life, which included “American Symphony” [an unconventional symphony he was composing], and we turned to each other and were like, “Yeah, we should probably document this.” At that point, it was going to be just a process film leading up to Carnegie Hall, with him traveling the country and gaining musical influences from different people. Then life intervened. He was nominated for 11 Grammys, and his wife, Suleika, was re-diagnosed with cancer, so the lens had already shifted before we’d even started filming. People ask me, “Why did you do this film? It feels so different from everything you’ve done before.” I don’t view it that way. I always try to make films about people whom I find compelling, who are undergoing some sort of challenge.
D., you come from the world of music, but in recent years, you’ve said you felt pushed away from that community and pulled toward filmmaking. What spurred those feelings? And what led you to the trans women at the center of your directorial debut?
D. SMITH I decided to transition in 2014, and when I did that, literally all my relationships and funds just disappeared. Like Davis, I went into a dark place, and for years I just could not get back on my feet — I lost my car, my home, my recording studio, my friends. Around 2019, I had the idea to do Kokomo City, because there was a lot of transgender content, but I felt that there was this glass barrier that we weren’t getting past as trans people in the Black community. I thought, “I have to tell the story of true transgenderism and where we are today, and instead of using the girls that we’re normally seeing, I wanted to use girls that look like the girls that are normally murdered.” So, I reached out to them on Instagram and created Kokomo City.
Nicole, you co-directed a great documentary, Crip Camp, that employed archival footage to tell an important story that had largely been forgotten — and then wound up doing that again With Shere Hite. How did Shere Hite first cross your radar?
NICOLE NEWNHAM It’s funny because both Crip Camp and Shere Hite became really archivally rich projects, but I didn’t know about the archive for either when I set out to make them. Shere Hite was the sex researcher who wrote The Hite Report, a seminal  work that liberated many women and men by teaching that most women do not orgasm through vaginal penetration but rather through clitoral stimulation, which was a massive bombshell in the culture at the time. We live now in a post-Shere Hite world, but Shere Hite herself has been forgotten. I read the book when I was 12 — I found it in my mother’s bedside table where she hid things she didn’t want me to see — and it was a portal into a world of female sexuality that was not otherwise available to me at that time. Like Davis, I picked up The New York Times at the nadir of the pandemic, and I read her obituary. The headline was, “Shere Hite: She Explained How Women Orgasm and She Was Hated for It.” I just was burning to know, “How did she do the work she did? And how did this massive contribution get forgotten?”
Roger, Stamped from the Beginning is drawn from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning story about the history of anti-Black racism in America. Why did you want to adapt it into a film now?
ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS George Floyd happened and changed everything in America. We watched nine minutes of someone being brutally murdered, and everyone had an emotional reaction. I live in a tiny farming town, and even white farmers were carrying Black Lives Matter signs on their tractors. I was like, “Oh my God, finally people are realizing that Black people matter.” And I started thinking, “What can I do as a filmmaker?” I made it my mission to tackle racism and the legacy of slavery. That’s why I did Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, an HBO special, and then The 1619 Project with Oprah and Nikole Hannah-Jones. Throughout that time, Dr. Kendi had the No. 1 New York Times best-seller for over a year, How to Be an Anti-Racist, and the No. 6 New York Times best-seller, Stamped From the Beginning. I read both. Stamped blew me away because it’s the history of racist ideas and takes you all the way back to the creation of the racist idea that Black people are inferior and therefore need to be enslaved. It opened my eyes, and crazy me, I was like, “I’ve got to figure out how to take this 600-page book and make it into a 90-minute film.”
Many docs today employ techniques that make them more dynamic than docs of
yesteryear. We have docs with animation, VFX, reenactments, etc. What changed?
WILLIAMS Back in the day, it used to be that documentaries could only be talking heads, and the Academy’s doc branch members, if there were re-creations or anything outside the box, would be like, “Nope, you’re out.” But the streamers came in, provided a lot of resources and money and a wide audience, so we started training people to rethink what a documentary is. I used actors on a 360 greenscreen stage, rotoscope animation and needle-drop music. It’s a fun ride through racism, which is kind of crazy.
GUGGENHEIM The great thing right now is that you can do anything, but the hard part is if there’s a feeling of inauthenticity. When audiences feel like you’re pulling one over on them, that’s when it matters. So you can use animation, re-creations and all these tools that you weren’t allowed to use back then because they said you couldn’t, but I think audiences are smart and know when you’re fooling them.
Many of you couldn’t have made your films without earning the trust of your subjects. Matt, your cameras were in the room when Suleika experiences some of the most personal and difficult moments a person can experience. How did you get to that point?
HEINEMAN Trust is key to everything I do, and that trust isn’t given, it’s earned, and you have to earn it day in and day out. At the beginning, Suleika did not want to be part of this film. She was very clear when we started filming: “This is Jon’s film. I don’t want to be the sick antidote to Jon’s success. I don’t want to be the sick wife.” That was a difficult thing to navigate because I envisioned this as a love story about these two individuals confronting these obstacles, but she didn’t want that. It took a lot of time to make her feel comfortable about my intentions and what this film would be before she allowed me to film her side of the story. I didn’t know until we were done shooting whether she’d sign a release.
Let’s talk about the importance of how one begins a documentary.
NEWNHAM Mine starts very intentionally with Shere on the cusp of presenting her great new work. An NBC News crew has come to her little basement apartment where she made The Hite Report and they’re interviewing her about the project. She’s excited about what she’s about to share with the world because she thinks it can be revolutionary and create better relationships between men and women. There she is in 1976 on a major news network talking about that. Then we cut to her in 1994, and she’s watching that same footage. We were really committed to that beginning because it started out with her before she was denigrated, when she was being listened to, but then there’s the tension of knowing that she’s looking back at herself with trepidation and the interviewer in ’94 is signaling that something went wrong.
WILLIAMS I open my film with a question, “What is wrong with Black people?” And I end the film with the answer. The reason I did that was to be provocative. I wanted people to be signaled right from the top that this isn’t going to be some boring historical documentary, and I wanted to shock people, just get their attention right away. But it’s also because the last line of the book is the answer to that question: “The only thing wrong with Black people is that you think something is wrong with Black people.”
We’re in a golden age for docs, given that there are Multiple streamers and other platforms through which Docs go out to the world. On the other hand, the sheer volume of content makes it harder to break through the noise and get people to actually watch something. How do you do that?
HEINEMAN We went to everyone to get this film funded and no one wanted to fund it, even after Jon won five Grammys, so we had to make it independently. It was the first time I’d premiered a film without a distributor in quite a while. Then Netflix and the Obamas came on board [as distributor and executive producers, respectively]. I think we all love making films and want to keep making films, and obviously this [promoting a film] is part of the job, too.
NEWNHAM With Crip Camp and with Shere Hite, we took a lot of inspiration from the spirit of organizing that’s in both films. We really wanted this film to reach younger audiences, so having Dakota Johnson come on board as an EP and narrator was really exciting.
Film festivals are also important, no?
GUGGENHEIM Sundance is incredible. Scripted stuff at Sundance is hit-or-miss, but documentaries at Sundance are always great. As a consumer, I’m like, “Well, if it was at Sundance, I’ve got to watch it.” But filmmakers are scared right now, to be honest with you. The business is shifting, the fundamentals are shifting. Even though the streamers have spent a lot of money, they haven’t proved that they can make money, and there are a lot of filmmakers right now who are really worried: “Can we sustain this?” I hear people saying, “Well, this kind of movie is selling and this kind of movie is not selling.” But if I can’t go to bed because I’m thinking about a film, I have to make it and forget the noise. And if you devote your life to it, if your heart and soul’s in it, then you’ll find somebody who will watch it. I hope.
WILLIAMS Davis is right. Documentary filmmakers are struggling now, and there are many films that aren’t selling that are serious films but aren’t about celebrity or aren’t a music film. The streamers and buyers need to answer to their boards and CEOs, and they need to make money, and big names make money. It’s hard. Stamped came along in the wake of George Floyd, when they were buying lots of “Black product.” Then the buyers all of a sudden were like, “Oh, we’re no longer interested in Black product.” It was a struggle to get this out there, but we need it now more than ever because we’re coming up on an election year, we’re in a time when books are banned, when you’re not allowed to talk about slavery. It’s crazy. Kendi’s one of the most banned authors in America. But you can’t ban Netflix.
GAVIN At Sundance, our film received the audience award for documentary, and we were told by our sales agent that we were going to get multiple offers, that there was going to be a bidding war. But day after day, no offers came in. In the end, we had zero out of Sundance. It was months after that of us having to face the fact that this film may never be seen by anyone. Finally, we did cobble together a very unorthodox release and Roadside came in.
Did you get any feedback about what the resistance was? Was it fear that there could be a response from North Korea like there was to the Seth Rogen movie The Interview, which supposedly led to the Sony hack?
GAVIN It was probably related either to North Korea and the whole The Interview situation or to China, because China is very complicit with North Korea. Our film is not about China, but China is a player in our film. But no, we never got a straight answer.
When you’re considering what to make a doc about, does it factor into the equation that you may face resistance to certain subject matter?
NEWNHAM Of course it does because we all have to survive. We have to get another project made and we have to make money. I mean, promoting Shere Hite is an incredible privilege, but it’s also a year of not getting paid. So all of that is a reality, and I think it’s a bit terrifying, people’s resistance to anything that’s slightly political. I find myself thinking about “Trojan horse films,” things that might be commercial or appealing but within which I can put a message that’s important.
HEINEMAN Another of the scary trends is that executives aren’t willing to take risks on anything, especially not knowing what the end of a film will be. So for someone who’s making vérité films, unless the second or third act is on a platter for them, they’re not going to take a risk. That’s certainly something I’ve seen through the past 20 years of doing this. Every year it feels like they’re less and less willing to take a risk.
The urgency of some of these stories is apparent even in the things that have happened since they were made. I’m sorry to say that’s the case with Kokomo City.
SMITH Yeah. In March, three months after Sundance, we lost Koko Da Doll [one of the four trans women featured in the film, who was murdered]. The entire purpose, the absolute motivation for me to do the film, was to show an updated side to the transgender narrative. Press the reset button, press restart and let me show you what’s really happening. We’re in love. We have support from our families. We have jobs. We’re safe. And we love to laugh. That’s all I wanted to do. I tried to avoid trauma with all my heart. One of the last DMs she sent me was, “I have a story to tell before I leave this earth.” And as tragic as it is, it’s very divine and wonderful that I was able to meet her and film her and talk to her and hug her. In the future, people are going to be able to find her when they need to hear her.
WILLIAMS I have to thank you for your strength and your bravery. There’s nothing stronger and braver than a Black woman and a Black trans woman.
What’s been the most meaningful feedback that you’ve received about your film?
WILLIAMS There’s a character in my film called Phillis Wheatley, who was a young Black artist and poet. She was questioned by white men, including John Hancock, “How could you have written these poems?” She had to prove it, and she proved it. That’s what we call “a Phillis Wheatley moment.” I’ve had countless Black people come up to me in tears and tell me their Phillis Wheatley moment.
NEWNHAM The most meaningful thing to me is to have younger people come up to me and say that knowing the story of Shere Hite and having this topic resurfaced is healing to them.
GUGGENHEIM When I talked to Michael about doing this movie, he said to me: “No violins.” There’s this moment in the film where you see him wake up. We’re used to seeing him as Marty McFly jumping over the hoods of cars and things like that, but now you see him when he’s 62, struggling to walk to the bathroom, brushing his teeth as his hand is shaking — and then he makes a joke. And at the end of the screening in Sundance, he grabbed my hand, squeezed it and just said, “Thank you.”
SMITH One of the most memorable responses for me was also the night of our premiere in Sundance. A Black woman walked up to me, five months pregnant, and said, “I can’t wait for my husband to see this film. This film inspired me to love my child differently.”
HEINEMAN To screen the film for Jon and Suleika and to have them acknowledge that I got them right? That meant the world to me. And there’s been tons of patients and caregivers who have come up in tears.
GAVIN The emotional response of audiences, feeling a connection with people halfway around the world who they’d never even thought of before, has been incredible. And of the North Koreans, who now have become family for me — they’ve been traveling with us, So-yeon, Pastor Kim and the Rowe family. It’s been the response on both sides that gives me hope that we can inspire compassion and some kind of change in this crazy world.
This story first appeared in a December standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter