Interview: Alex Gibney on exposing the Catholic Church and giving voice to the deaf in 'Mea Maxima Culpa'
In addition to the still-controversial area of dramatization, Gibney is open to other modes of experimentation with the documentary form, and describes rigorous purists as “a bit of a bugbear.” “Critics can say what they like about the films, but very often, there's a certain expectation of documentaries that they're supposed to be like PowerPoint presentations,” he says. “I see documentaries as movies. So when I see some critics writing that we could have done without the recreations altogether – well, perhaps. But in this case, I think not: I think the audience gets an emotional power from them that the survivors themselves have recognized. But then, I recently did a film about a hockey player – a tough guy, an enforcer – and used no narration and no recreations. It all depends on what that story seems to demand.”
Gibney professes to be delighted by the growing number of recent films that are bending the so-called rules, blurring the line between documentary and drama in provocative but productive ways. From this year, he cites Bart Layton's acclaimed debut “The Imposter” – “It plays like a feature, mingling real characters with actors, saying each other's words in ways that are very powerful” – and Sarah Polley's upcoming family memoir “Stories We Tell” as exciting examples of where the form can go. We spend a good few minutes jointly gushing about the latter film, which cleverly plays on our perception of Super-8 home movies to uncover surprising truths.
“Polley's not tricking the audience, she's letting them in on the device in a way that I think is very important,” he says. “Who says documentary has to be a certain way? Who wrote that rulebook? I'd like to find them and kill them. Many people have this memory of traditional TV documentary-making that aims to portray pure reality, and I just don't see that as the only option. And I think it's fantastic that more films are resisting that idea now.”
As an active member of the Academy's documentary branch, Gibney hopes to see voters – many of whom are, at this point, wary of more radical creative innovations in the field – embracing a wider range of achievements. He's as interested as the rest of us to see if this year's overhaul of the voting system, which includes dissolving the voting committees and revising eligibility criteria with an emphasis on public theatrical releases, has a discernible effect on a category that has repeatedly bypassed works of great artistry and significance.
“There's a wide range of views in that branch of the Academy about what makes up a documentary and what doesn't,” he says. “My view is quite fluid; others feel strongly that one should observe a more rigid definition. So we'll see. I think the changes were intended to eliminate a certain kind of abuse, and they've caused other problems. But we should let the rules roll this year and see where we get in the end, and then review them.”
Though he acknowledges that “you can game almost any system,” Gibney is pleased to see the back of the committee system, by which films were voted onto the shortlist by an assigned smaller group of voters within the branch. “If you were a member of a committee and a film came before you that was made someone you dislike – or you had a certain distaste for it because it didn't fit your perception of a documentary – you could kill that film just by giving it a very bad score. And that was a shame, because it shut out a lot of very deserving films: 'Senna' was one, Steve James's 'The Interrupters' was another. They didn't get their shot with other voters, which was wrong.”
He admits, however, that the alternative system does demand that voters watch an unrealistic amount of films. Even as a dedicated voter, he doubts he'll get through the box of 70 screeners he's been sent to consider. With projects about Fela Kuti and Lance Armstrong already in post-production – he tells me he likes to hop between lighter and weightier subjects – it's easy to see why he doesn't have much spare time on his hands. One hopes, however, that “Mea Maxima Culpa” catches the attention of his fellow voters.