In conversation: Charles Musser on documentary filmmaking

In February, “Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch,” a documentary film by Yale faculty member Charles Musser, had its world premiere at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Montana. Musser, who is a professor of film and media studies and the director of the Yale Summer Film Institute, recently spoke with YaleNews about his film, the art of documentary filmmaking, and how documentary filmmaking informs his teaching at Yale. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Who is Errol Morris and why did you choose him for the subject of your film?

Errol Morris is one of the leading documentary filmmakers of my generation. For the last 25 years I have been lecturing and publishing essays about his work. I also taught the first course devoted to Morris’ films, using a syllabus that we jointly designed. At the end of the course I took my students to the last work-in-progress screening of his documentary “Standard Operating Procedure” at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge. Afterwards he met with them and talked about his method of working and how “Standard Operating Procedure” was his best film.

My documentary began as a way to give Errol a voice after the harsh reception of “Standard Operating Procedure.” I curate a weekend of documentaries every summer for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, and bring in influential filmmakers such as Spike Lee and Sam Pollard. I wanted to bring Errol to New Haven, show his key films, and have a discussion both on stage and also with documentary scholars, some of whom had been critical of “Standard Operating Procedure.” When Errol wasn’t able to attend, we moved to our back-up plan and filmed a conversation in his Cambridge office. The interview proved to be something quite remarkable. We also ended up filming various scenes with Errol and his staff at work. It became a day in the life of Errol Morris. That became the premise for the film: what can you learn about an important American artist in one day? As it turns out, quite a bit.

What sets documentary filmmaking apart from other forms of filmmaking?

Documentary has the potential to be another form of scholarship, a unique means of investigation. The camera can act as a catalyst. It gives one the opportunity to go places where one could never otherwise go and to ask questions that one could never ask under any other circumstance. People often reveal their most personal secrets, which they would never tell you otherwise. Documentary filmmaking is a way to explore issues from a different perspective than if one was only writing about them. How to communicate these issues and how to tell the story, that’s what the art of documentary filmmaking is all about.

Your film recently premiered at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Montana. How did that come about? How did it go?

Errol Morris, documentary filmmaker (left) and Charles Musser, professor of film and media studies and director of the Yale Summer Film Institute
Errol Morris, documentary filmmaker (left) and Charles Musser, professor of film and media studies and director of the Yale Summer Film Institute

Big Sky was initially interested in a doing a retrospective on Errol Morris. It turned out that Errol was in Europe during the festival, but the organizers decided to screen my film anyway. A film festival premiere is like a big book party. Attending these festivals with a new film is a total pleasure and productive in all sorts of ways. I was able to reconnect with the present-day world of documentary in an immersive way. The technology and the modes of production, exhibition, and reception have changed so rapidly — for example, finding out how filmmakers are using social media to promote their films. That might seem obvious but it’s really fairly complicated.

How does documentary filmmaking inform your teaching at Yale?

Well it certainly gives me insights that I use in my critical studies courses. But since the budgetary crisis, I am once again teaching Documentary Film Workshop — a course I had taught off the books since I arrived at Yale, formalized back in 1997-1998 and was then able to turn over to several truly renowned filmmakers until the funding disappeared. Enrollment is a mix of undergraduates and grad students. Many of the undergrads are creating documentaries as their senior projects. The graduate students come from schools across the university, including GSAS, and make documentaries connected to their course of study. I act like their executive producer and help them think conceptually about their projects in the course of pre-production, production and post-production. Returning to teach this course has been challenging, and it is certainly one of the reasons why I felt it was important for me to make a new documentary. My last film, “Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter,” was completed in 1982. If one teaches filmmaking, one really should make an occasional film. At least for me, it was not enough to say, “Oh, I made a successful film back in 1982.”

What filmmaker will be featured at this year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas?

This year it will be Alan Berliner, an art-oriented experimental filmmaker who makes personal documentaries. His latest film, “First Cousin Once Removed,” was short listed for the Oscars. I find his documentaries to be emotionally powerful and intellectually engaging. And he is a thoughtful and dynamic speaker.

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