Tonight at the Little Rock Film Festival, Robert Greene is screening his feature length documentary “Actress” at 6 p.m. at the Historic Arkansas Museum. It’s really good — one of of our “Ten to Watch” picks — and it’s fun to hear Greene and subject (collaborator?) Brandy Burre talk about it, as they will tonight. Greene’s also in town to oversee the LRFF’s new cinematic nonfiction slate. Last week, I talked to the filmmaker/editor/critic about what “cinematic nonfiction” means, what his forthcoming book is going to focus on and how he self-identifies as an artist.
You’ve written a lot about this trend of hybrid fiction/documentary films and played with a lot of different terms — “slash films,” “unclean cinema,” “un-cinema,” — which are smart and provocative if you have some context, but for people coming to this with no background, how do you explain what the films playing in the cinematic nonfiction category are all about?
One of the key things is that it’s not really new. These are just movies. A lot of times documentaries feel like they have to convey information as their number one goal. Those films can be important and crucial to conversations about all kinds of things, a lot of times viewers can be alienated by the fact that they’re watching something that conveys a specific point. People that like movies — art movies and movies that are adventurous in different ways. These films are made for them. It’s not really about pushing formal boundaries. These are straight up cinematic treats. So a movie like “Manakamana” is just a character study. A movie like “Living Stars” is this experimental thing that’s super fun. And “Fishtail” is a Western. The idea is that we’re making movies that just happen to be made in nonfiction. I don’t want it to be so experimental that people are going to be alienated by the experience.
I’ve seen a little bit of “Manakamana.” It was definitely experimental.
To me, and I’m not the only one, it’s a treat. I think the idea is that these films are less about getting information across, which a lot of docs want to do or need to do and that’s their goal — it’s more about creating a moving cinematic experience.
If you watch the whole film, especially if you watch it with an audience in a theater, it’s a pretty transcendent thing. It’s very moving and funny. Obviously it’s experimental. There are fiction films that are experimental in different ways. Art houses around the country play films that use long shots, but as soon as you introduce it in a documentary, there’s a different expectation for what the movie is going to be communicating. To me, the film is really beautiful. It’s also an ethnography in its own way. The characters chosen and the moments chosen and the order its put in — its very subtle storytelling. It’s experimental, but I think a lot of the best arthouse films are experimental. The trick is when you go in and watch a fiction film, you know there’s control over the material, so you’re expecting something to happen. With a documentary, you need to look for other things. These films are cinematic experiences, but they’re also dealing with reality in different ways. By the time the goats show up in “Manakamana,” it’s really funny.
You’re working on a book called “Present Tense: American Nonfiction Cinema 1998-2013.” Why that period?
A couple of reasons. The book will personal. In 1998, I was 22 years old, and I was in college, and I went to see “The Cruise.” It was shot on a digital camera. One of the big reasons that this period has been a fruitful period for documentary and nonfiction cinema is that people could just pick up a camera and film. Experimentation is easily possible. The key thing about “The Cruise” is that it was made by a guy who went on to make Hollywood films, Bennett Miller. He wasn’t coming from a school, or a social issue background, or a ethnography background; he just wanted to make a movie. He found a character. He made it black and white. He found good music. It played in movie theaters. It was a very inspirational thing. That was a big turning point for me and viewers, that all docs don’t have to be serious and about uncovering something. It’s more about making a movie. It’s not necessarily a social issue thing from “Harlan County” to Michael Moore.
There’s no denying that over the last 15 years there’s been more and more interesting films made. There have of course been interesting films made outside of that period, but this period has seen a sort of surge … I’m concentrating on American cinema exclusively. In American cinema you pretty much have to figure it out for yourself. There’s very little funding for us [in America]. To me, that creates much more of a cowboy-like feeling of having to figure it out yourself.
You’re a filmmaker, an editor and a critic. Do you identify as one more than the other?
I’m a filmmaker. I’ve directed four features, I’ve edited 15 more. I have a family, and there’s very little money in making documentary films. Especially ones that can’t get large institutions to fund them. Because of that I have to hustle to do other things. My career as it has been up til now has been a culmination of a bunch people asking me to do different things and me saying yes because they’ll pay me money. Somewhere along the way I started writing and people started responding to that writing, partly because I am a filmmaker and I approach it differently than other people.
This is your third Little Rock Film Festival, right?
I came with “Kati with an I” a few years ago, and was really blown away by the festival. Little Rock is a cool town, and there’s a lot of energy surrounding all kinds arts institutions in the town. Plus, the festival gives you a Bill Clinton doll when you arrive. That’s the most important thing … I’ve used that to convince people to come. I’m dead serious.