As Questlove, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker in his own right, said onstage at this year's 95th Oscars, the power of documentary filmmaking is in the "unique lens and points of view" of the filmmaker. Now, the Academy's new podcast, The Art of Documentary, is delving deeper than ever before into the minds of some of the field's most influential voices.
The podcast is hosted by filmmaker, sound designer and activist Jim LeBrecht, who co-directed 2020's Oscar-nominated Crip Camp with Nicole Newnham. Episodes feature in-depth conversations in which documentarians share personal stories and chronicle their unique filmmaking methods. Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts or at the bottom of this post.
Episode 6: Roger Ross Williams
When Roger Ross Williams won for Best Documentary Short Film in 2010, he became the first Black director to win an Oscar. The film was Music by Prudence, about a young, disable singer living in Zimbabwe and her journey of overcoming the odds.
The filmmaker still remembers watching a tape of Prudence singing for the first time. "I burst into tears," he says. "I was like, this is it! This is my destiny! I've never been to Africa...[but] I just quit my job, and hopped on a plane, and went to Zimbabwe with very little money and resources."
"That’s where I got the bug to make documentaries, because I was so moved by the story, and the power of story to transform the way you see the world," Williams explains. He followed Music by Prudence with 2013's God Loves Uganda and 2016's Life, Animated, which was nominated for Best Documentary Feature. His recent films include 2019's The Apollo and this year's Love to Love You, Donna Summer.
"When we tell our stories, our stories aren’t just about the pain," says Williams. "It’s about the resilience, and the joy."
Episode 5: Garrett Bradley
New York City-born and raised filmmaker Garrett Bradley discovered her love of documentary films early on, and through it, she discovered her voice. "When I was given this camcorder in high school, it was the first time I was able to share with the world what I was seeing and how I was seeing it," she reflects.
Through her work, Bradley is now able to amplify the voices of others. In 2021, she received an Oscar nomination for her documentary, Time, a stirring portrait of a woman's fight to get her husband released from prison.
"No one is a subject in my mind," Bradley says. "It's really about going on a journey with somebody, and establishing a common ground about what it is that we feel we can contribute to the world? What is it that we feel the world needs right now?"
"I actually think everything we do is for everybody. I don’t really think we ever make things for ourselves," the director adds. "I think we’re here to share and to contribute. And, when we feel like we’re doing that effectively, it feels like you’re being loved, you know? Communication — effective communication — is love."
Episode 4: Kirsten Johnson
DP-turned-filmmaker Kirsten Johnson broke out with 2016's Cameraperson, an autobiographical look at her journey working behind the camera as a documentary cinematographer for more than 25 years.
"I think of images as relationships. The camera is involved in the relationship, and what kind of camera it is, and the size of the camera, and how familiar or not I’m with the camera is a part of the relationship," says Johnson. "But for me, it's almost always about the humans that I'm interacting with and what's at stake."
In 2020, she released Dick Johnson Is Dead, in which she prepares her elderly father for death by staging various scenarios in which he could die. The documentary won the Jury Prize for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling at Sundance, and Johnson won the Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program.
"Should I be filming this? Can I? What am I doing? How?" Johnson remembers thinking. Ultimately, she allowed those questions to live within the film — "as opposed to trying to pretend they're not there, or pretending we've got it all figured out, or pretending we know what to do... to share that searching and that questioning on camera and in the edit."
Episode 3: Chase Joynt and Aisling Chin-Yee
Chase Joynt and Aisling Chin-Yee co-directed 2020's No Ordinary Man, which looks back on the life and death of trans jazz musician Billy Tipton, and at the greater history of representation of gender and sexuality in media.
"As minoritized subjects," Joynt says, "we are used to being scrappy, and finding what we can in very imperfect historical documents and places, and ripping it, and transforming it, and making it usable in the present."
Alongside interviews with LGBTQ+ historians and Tipton's son, Billy Jr., the documentary features recreations of his life staged with trans performers. The music, however, is original to Tipton. "There are the things that he did consciously leave behind," explains Chin-Yee. "That's where his voice is, that's where you hear him touch the piano keys instead of us doing a recreation or anything else that would feel not truthful to his actual experience."
Episode 2: Bing Liu
Bing Liu made his feature debut with the 2018 coming-of-age doc, Minding the Gap, which was a Best Documentary Feature Film nominee at the 91st Academy Awards.
Growing up a Chinese immigrant in suburban Illinois, "I felt awkward and I didn't feel like I belonged, so I would just ask people about their parents or something, and it became like a superpower in a way," Liu reflects on his journey to documentary filmmaking. "Having a camera means that you have a weird sort of agency and power within social settings."
He followed Minding the Gap with 2021's All These Sons, an empathetic look at ending gun violence in Chicago's South and West sides. "You want the world to be better," says the filmmaker. "You don't want the people that are coming up behind you to have to go through the hell you went through. That's been a motivation in my life for a lot of things that I've done."
Episode 1: Danny Cohen
Danny Cohen is the director of the documentary Anonymous Club, which he shot on 16-millimeter film as he followed Australian musician and songwriter Courtney Barnett over three years of touring.
"After the first six months, I was like, 'I feel like I just don’t need to be shooting shows,'" he explains. "Because the plan was never to make a music documentary that had non-stop music, you know? I wanted a story. I wanted something deep. I wanted something that people could relate to universally — not just Courtney fans."
Seeing how the final film resonated with audiences, Cohen reflects, "I had a lot of people come up to me afterwards and be like, 'I just want to be Courtney’s friend...' It’s those sorts of responses that I really want Courtney to see, and feel, and understand. That, by being so vulnerable, people can connect to you. And they see who you are, and they understand."