Alex Gibney on the State of Investigative Documentaries and the Stories That Are Currently “Difficult to Get Made”
With an Academy Award under his belt and a production company that routinely works with top distributors, Alex Gibney is one of the privileged few name brands in documentary film. After directing a number of films and series that focused on corporate and institutional malfeasance, and public figures’ moral ambiguities (Going Clear Going Clear: Scientology Prison of Belief, Taxi To the Dark Side ), Gibney’s credits have come to define documentary’s ability to rigorously investigate.
The director and Jigsaw Productions aren’t immune from the ups and downs in today’s corporate entertainment market. streamers continue generating audience and buyer interest through docs. However, industry titans consolidate and cut costs as Wall Street becomes more bearish about streaming and a possible recession looms. “There are simply fewer buyers.” Gibney speaks out about recent corporate mergers like the Warner Bros./Discovery merger. Gibney said that this is a big concern because it has led to CNN Films ending its work outside producers.
On Nov. 12, Gibney will attend Poland’s EnergaCamerimage International Film Festival to receive the Camerimage Award for Outstanding Achievements in Documentary Filmmaking, rewarding his work as “an investigative filmmaker whose oft-controversial films reveal both the ugly and the beautiful sides of the modern world.” In its retrospective, the festival will showcase his film about the Donald Trump White House’s response to COVID-19, Totally Under Control; the portrait of Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Citizen K; We Steal Secrets, a deep dive on Wikileaks’ origins; and U.S. torture expose Taxi to the Dark Side.
Before departing for Poland, Gibney spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the award and the current state in the documentary market. He also discussed why he believes that filmmakers should be more like “guerilla bands” than armies in today’s climate.
Camerimage has said that in your appearance at the festival that you will discuss “the power, responsibility and ethos of a documentary filmmaker.” Given that documentary right now refers to such a broad umbrella of subgenres, what is the responsibility of a documentary filmmaker at the moment, in your view?
Ha! This is a big question. I think the simple answer to it is to make truthful films and good films. The definition of documentary is really broad. I believe they are films, cinema. The question is, how do you fulfill your promise to the audience? How can you take them on a journey and prompt them to ask provocative questions through images that encourage them to think critically about important issues? Many of my films are about moral inquiry, and I think a lot about it. My films are not meant to provide easy answers, but I do think that this moment in time is a good time to reflect on my thoughts. One of the problems we face on the planet at the moment is that so many people are locked up in prisons for belief, to borrow a phrase from one my films. We are starting to see the world through black and white. I think, while I’m a big fan of black and white cinema (laughs), I think even the best black and white cinema showed powerful shades of gray which is designed to illuminate who we are as human beings. That’s what will ultimately bring us together. It’s not that problems aren’t important or that it’s not important for people to fight for causes. While I believe we are flawed as human beings, the great thing about us is our ability to imagine a moral universe. Only by acknowledging our own mistakes can we realize our potential. This is a complicated answer to your simple question. If you can make sense of it, god bless you.
You’re known and being honored in part at Camerimage for your investigative work. Which investigations have been the most difficult or from which did you learn the most in your career?
Taxi from the Dark Side Going clear , Wikileaks We Steal Secrets The Forever Prisoner – all of these were extremely difficult. They were often difficult because it was difficult to get people to talk and hard for you to get the information you needed because so much of the information was kept secret. The most important thing I learned from investigative work was about human nature and self-deception. In Taxi from the Dark Side we see that believing that you’re on the right team gives you the right to torture people. Even though those who started that policy knew that torture produces information that flatters the torturer rather than that which provides the essence of a deeply investigative set facts that can lead you to the truth. It is terrifying to think that we use brutality to justify our beliefs and to be gratified rather than to find truth. I would say that in difficult investigations, where you have to investigate facts and witness testimony, and also have to deal with the fact people may not remember the details or lie to you, they taught me a lot more about human nature than the facts. In the films I made, I tried to reflect that.
What’s your take on the state of investigative work in documentaries, compared to how that space has been in previous decades? Is this a time when you see a lot more strong work that really challenges powerful entities and individuals, and that work being supported properly?
While I see some great work in this area, I think it is not being properly supported. I believe that documentary is now more popular than ever and can be financially viable. There are documentary deals that aren’t possible years ago, with the possible exception being Michael Moore films. My wife used to remind me when I was just starting out that I should never mention “documentary” in a job interview. So you can see a lot of money flowing from large corporations but also there is a vested interest for those corporations to not offend anyone. When you’re documenting abuses of power, this is exactly what you need to do. I have [Werner] Herzog on the mind because he was just given this career achievement award by DOC NYC, and I was at some event, I was sharing a stage with him, and he said something like, “A lot of people like being a fly on the wall” — talking about documentarians — “I say, don’t be a fly, be a wasp and sting!” (Laughs. )
You have to sting when you’re reporting on abuses of power. This is what you do: to illuminate the world and shine a light on injustice. It works this way: Nobody comes out with a corporate statement saying, “We’re going to make any films that offend anyone,” but when it comes time to pitch, you have a very dramatic story that involves taking down powerful forces, they don’t get funded. The true crimes with no consequences are those that get funded. By the way, while I love true crime and I am passionate about it, true crime of consequence is what interests me: Crime of the Century is about true crimes, but it’s also about how pharmaceutical companies use their political power to murder people for their profit. It’s not a happy tale, but it’s also not one that will just go to goose people. The profile of famous people is another. So, great. It’s a great time. While you are making explosive films, you must keep your feet on the ground and hide in the dark.
I want to get back at the conglomerates’ moves in a bit but right now a different question. There has been a recent trend towards adapting documentaries specifically for limited scripted series.
Yup, I know that. Someone did it on one of my computers, but didn’t bother paying me.
Yeah, it was The Inventor [Gibney’s 2019 HBO documentary]. Now of course they say it’s [Hulu’s 2022 scripted drama The Dropout] based on the podcast, on the ABC podcast [The Dropout], but if you look at the visual landscape, I think you’ll see a lot more of The Inventor in there than anything that ABC did on air.
What has the industry’s perception of docs, the new hip form IP, meant for your business? Are there any drawbacks or benefits to this trend.
There are no drawbacks to this trend, as long as you don’t see them [documentaries] in IP. The very thing I was complaining about, I actually love. Nobody can copyright a fact. Once you put it [a documentary] out, it’s available for anyone to talk about, adapt, or mess with. By the way, I think docs can be used to develop IP for fiction as long as it isn’t considered IP. This means that you don’t consider it to be “I own this story.” I think it’s extremely valuable to use the strange world of reality as a source of compelling fiction that doesn’t follow a pre-digested formula. I think docs make great dramas. Werner Herzog has even made their own docs into dramas. I think of Little Dieter ] What was the Christian Bale movie?
Yeah. It’s so good. This idea of IP is a way to think about intellectual property. Docs are everyone’s property, which is the great thing about them.
Relatedly, we’re been seeing a wave of scripted projects based on real events that have prompted loud criticisms from some of the real people involved for lack of outreach or depictions they feel are unfair, like in the case of Dahmer or The Staircase. Jigsaw is both in documentary and scripted spaces when it comes adapting true stories. What do you think the storytellers have to do to include the people who actually experienced these events in their stories?
This is a complex problem. It’s worth trying. Sometimes, however, you have to tell a story that might make the subject uncomfortable. Would Dick Cheney have gotten deeply involved in Vice? As you may know, Jigsaw was a producer for a scripted series called The Looming Tower ,. There were many people involved, real-life people. We did reach out to a number of people in CIA and FBI, but not all of them were happy with the final film. That’s the reality of it all. You have to tell the story where it takes you. Not what the subjects want you to tell it. I doubt Looming tower would have made everyone happy about the story we were telling. It is important to be as challenging as possible and to do as much work as possible to reach the subjects of a story. However, at the end of it all, you must draw your own conclusions about the truth.
As I’m sure you’re aware, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras recently criticized Hilary Clinton’s move into documentaries and her festival appearances, saying that they were “whitewashing” her activities while she was in power. What do you think about former politicians entering the documentary production industry, such as Clinton and the Obamas?
First of all, I believe that anyone can make a documentary about any topic. However, you must always remember the source and author. A documentary about Hillary Clinton’s life, written, produced, and directed by Hillary Clinton would be something I’d like to see. Would she be honest? She wouldn’t? While I appreciate Laura bringing this issue to my attention, I don’t believe authorship is the problem. I believe the problem is a type of coalition of power. So, if powerful corporations are able to make output deals with powerful politicians, then how can they speak truth to power? Or are we now putting power to truth? However, the Obamas’ production company produced American Factory I loved that film. I am always suspicious of deals that further consolidate power or limit discourse.
How do you find the market for documentaries? Have recent pullbacks in distributor spending and/or CNN Films shifting away purchasing documentaries from outside vendors had an impact on your ability to find them?
Yes. It has had a significant impact on the market because there are fewer buyers. That’s a big concern. I hope and believe that this will be true. People may be more willing to return to the theaters now that COVID is over. As the dinosaurs grow in size and power, you will see smaller players, independents, finding interesting ways to bring powerful stories to market. I remember when I was just pre-Enron [Gibney’s 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room], right around the time when Eugene Jarecki and I made The Trials of Henry Kissinger, the landscape for documentaries was very much a corporate landscape, it was all cable and every cable channel had an identity and you had to bend your ambitions to the will of the channel — in other words, this is our house style, and you will now produce your film in this house style. There were certain subjects you could talk about. For example, there was no network that would allow us to make a critical film on Henry Kissinger. What happened? We went to a film festival. The Human Rights Film Festival showed the film, people were selling the tickets for like 10 times the value, and suddenly a very small theatrical distributor called First Run Features picked up the film. It was shown in Film Forum for four years, which created a buzz. The film was then sold by people for like 10 times the value. Finally, it was cast on The Sundance Channel as a cable.
This is a long way to say that this is a good time for alternative distribution methods and for independent filmmakers to get started. Instead of broadcasters selling viewers to advertisers by producing the most boring and widely accepted content, early Netflix and HBO proved that people will pay for compelling dramas, funny comedies, and incisive documentaryaries. Because they’re far more interesting than the corporate-manufactured pablum that broadcast networks are providing. That’s what I think we’ll see again. I made something recently, I’m trying to be a little bit cautious about this, but let’s just say I’ve seen companies complain that such and such project only got 40 million views. They are complaining and they are sad. Well, 40 million people to me is a lot of people and if they’re 40 million really enthusiastic people, that’s a lot better than a billion aimless viewers.
What stories are most intriguing to you right now in terms of their story possibilities that you haven’t yet committed to working on?
One of my greatest regrets is that Netflix decided to cancel or not to continue more than two seasons in a series I called Dirty Money .. Dirty Money was a way to examine corporate crime but also allowed creative filmmakers to use their own voices to find unique ways to speak truth to power. There are a lot of these stories out there. If you read them, you’ll be captivated. It’s difficult for me to get these made at the moment.
We are finding, however, that sometimes, and this allows documentarians to be creative and not just complain, podcasts can be a great way to tell those stories. We recently teamed up to tell a story about Trevor Milton with the Wall Street Journal . This is a great story about a huge fraudster and the colorful character at its heart. It was produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, an extraordinary woman who now works with us. It’s a podcast, but it’s a well-told story that’s engaging, provocative, and compelling.
It makes sense that this would occur in podcasts ….
It can also happen in docs. If the subject is important enough, it’s possible to find a cost-effective way to accomplish it.
In your opinion, where is the best work being done in documentaries right now, other than Jigsaw Productions.
I am open to all kinds of interesting and unique work. I was transported by a Nancy Buirski [Desperate Souls Dark City and The Legend Of Midnight Cowboy ] film about the making Midnight Cowboy ,. I saw the quirky film Turn every Page about Robert Caro’s strange relationship with Bob Gottlieb, his editor. The very personal [Naomi Osaka ] about Naomi Osaka is my favorite. The beauty of this moment is that you have these wonderfully idiosyncratic, authored documentaryaries that continue to inspire, engage our curiosity, and to explore new worlds that we don’t know exist except through the eyes these filmmakers, or “ecstatic truth,” as Werner Herzog used it.
Interview was edited for clarity and length.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.