The Decline of the Longitudinal Documentary

The Decline of the Longitudinal Documentary (photo)

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We’re in a Golden Age of documentary filmmaking right now. Having been on the festival circuit recently with our film, “At the Death House Door,” Peter Gilbert and I have been seeing firsthand the wealth and variety of accomplished documentary films being made here and abroad. And according to programmers, these festival films are being selected from hundreds and even thousands of submissions. Yet I don’t see a commensurate growth in the number of “longitudinal documentaries” — ones like “Hoop Dreams” or “Stevie” or Barbara Kopple’s “American Dream” (which Peter shot) that track people’s lives and stories over several years. For me, longitudinal docs are the most deeply satisfying form. Spending years following a story is the ultimate act of filmmaking discovery, because you don’t know where the journey is leading, no matter how perceptive you think you are. Indeed, you hope and pray you’ll be surprised, because if you stick with interesting people long enough, they’ll always surprise you — that’s the beauty of human nature. I used to equate filming “Hoop Dreams” to living inside a Dickens novel, because the fortunes of the two young men and their families would change so frequently and dramatically. (I equate “Stevie” to living inside a Faulkner novel, but that’s a different story.)

But as fulfilling as longitudinal filming is, it’s also hard. It’s hard to find funding, because many broadcasters like to know what they’re paying for in advance. One once told me, “You’re asking me to fund a fishing trip, and I don’t know whether you’ll bring back a big fish or a little fish.” (They didn’t give me any money.) Even when you get funded, it’s hard for filmmakers to juggle their obsession with filming everything with their need to otherwise make a living: spending four or five years filming 200 days on a documentary budget doesn’t work out to a very good “day rate.”

And when you collect 500 hours or 1000 hours or 1500 hours of material, you’ve set for yourself a formidable editing challenge. The story is told in the editing of these films. Indeed, if “writing is rewriting,” then “editing is reediting.” One cannot do an adequate job — much less an inspired one — in six months. A year is more like it, and I’ve been involved in editing films that have taken several years. Many a promising film has gone on to die in post because the filmmakers didn’t have the time, or resources, or patience to keep editing.

Then there are the human relationships of longitudinal filmmaking. If you spend years filming people, they will grow to be something more than just a “subject.” I’ve never thought of myself as a journalist, so I don’t wrestle over notions of “journalistic objectivity” and dispassionate observation, but that doesn’t prevent me from struggling with my desire to document a subject’s life in an honest way and still feel like a friend. When misfortune happens to people in your film, it’s usually good for the film, but not necessarily so for your relationship with them, or for how you feel about yourself. In short, you can feel like a leech on another’s misery. Someone once asked me, “What’s more important? To make a great film, to make an honest film, or to have a great relationship with your subjects at the end of the film?” They’re not mutually exclusive, but every experienced longitudinal filmmaker I know asks him or herself that question. Handled right and with a bit of luck, the misfortune you document should bring you closer to your subjects and make both of you feel that you have an important story to tell.

To pull off a successful longitudinal documentary really means having the stars align on so many fronts — no wonder it doesn’t happen too often. But when it does, for the viewer and the filmmaker, there’s no more compelling or moving a form. No other kind of fiction or documentary filmmaking can match its power to transport us deeply into the lives and experiences of others different from ourselves. And that is something that we need in this world now more than ever.

Steve James is the award-winning director, producer, and co-editor of “Hoop Dreams,” which won every major critics award as well as a Peabody and Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 1995. His latest film, “At the Death House Door,” is co-produced and co directed with Peter Gilbert and will make its television premiere on IFC on May 29th.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.