Last weekend I finally got to see The Departed (highly entertaining, but not Best Picture material). After getting home from the theater, I popped in a DVD that a friend lent me. It was a documentary called Billy the Kid. There isn’t much point comparing Billy the Kid to The Departed. Martin Scorsese is a legend working with a huge budget and the biggest names in Hollywood. Jennifer Venditti is a first-time filmmaker working with a tiny crew and a shoestring budget. Apples and Oranges.
But here is the thing. A few days after seeing Billy the Kid, the movie is much more alive in my memory than The Departed. Isn’t it encouraging that someone working with a video camera and a tiny budget can make something as powerful as an Academy-nominated film?
Similar thoughts occurred to me recently while I watched the documentary Tell Them Who You Are. Made by Mark Wexler, the film starts as a profile of his father, the legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler. But this rather boring biographical premise is quickly abandoned as father and son bicker about politics, family and filmmaking. (One of the most engaging scenes shows the two Wexlers yelling at each other about where to shoot an interview).
Wexler Sr. is an Academy Award-winning cinematographer. Wexler Jr. has made a minor TV documentary for National Geographic. His cinematography is weak. His premise is boring. But the resulting film is as engaging as many of the great films his father worked on.
The idea of making a film, however small, still seems hugely ambitious. I have a hard time trying to make a decent picture, much less ninety minutes of pictures. But the DIY spirit of documentary filmmakers is encouraging. If they can make movies that hold their own with the big boys, maybe there is hope for the rest of us.