From RZA to Jon Favreau, artists, filmmakers, journalists and activists gathered on Aug. 26 for Variety‘s inaugural Truth Seekers Summit, in partnership with Rolling Stone and presented by Showtime Documentary Films.
The summit explored the art of documentary and investigative storytelling. Here are 10 takeaways from the two-day event.
RZA Was Inspired By Robert De Niro In Making His Series “Wu-Tang: An American Saga”
Speaking about the difficulties of writing about his own life and career in the format of a TV series, RZA said Robert De Niro helped him understand how to separate himself from the art.
“When I saw ‘Cape Fear,’ my brain clicked, because I’m such a fan of his,” RZA said. “I knew him from ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Goodfellas,’ and then here he was playing this psychopath. And he played it so brilliantly. It’s actually an artistic thing to separate yourself from art. I met Mr. DeNiro, and he’s not [Max] Cady.”
Conspiracy Theories Have Infiltrated Mainstream Social Media
In the “Weapons of Mass Disinformation” panel, writers, filmmakers and journalists gathered virtually to discuss how social media has amplified and accelerated the age of disinformation.
Cullen Hoback, producer, writer and director of HBOS’s “Q: Into the Storm,” said that while dangerous ideologies used to remain on the fringes of the internet, conspiracy theories now fester in mainstream social media, like Facebook and Twitter.
“If you look at the 2000s versus after 2010, you had a lot of these lo-fi forums like 8chan or 4chan, but the conspiracy theories and ideas that existed on those platforms remained on the fringe,” Hoback said. “In the last four to five years, what we saw is that they were escaping the chan. They were finding their way onto YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the algorithms were like gasoline on top of these.”
The Velvet Underground Were Not Always Considered Widely Influential
In his documentary “The Velvet Underground,” which tracks the legacy of Lou Reed’s band, Todd Haynes makes the case that The Velvet Underground were one of the most influential bands of their time, inspiring genres and generations to come. But the band saw very little success or impact during their career.
“[The Velet Underground] had no real commercial impact at the time,” Haynes said. “It’s taken decades for this band to gain its rightful place as a precursor to punk rock and new wave music and indie rock and glam rock.”
When speaking to Variety senior artisans editor Jazz Tangcay, Zackary Drucker spoke about “The Lady and the Dale” and how Liz Carmichael’s transition linked her to crime, along with the stereotypes that are within society today.
“She was a transgender woman who was also a felon on the run from the FBI and transitioned while she was evading law enforcement. When she was discovered, her gender identity was conflated with her identity as a criminal, which is totally textbook. Trans identity has always been linked to criminality — the perception that a man might masquerade as a woman to commit a crime.”
While spreading the word about vaccinations and social distancing through “Democracy 101,” President and founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, Dolores Huerta told Clayton Davis, Variety’s film awards editor that it’s remarkable to see individuals realizing that their one voice creates change.
“It’s kind of miraculous that once people find that they can influence, get people elected, take them out if they’re not doing their job and get the improvements they need in their communities, that they have that power, and we have a lot of leadership development that comes out of that and it can spread, and spread and spread.”
After creating two acclaimed films, “Gates of Heaven” and “Vernon, Florida,” Errol Morris told Janelle Riley, Variety’s deputy awards and features editor, that back in the day successful films weren’t enough to achieve high status in the documentary filmmaker industry — as one still needed financing and distribution. So he took a break to work in private investigation.
“At heart I’m an investigator. I was an out-of-work filmmaker after my second film, and I needed to earn a living, and I had the opportunity to work for a private investigator — actually one of the best private investigators in America, and I did it for three years. It saved my life really, because it provided an income and a job when there were really no jobs available to me in the film business.”
Crooked Media co-founders and “Pod Save America” hosts, Jon Favreau and Tommy Vietor spoke to Variety’s editor-at-large Kate Aurthur, about why they created a progressive media outlet — with Favreau saying it’s partly due to the lack of activism from traditional outlets.
“A lot of the news, and even some progressive news, can leave you feeling a little helpless because it doesn’t give you the tools and information to do something about the problems that we see on the nightly news every single day. We wanted to fuse together progressive news and journalism with activism so we could actually give people the tools and information to change the world around them.”
Stanley Nelson, director of “Attica,” hopes that his documentary reminds viewers that incarcerated people are human, too. The documentary focuses on the 1971 prison rebellion that remains the deadliest in American history.
“As we’re talking, there’s 2 million people in prison in the United States. They’re going to go to bed in prison tonight. They’re going to wake up in prison tomorrow morning, you know? [I want viewers to] think about those people. What prisons are meant to do in so many ways, in the United States and in the world, they accomplish. They want to lock people up and have us forget about them. And we do that to a large extent. So I hope that at the very least, [the film] makes people think about the fact that people are in prison right now.”
Nelson also spoke about the importance of mentorship, especially when it comes to portraying “the truth” on screen through documentary filmmaking. 12 years ago, he launched a documentary lab for emerging documentarians of color attached to his production company Firelight Films.
“We wanted to think about was, how do we give people a leg up? How do we give people a start? Not only myself but so many filmmakers were serving as mentors — informal mentors to other filmmakers and especially filmmakers of color. People would call me up, literally out of the blue, just saying, ‘I saw a film that you made and, uh, you know, you’re a Black filmmaker, I’m a Black guy, could you be my mentor?’ And it was not only me, it was other filmmakers, too. And so we wanted to try to think about institutionalizing this and making it something that was more of a program instead of just ad-hoc or catch as catch-can. And that became the idea for the lab.”
When speaking with Clayton Davis, Variety’s film awards editor, documentarians RJ Cutler from “Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry,” Sacha Jenkins from “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men,” Sam Pollard from “MLK/FBI,” Liz Garbus from “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” and Dawn Porter from “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer,” discussed the emotional truths behind documentary filmmaking.
Pollard said that when making such documentaries, it’s impossible to not get emotionally invested.
“You can’t help but bring your own personal feelings in when making a film. You’ve got to bring your personal feelings — that’s what makes these films different and unique. If you don’t bring your own personal perspective to the material, than you’re just a journeyman filmmaker who does what they’re told.”