Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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Introducing a New Documentary Series on the Evolution of Documentary

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To Tell the Truth - a new documentary seriesWhat a great idea: a documentary series about the evolution of documentary. That’s what Cal Skaggs, David Van Taylor (A Perfect Candidate) and Ali Pomeroy, are working on. It’s called To Tell the Truth, and they’ve wrapped two (of six) episodes, which will be premiering this Saturday at the DOC NYC festival. You can get your tickets here: http://www.docnyc.net/buy-tickets/”

This may seem like a great thing to you and me, because we think about documentary all the time, but what about, like, normal people?

I spoke with Van Taylor, who said that they built the series for a broad audience. “We worked very hard to not make it inside baseball,” he said. “This series is a new way of looking at history.”

I watched the two episodes and Van Taylor is true to his word. The segments may be about nonfiction filmmaking, but that’s just the through line. They are just as much about the Dust Bowl, the New Deal, and competing propaganda machines during World War 2. And as it goes, the documentary filmmakers are the heroes — and sometimes, villains — of history.

“Documentary is adventure,” Van Taylor says. “These are people who risk their lives and who plum the human soul.”

The series’ vignettes in which “bold faced” names talk about “moments of truth” in documentaries that have moved them become key factors in connecting a more general audience to the world of documentary. Actor Alec Baldwin cites a moment in Gimme Shelter, the Maysles’ documentary about the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, in which you see a member of the Hell’s Angels watching Mick Jagger being watched by members of the audience. For Baldwin, it shows the transition between the uber masculine male and “something different,” in Jagger. I couldn’t agree more. The moment is so perfectly captured in the editing and Baldwin’s narration, that it gives me great hope for this series.

“It’s precisely an attempt to connect people to documentary who don’t think of documentary as interesting, but who think Alec Baldwin is interesting,” says Van Taylor.

The first episode will be about the dawn of cinema and creation of the documentary form, but I’m most interested in how they plan to represent the past ten years or so. “We have to grapple with how documentary has always struggled in the shadow of fiction film but how now it’s experiencing unprecedented success,” Van Taylor says. “Can it survive success?”

As the old adage goes, know your history to know yourself. It would be a great boon for docs if To Tell the Truth gets the right financing and distribution agreements so that all of the episodes can be completed and viewed by audiences. The screening at DOC NYC is a step in that direction.

“We’re really excited to see it with an audience,” Van Taylor says. “And we are hoping to have a calling card to go to potential funders and say, ‘look, this is something people want to see.’”

Speaking of those moments of truth, which I think will most galvanize audiences this weekend, Van Taylor says, “We think of it not only as a way to promote the series but as a way to promote the whole form of documentary.”

The DOC NYC screening of To Tell the Truth will take place on Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 1:30 PM in New York City. For tickets and to find out more information, visit the DOC NYC website.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki