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

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher on Facts, Interpretations and ‘Off Label’

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As the online discussion of the New Doc Vague was heating up, I was contacted by director Michael Palmieri, who suggested I might want to consider the film he co-directed with Donal Mosher, Off Label, which comes out August 9, 2013, in theaters and digitally. The truth is, it was in the back of my mind throughout the conversation because the film is an unusual blend of storytelling, style and content. It tells of people involved with the pharmaceutical establishment, but it never makes a particular statement. It gives more vibes. The film is being released by Oscilloscope, which has practically cornered the market on films that are entering this new frontier of docs that embrace visual storytelling more than social messaging.

I have also heard Palmieri speak on a panel in which he clearly put both feet firmly in the sand as a filmmaker first and a messenger of messages last, so I welcome the opportunity to give him and Mosher the floor.

You should see Off Label, and see what you think. Hopefully, my discussion with Palmieri and Mosher will whet your appetite.

Doc Soup Man: Let’s start with you telling us what Off Label is “about,” and how it applies to this discussion about The New Doc Vague. (Yes, I use quotation marks because I already hear you asking, “Why does a documentary have to be about something?”)

Michael Palmieri, co-director of Off Label: As much as I hate the idea of describing a film in a logline - I believe it limits the understanding of what an audience should be looking for or could get out of any film, be it documentary or narrative – Off Label is loosely about how modern pharmaceutical medicine reaches into and implicates everyone in the American public. We followed eight unique individuals whose lives never actually intersect. Their common ground is either the medicine they’ve taken, the medicine they’ve sold or the medical constructs they’re embracing or fighting against.

I think reducing this film’s description to a pithy few sentences doesn’t do it much service though, because the film does not touch down on a single case, a single villain, or a single hero. It is multi-faceted, and thus about a variance of personal perspectives, many of which clash with one another. But taken as a whole we hope that this approach helps an audience to gain a better understanding of what we feel is going on right now in this country with respect to pharmaceutical medicine. The further we got into this subject, the more complicated and nuanced our perspectives became, so we wanted to honor out own feelings with these layered perspectives that might clash in the viewers minds. Sometimes I think a little gray is a good thing. There are no easy descriptions of this issue, thus no easy answers.

Donal Mosher, co-director of Off Label: I think the word “about” should be retired. I realize much non-fiction film is a form of essay so the question “What’s it about?” is perfectly valid, but I’d rather be asked “What does the film contain?” followed by ”What does it approach?” or some other seemingly loose question. Off Label contains stories about the way in which pharmaceuticals pervade American life, but what Michael and I are approaching in our feature films is a collection of portraits of how people are isolated by and cope with the systems that pervade American life.  I like the concept of approach because it allows style to be part of what the film is “about” as well. It also is modest – using the term “approach” suggests moving toward a subject or a concept but indicates that a complete arrival is not really possible or even the goal. I think documentary makers and audiences need to acknowledge the gap between what a film contains and what it is about or approaches.

Doc Soup Man: Your answers take me to a totally different question than I had planned… Why do you make documentary films? What drives you to be a filmmaker?

Palmieri: I’m drawn to making films because they provide the most comprehensive intersection of my own interests in photography, painting, music, literature and human psychology. But documentary filmmaking is especially rewarding because I never feel like I am in control. As much as I can be prepared, I really do not know what is going to happen or how people might react, so the entire process requires that I behave in a much more instinctive manner. I like to compare making a documentary film to going on an archaeology dig, where along the way you find some bones, but you don’t find them all. When you build up the skeleton and put it on display at the museum, it manages comes to life for the viewer if it is put together with care, even though it may be missing more than a few pieces. That’s kind of magical to me, inferring the whole from just a few pieces. Missing pieces are incredibly troublesome when editing a film together, but they can be a great gift, as they tend to lead you down an unexpected road to a solution to the problem at hand. So many variables paint you into a corner when you make a documentary, but you always have to find a way to paint yourself out. I like that particular challenge quite a bit.

Mosher: I make documentaries because I love negotiating the insanely tense relationship between factual life and our powers to interpret it. What I want from a filmmaker and the kind of filmmaker I want to be is a trustworthy and distinctive interpreter of life. I think there is a pervading fear of admitting subjective vision in non-fiction film and that’s a rather dated and evasive stance for the such a varied field of work. The films I love the most are soundly based on fact but they are also focused through technique and content choice on the personal qualities of the characters, the atmosphere of the settings and the textures of human life that shape both persons and places.  If I can take something from life worth presenting and merge it with my vision of life, or a shared vision with another, that’s the joy of it all.

Doc Soup Man: And now that we have set out some of the parameters of who you are and what your film is, I’d like to bring the conversation back to the discussion of the New Doc Vague, which, Michael, you said you think is relevant to your film. I’m trying my best not to sound like an ass, but what do you say to someone who complains that Off Label is vague because even though it seems to be focusing on people using prescription drugs, it never quite puts a frame around the whole picture? You’ve already answered this, in a way, so I’ll already give you a more pointed follow-up question: Do you think it’s wrong for people to criticize your film for not being the film that they wanted it to be?

Palmieri: If a person is doing their best to evaluate what the filmmaker is trying to say through the work itself, then I am able to engage their criticism in a healthy manner and hopefully learn something valuable from it. This is different from how I might react to a criticism that is based on the betrayal of a personal expectation, perhaps one borne out of seeing the film’s preview, its poster or a blurb that attempts to synopsize it in a pithy few sentences. “What’s in your medicine cabinet?” is the tagline to this film, which in reality says very little, but hopefully leaves an impression. It asks a question, which I think is important, and positions the viewer to perhaps become interested in a new film that has something to do with pharmaceuticals. But that’s all that the tagline – and the marketing campaign that grows out of it – can really do. What the marketing materials do not say is, “This is the film that best explains America’s pharmaceutical problem and provides you with the answers you’ve been looking for.” That may be what some people want, or what some people imagine the subject of this film to be, but if you go into Off Label with that impression, then you are likely to walk away frustrated.

One of the things I love about Off Label is how it attempts to parallel our belief in medicine and wellness with our personal religious inclinations. Donal might tell you that he’s most proud of how the film touches down on a specific kind of American loneliness that we are always examining in our work. I would not criticize a viewer for not picking up on these ideas, because they are presented in subtextual ways and are not the overt “subject” of the film, but I do believe we are examining those ideas as much as anything else in this film. I would not criticize a viewer for not being moved by these ideas either, because it may not be their cup of tea. I think that a person who is looking for something more cut and dry – a film that clearly identifies a villain and a hero, and wraps up things nicely in the end – is likely not going to get behind this kind of film. The more cut and dry film is different, and it makes for very entertaining, moving, and powerful work. I also like to watch these films, I am moved by them, and I support them. But I don’t like to make them, because I feel constrained by the way that they force me to think and work in a reductive manner. The pharmaceutical problem in America is a vastly interconnected system of money, faith, power and mortality. That is not something I can simplify. It is not reducible to a single villain, a single hero or a magic bullet. I’d be doing a disservice to what I have learned about this industry if I presented the issue in this manner.

Mosher: I think it’s a fair enough criticism to say we haven’t put a frame round the whole picture just as I think it would be fair of me to distrust a film which attempts to definitively frame such a vast and ever changing issue. We aren’t dealing with problems like wars, corruption in politics and the justice system, racism and other issues that exist around us. Prescription drugs and the abuses in testing and prescribing are issues that unfold in our bodies and minds. This is very frightening and confusing and the scale at which our entire culture is implicated is staggering. In this situation I feel people need many films, from those that give a factually sound expose to films like Off Label that are less concerned with defining the problem than elliptically observing narratives within issue. When it comes to “vague” my first point of criticism is this work “vague” as in “evasive” or “unfocused?” Or is it “vague” in the sense of loosely defined so that meaning and the viewer’s relationship to the text and subtext has room for expansion and unexpected associations? I hope that Off Label is critiqued by the latter terms but it really isn’t fair of me to ask that of viewers.

Off Label opens theatrically this weekend in New York City, Los Angeles and Missoula and will also be available on digital platforms. For show times and additional cities visit offlabelfilm.com.

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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