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.

Run, Cut, Slow: Films That Document Subjects Over a Decade or More

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Still of Idris from American Promise. See in select theaters across the U.S. starting this Friday.

You’ve heard of the slow food movement, right? That’s the school of thought that says our fast food nation/planet needs to slow down, and that the emphasis on quick grow, quick cook, quick serve isn’t healthy for our bodies or psyches.

Well, the same might apply to documentary filmmaking. The equipment is so cheap these days, and subjects are so eager — and primed — to open themselves up to the camera, and exhibition outlets are as accessible as a YouTube upload, that we’re capable of becoming a fast-doc nation. As a balance, I’d suggest taking a moment to appreciate the slow-film movement. I’m not talking about documentaries that feel slow while you watch, but films that document their subjects over a looooong period of time.

American Promise, the latest such film, was made over 13 years, and is coming to theaters this Friday. Directed by couple Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, the documentary tells the tale of two African-American boys — their son Idris and his best friend, Seun — as they age before our eyes, and navigate life in the mostly-white world of New York City private schools. The film, which airs on POV in February, is many things: a study of race and class, an exercise in first-person filmmaking, an analysis in parenting, but what I was most taken with was the vicarious privilege of watching these kids, and the filmmakers, grow during the span of the filmmaking.

That process of having so much time captured and condensed is illuminating. I’ve been thinking lately about the philosophical and biological concepts of the self, and how the cells that make up our bodies are in constant flux, dying and being replaced. The organism that is your body today is different than the one from 10 years ago.

This would suggest that what connects us to our former self is just our memory, and the people, patterns and material things that surround us. But it’s more than that. It’s a subtle and complex development as a person ages. And when you look at Idris in American Promise, you see that there is indeed something so essentially him, throughout the years. It’s fascinating.

But don’t just take it from me. Michael Apted, the director of the Up series, which started when its subjects were 7 and is now in its 56-year-old iteration, told POV, “I think their personality is set at 7. When you compare the 56-year-old personalities with the 7-year-old personalities on the whole you can see the 7-year-old and the 56-year-old and maybe that’s wishful thinking, but I got the feeling that one’s character is sort of set.”

American Promise joins this strong, if small, pantheon of long-time lapse films, the most famous being the Up series and The Betrayal, a beautiful film that covers 23 years in the evolution of a Laotian immigrant to the United States.

These are films that have time stitched into their DNA. And time can’t be bought or edited in, or dressed up with movie magic. You just have to wait.

What are your favorite documentaries that cover long spans — let’s say more than ten years — of time?

For more on the subject, check out the archived video #docchat about making long-term documentaries with Michèle Stephenson and Jennifer Fox (My Reincarnation).

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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