Some time ago, the book reviewer Sarah Goldstein came up with a term for a type of book which the author sets on a particular mission, the definition being, “Books perpetrated by people who undertook an unusual project with the express purpose of writing about it.”
These types of books, which range from “Walden” to “Eat, Pray, Love,” presume that the author is proactively pursuing a story, and is part of it, rather than observing passively, and in a third-person role. Goldstein called such books “schtick lit“.
And since more and more documentaries are doing this as well, I’ll further coin a sub-genre of “schtick flicks.”
Schtick flicks as successful as Academy Award winners The Cove, Born Into Brothels and Bowling For Columbine have been a counterpoint to more traditional interview-based films, such as Inside Job and Man on Wire.
One documentary I’d put it in the schtick flick category is the entertaining More Than A Month, in which filmmaker Shukree Tilghman sets out to end Black History Month. The film will be seen on PBS in February during Black History Month.
Tilghman says the Byron Hurt documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes influenced him to take on the issue as a cross-country vérité-style journey.
“I decided I could do something like that. The initial idea was not that I’d be in the movie. I would speak to people and other people would take over the story. Marco Williams (of Two Towns of Jasper and Banished, on which Tilghman was a producer) got involved as executive producer and said ‘This film is about you and this issue.'”
Tilghman, whose previous credits have included both documentary and reality television work, has always taken issue with placing black history in the “coldest, shortest month.” And when he saw Morgan Freeman talking about his disdain for Black History Month on “60 Minutes” in 2005, it drove him to do something about it. He drew inspiration from other first-person films — and not all documentaries.
“I thought of films like Sherman’s March, definitely Morgan Spurlock, definitely Michael Moore, and believe it or not, Annie Hall,” he says. The 1977 Woody Allen comedy had been a favorite on Tilghman’s in both the way Allen’s character spoke directly to the audience and also how the film used cut-away moments that might be called “re-creations,” but are more fanciful illustrations of the point, often comic in form.
“When you go to a lecture, people often start with a joke — I thought if we dealt with the issue too seriously and we had all talking heads, it wouldn’t be as good. The re-creations were where Annie Hall came in. I must have watched that film 12 times during pre-production. Because here was the opportunity to break out of the film for a second and either make a joke, or illuminate a point, and to entertain in a little way – to say, ‘Hey, you can laugh.'”
Some such moments that were written but never shot, and some that were shot and weren’t used. “Even some of the stuff that made it in, depending on the audience or the mood I’m in watching it, may be a forced joke. For example, some people may not get the Stanley Kubrick 2001 reference.”
The film took Tilghman to nine cities, and resulted in about 250 hours of footage. He shot with a Sony PMW-EX1 and a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, cameras that gave the film HD quality at a reasonable cost. The film, like so many documentaries, began modestly, but shooting the highest-possible quality for cost was important. Often, interviews were conducted on the street or in busy settings, rather than in a formal and controlled interview mode to give the film a feel of the tapestry of everyday life.
“We wanted it to feel like a journey, in which you’d been somewhere, both in terms of physical space and insights. We could have done this film as talking-head experts. It was intentional to not make it feel like that.”
More Than a Month premieres on PBS during Black History Month on February 16, 2012. For more information, visit the film’s official website.