Filmmakers on Film: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

In order for us as humans to advance, we need to look to the past. This is something that we as a people have had trouble with, and it is astonishing how few film students have any knowledge of what came before, despite having a limitless amount of films at their fingertips. Thus, I reached out to notable industry members and asked them to recommend one film to film students and young filmmakers and explain their choice.

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for FREE SOLO. Their last film, MERU, was shortlisted for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar nomination.

The following are their recommendations:

ECV: I would recommend that everyone see Chris Marker's LE JOLI MAI [co-directed with Pierre Lhomme] which chronicles the algerian war, this is for non-0fiction, that chronicles the Algerian War through interviews with people in Paris during the Algerian War so it's a documentary essay and it's just an amazing way of looking at the power of nonfiction itself and of understanding how the conflict is really about how we perceive it, and also shining a light on how it's so far away from necessarily the people who we say we're fighting this war for. The second film would be the act of killing which i think is just a total innovation in our genre that happened within my lifetime and within my oprctice, as I'm making documentary films I witnessed Joshua Oppenheimer make a true innovation in the genre because he handled his ethical issues with such integrity and you witness join camera these people who are the worst of the worst, they've committed the worst of the worst crimes, and they don't understand what they've done, actually coming to understand what they've done, so its kind of one of the greatest examples of how the act of making a film affects the lives of the subject. It's a very good way of foregrounding transformative experience for both filmmaker and subject which is kind of the point of nonfiction, but as a storyteller, I would say that film literacy probablustarts with literature literacy and the iliad, the odyssey, and the anaeid, and Ovid, and so a story is a story is a story in both non-fiction and fiction.

JH: I felt the same way about THE ACT OF KILLING when I saw it a few years ago at the theatre.

ECV: And theres no manipulation by the filmmaker. There's something about how he approaches making this film that is so honest and lyrical, it's both entertaining and non-manipulative which I think is a really hard line because but i think thats because he's focusing on the subjects, like when he has that throw-up scene, that gagging scene at the end, you know the subject has transcended his particular crime, you know he's actually come face to face with this horrible crime through this process with the filmmaker and i knew it's probably non-fiction at its finest, and it actually related to LE JOLI MAI by Chris Marker where the people who Chris Market interviews are also being faced with what is being done in their name by the French government and its just. I'm currently preoccupied by the intersection of craft and ethical value. As nonfiction has become more entertaining, there are decisions that are being made that are easy but are really far away from the truth, and that matters because I think you can do both - you can make an entertaining film that is both totally faithful to truth and something significant, but i think that we're seeing a lot of films that are, because of the popularity of documentary, are engaging in the entertaining side or trying to be different but not saying something that's true to the spirit of the film or the subject itself.

JH: I agree with you and have spoken with many people about how the entertainment value of documentary is eclipsing the value of substance. With this golden age of documentary has come this need to sensationalize that's bringing down the format.

ECV: But it's different than even reality television because reality television declares itself, it's very honest in what it is. It's when something arrives that's like a documentary but it's actually not a documentary or it's a hybrid of a documentary without thinking about. It's not meditiating on truth vs. fiction, it's just doing this to be entertaining. I think in its best form, it actually works and is true to the emotional truth of the story, but we're seeing a lot of not so good forms of it.

Chai and Jimmy discuss before she answers for Jimmy.

ECV: Jimmy probably would've said SENNA because it's a really good example of a film that makes you care and live and breathe and believe in a subject matter that is completely foreign to your reality, and it represents the top of our craft. Everyone should seen SENNA. It is exquisite storytelling and mindful storytelling, and it manages to do a lot when the subject is even dead. I think SENNA is one of the great documentaries of our time.