This issue contains a micro-interview, conducted by Melissa Goldstein, with Gary Hustwit. Hustwit made his directorial debut with the cult typography film Helvetica in 2007, and last year released Objectified, which examines the world of industrial design. He has also produced I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, an outstandingly candid film about the band Wilco; Moog, a documentary about electronic music pioneer Robert Moog; and Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, a chronicle of Death Cab For Cutie’s Spring 2004 Transatlanticism tour.
THE BELIEVER: Does documentary filmmaking have the power to change the world?
GARY HUSTWIT: I think the films that you would maybe point to as the ones that have “changed the world”—An Inconvenient Truth or something like that—I think those are actually the ones that haven’t done that. They’ve maybe solidified a group of people who already thought that way. I don’t think anybody walked into An Inconvenient Truth on the fence about global warming or an opinion completely opposite with the film and then walked out a changed person. A lot of the social or political documentaries, the way that they’re made and the approach that those films take, is really preaching to the converted. It’s not going to bring anybody in. You’re not going to go to Bill Maher’s Religulous as a devout Christian, you’re going to go in there and know what you’re going to get, and he delivers exactly what you expect. I think the documentaries that can change the world are the ones that aren’t overtly trying to change the world—the ones that are a pure and straightforward observation by the filmmaker. The documentaries that can be powerful are the ones that aren’t trying so overtly to be powerful. The minute you try to put these big causes onto films I think is when you’ve already sort of limited yourself as a filmmaker and the film, too. It’s so personal as a viewer, when you watch a great film—documentary or otherwise—the things that change your life are not big things, they’re these little thought-provoking moments.
THE BELIEVER: Your films are filled with talking heads. What have you learned about human behavior from studying so much face footage?
GARY HUSTWIT: One thing that I’ve found when you’re having a conversation with someone, especially a long conversation, is that your facial expression is affecting the other person’s facial expression and back and forth: It’s a separate visual conversation that you’re having—a different layer of interaction. If I’m interviewing you, and we’re looking at each other, and your face is being affected by what my face is doing—and then you are talking about something you’re really passionate about and your face is lit up—well then, by extension, when the person in the audience is watching it, now they’re suddenly lit up because they’re taking those same facial cues from you, the person on the screen. There’s a thread of emotional content there going back from me, the filmmaker, to you, the subject, to the people watching. I think that’s fascinating.
THE BELIEVER: What stylistic debate within the documentary filmmaking community is especially polarizing?
GARY HUSTWIT: For the past few decades there’s been this argument between the vérité style of documentary—where the filmmaker is just an observer—versus the more “Michael Moore” style, where the filmmaker is an active participant, setting up situations and editing in a way that manipulates the subject matter. For true vérité filmmakers in that direct cinematic tradition, like the Maysles brothers or D. A. Pennebaker, there’s little or no interaction between the filmmakers and the subjects: that makes for a more objective, impartial view of reality. You can always argue that the fact that they’re there with cameras changes the situation; it changes the way people respond. But I think I’m in the middle between those two schools. I’m definitely not the biggest fan of the personal films where the filmmaker is in the movie and it’s “a journey” for them. When I see a film and the filmmaker is all over it, I cringe. When I’m watching a film I’m conscious of all the things that are taking me out of the story—really obtrusive music that the filmmaker puts in or weird camera angles. I don’t want to be conscious that I’m watching a film when I’m watching a film.