With Hollywood Productions on Hold, Documentary Filmmakers Keep Going

Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer know about putting themselves at risk for their work. While they were shooting thousands of hours of footage for “The Square,” the 2013 documentary directed by Ms. Noujaim and produced by Mr. Amer on the popular uprising in Cairo, they were often in the middle of the action in Tahrir Square, where the military shot protesters and dispersed crowds with tear gas. Some of their footage was confiscated, and Ms. Noujaim was arrested and held for 36 hours.

Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, conditions are arguably more difficult, they said.

“At the height of the revolution, things got pretty chaotic and our office was raided,” Mr. Amer said. “That was a visible threat. You knew when the army was coming for you. This is not like anything we’ve seen before. This is an invisible threat that’s affecting every single member of the production team.”

Mr. Amer and Ms. Noujaim are not the only documentary filmmakers who have managed to keep busy at a time when nonfiction programming — Netflix’s “Tiger King,” ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” Apple TV Plus’s “Beastie Boys Story” — has been all the rage for people stuck at home. Unlike directors of dramas and comedies, who are dependent on film sets where social distancing is all but impossible, documentarians can more easily make adjustments.

R.J. Cutler, the director of the 2009 documentary “The September Issue” and an upcoming Showtime film on John Belushi, has been collaborating with his editors on Zoom as they complete postproduction work on a documentary for Apple TV Plus about the teenage singer-songwriter Billie Eilish.

“We doc filmmakers are an adaptable bunch,” Mr. Cutler said. “We are going to do our best to not be slowed down.”

Joe Berlinger, who made the acclaimed 1992 documentary “Brother’s Keeper,” has been racing to complete the first docu-series on Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire who committed suicide last year in a Manhattan jail cell after he was arrested on sex trafficking charges.

Mr. Berlinger, the producer of the Epstein series, has been working remotely with the director Lisa Bryant ever since New York officials enacted stay-at-home orders in March. His team took what they needed from the RadicalMedia office in Manhattan and got to work on color correction, graphics, sound mixing and scoring in their apartments. The series, “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich,” will be available on Netflix this month.

“We felt it was important to be the first one out of the gate,” Mr. Berlinger said.

For other projects, Mr. Berlinger started the editing process before filming was done. That unconventional approach has allowed him to stay on schedule.

“When you start editing before you finish shooting, it’s not always ideal,” he said. “But we have several series where we shot enough material that we came up with a game plan to keep working.”

RadicalMedia is also producing “In This Together,” which captures life during the pandemic. It includes video shot by a nurse and a pregnant Covid-19 patient and will air Friday as part of the nonfiction PBS series “American Portrait.”

Now at home in Connecticut, Mr. Howard has asked World Central Kitchen staff members to chronicle the experience with iPhones and other cameras. He watches their work daily and advises the ad hoc crew from afar.

“Right now we are just lucky to be getting footage,” Mr. Howard said. “I’m just trying to deputize them a little bit.”

“They don’t work for me, but I’m trying to get them to not only cover the moments but to ask a couple of questions,” he added, “whether it’s to someone receiving food or to understand what the volunteers are going through.”

Rudy Valdez had planned to be filming Carlos Santana during a concert tour right now. Instead, the director is doing what he can: conducting audio interviews with his 72-year-old subject for the documentary, which will tell the story of the musician’s life and career. The film is being produced by Imagine Documentaries, a division of Imagine Entertainment, the studio founded by Mr. Howard and Brian Grazer. Imagine Documentaries is also producing “The Day Sports Stood Still,” centered on how pro athletes have been dealing with the crisis.

As they work toward completing their latest projects, documentarians are wondering what’s next for them and nonfiction film in general.

“I think the most fascinating thing is, we don’t really know where it ends,” Mr. Amer said. “Does this change the way we make films for right now? Or does this change the way we make films forever?”

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