Over the past 30 years, Ron Mann has built a formidable reputation in the underground documentary fraternity, making films that speak about counterculture movements in North America. Starting as a 23-year-old, the Canadian’s first film, Imagine the Sound, examined the free jazz movement of the ’60s through the compilation film format — stringing together interviews and performances to tell a story. Since then, using different devices, his films Twist, Grass, Go Further, and Comic Book Confidential, among others, have become important archives of movements that have had far-reaching effects on the world as a whole.
His latest film Altman — a biographical film on the director Robert Altman, who changed the cinematic language of Hollywood — sees him breaking into the mainstream. Mann takes time out from being a juror for the International Competition section at the 16th edition of the Mumbai Film Festival to talk about his work.
Did you start off knowing your work will be an archive of these counterculture movements or were there other motivations?
In college, I went to see a performance by jazz multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk. I was a fan and wanted to make a film on him. But six months later, he died. I realised just how ephemeral culture is. The knowledge that if you aren’t documented, you don’t exist, hit me hard.
The reason I made these films is partly because I wanted to meet all the people I was a fan of. But I also look at myself as an archivist and a researcher. I’m very happy if you leave me alone in a library. I know that generations after me will look at these films and read up on these movements. That is my real intention. I might be a documentary filmmaker, but I am also a
Documentaries that become a historical archive, also have a responsibility of representing them wholly. How did you capture these movements?
When you are making a documentary about culture, you have to either love your subject, or intensely like it. I grew up reading, listening to music and looking at art from the ’60s. Many of my films capture this significant time. These art movements reflected changes in society and that is what I have tried to portray. For example, in Grass, you see peaceful, non-violent people smoking marijuana, who are thrown into jail. I feel like it was my responsibility to talk about it.
When making archival documentaries, how do you choose what to keep in the film?
My mentor Emile de Antonio said that true history lies in the archives of TV stations. Filmmaker Federico Fellini once told Robert Altman that movies are actually the entirety of the outtake. So there is a lot of value in all the footage I have collected. But I add as much as I can. For Comic Book Confidential, I released a 45-minute uncut version for Blu-ray. For Altman, I have interviews with celebrities talking about him, which will be a bonus on the DVD. Someone recently said on Twitter that he can’t wait for the 80-hour uncut version of Altman on Netflix.
Altman is your first film based on a personality. How difficult was it?
Altman was incredibly difficult. I had the responsibility of representing someone else’s art. When his wife asked me what I am going to do with the film, I told her I had no idea. Altman too, used to say he only had a foggy notion of what he wanted to do with a film. This is more intimate than other documentaries I have made. But after Venice, a few people came up to me and said that they want to go home and watch all his films. I think that is the intention — for people to realise how important his films are.
Now that the mainstream has its eye on you, does it affect your filmmaking?
People have been asking me that, and it’s been amazing that at every festival, there are people wanting to buy the film. But I think the point of finishing a movie is so that you can start your next one. Then you drink enough wine to forget how difficult they are to make in the first place.
Is it fair to compare one film to another because they are works of art?
Competitions are important to recognise talent. To point out to the world that there is a great thing here and you must check it out. Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court was absolutely great when I watched it at Venice and if it didn’t win the award, no one would know about it. I will essentially be looking for a film that surprises me, one that offers me something new.
Altman will be screened on October 19 at Cinemax Versova at 6.30 pm and on October 20 at PVR Citi Mall at 10 am.