No one of us is just one thing. But it’s tempting to think that when we get to know a particular filmmaker, he or she won’t stray too far from the expected. That’s typecasting, which can be a trap, but I think we all do it.

Michael Moore makes Michael Moore movies, right? It’s the big guy against the powers that be. Errol Morris makes Errol Morris movies. It’s the weirdness of being human. Alan Berliner makes Alan Berliner movies. It’s the weirdness of being Alan Berliner.

I’m not passing judgment here; Yankee pitcher Mariano Rivera is really good at throwing a baseball one way. His ability to do one thing incredibly well is awesome to watch. But it can be limiting the way our preconceptions calcify. Like, what, Alex Gibney, the guy who made serious movies about Enron and Afghanistan could also sink his teeth into a trippy journalist, with Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson? Or, this year, Anne Sundberg and Ricki Stern, chroniclers of injustice from the USA to the Sudan, can turn on a dime, and make a celebrity profile (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work)? Yes, they can!

This came to mind earlier this month when the Sundance Film Festival announced a new category of Documentary Premieres; films about “big subjects” or “by master filmmakers.” I looked at the list and immediately thought, “Hey, what’s Liz Garbus doing making a doc about a chess icon (Bobby Fischer Against the World)?” Up to recently, she’d been known for serious documentaries about prisoners, politics and troubled youth. I look forward to seeing Garbus tackle something so different.

A Still from 'The Interrupters' by Steve James

A still from Steve James’ The Interrupters

As for the others; Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato remain interested in the realm of celebrity and sexual politics with Becoming Chaz, the story of Chastity Bono’s transition from female to male. Morgan Spurlock will no doubt use humor again to pop holes in consumer culture with his movie about branding, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Steve James, the guy who made Hoop Dreams, stays in the ‘hood to look at ex-gang members in The Interrupters. And Eugene Jarecki, who made the great The Trials of Henry Kissinger, is taking on another power of evil (my words) in Reagan.

There’s nothing wrong with staying in one’s wheelhouse. But let’s take a moment to imagine the possibilities. What directors would you want to see take on something totally new? Could Michael Moore make a movie about cute, fuzzy animals? Would Erroll Morris sit down with teen moms at a detention center? What about Barbara Kopple — could she make a rockumentary? . . Oh, wait, she did. Kopple made the pretty good, Shut up and Sing, about the Dixie Chicks. Who would have thought?

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen