Who is the director? Albert Maysles and Werner Herzog take two positions after DOC NYC’s opening night premiere of Herzog’s doc Into the Abyss.

“We are storytellers,” Werner Herzog told the audience at the screening of his film, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, which opened the DOC NYC film festival on Wednesday night. “I am the director. I direct the movie.”

(Read a preview of DOC NYC 2011.)

It’s a point that may be obvious to many, and anathema to others. Documentary film has changed from the golden era of cinéma vérité in the 60s and 70s, when the Maysles brothers (Salesman, Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) were pioneering the form. It’s a common refrain now, that documentary film cannot be a fly-on-the-wall genre, and that directors manipulate reality on many levels, from their shot choices to the editing.

It may have all been said before, but this ever-evolving genre has few grand patriarchs, and Herzog is one of them, so when he talks, we listen. And not only is Herzog a documentary film icon, he’s also the most successful example of a director who has had a career making both nonfiction and fiction (The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, Rescue Dawn). James Marsh (Man on Wire, The King) and Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound, episodes of “The Office”) are having a go at it, but Herzog has made more than 60 films, so they have some catching up to do. (I consider Martin Scorsese a fiction filmmaker who sometimes dabbles with nonfiction.) The tension between directing a piece of fiction and directing nonfiction is particularly relevant to Into the Abyss, a bleak look at the death penalty through a murder case in Texas, for which one of the culprits was executed.

I say it’s relevant because when Herzog makes a documentary, he makes his presence felt. He has a poetic, wonderfully dramatic, some might say Germanic, way of looking at the world. His somber narration, with occasional spouts of whimsy, works well when he’s digging deep into 30,000-year-old caves (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) or excavating the depths in Anarctica (Encounters at the End of the World), or even when he’s following the tragic story of an idealist bear-lover in Alaska (Grizzly Man). But when Herzog tries to imbue a crime story with the grand poetry of life, he misses the mark.

What was particularly provocative about his statement at NYU’s Skirball Center, however, was that Albert Maysles was in the audience. After the screening, I asked Maysles what he thought of Herzog’s pointed words. “‘In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director,'” Maysles said, quoting Alfred Hitchcock’s famous line, with an impish smile.

I asked Herzog what he thought of Maysles’ retort. Herzog shook his head and spoke solemnly. “No. I am the director. I could be the most devout Catholic, but I am still the director.”

If I may infer here, the only godliness that Herzog would associate with his films is in his concept of “ecstatic truth.” Loosely interpreted, Herzog aspires to reveal more than an objective truth in his films. It’s a truth that only artistry and great skill can conjure on a screen. When I asked him where he sees “ecstatic truth” in Abyss, he referred me to something one of his subjects said about appreciating all the hummingbirds in the world.

See what I mean? The guy has a poetic sensibility, one that doesn’t always work in a crime-sleuthing documentary.

Into the Abyss will be released in theaters starting Friday, November 11, 2011. DOC NYC runs through November 10.

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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