At one point during Angela Ismailos' documentary Great Directors, an investigation into what gives great filmmakers the passion to make their art, John Sayles says, "Every movie is political." While Ismailos gets some of the world's most revered directors to talk about their art, she does seem more concerned with the idea that it's politics -- the need to affect or comment on social structures -- more than any other force that seems to define the best moviemakers.
Ismailos sat down with some of the biggest and most well-respected helmers in the world including David Lynch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Todd Haynes, Catherine Breillat, Agnès Varda, Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, and Richard Linklater. As the film opens, she spends a few minutes with each of them discussing how they got their start in the business, and the variety of ways they got their feet in the door should be inspiring to any aspiring director.
But very quickly after that she focuses on the idea of politics as the driving force for these artists, and she offers ample quotes from them to support this notion. From Breillat's insistence on expressing her characters' sexuality, to Linklater's take on the socioeconomic scale in America, to Ken Loach and Stephen Frears offering up scathing indictments of Thatcher-era England early in their careers, the movie locks in on this topic and doesn't let go for a good third of its running time. Luckily, almost all of them have fascinating things to say, none more so than Bertolucci, who explains how even the look and style of any film you make is inherently political, as you either accept or reject your culture's aesthetic status quo.
Eventually the conversations slide from the political to the personal with the filmmakers talking about the artists that most inspire them (Haynes discussing Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "monstrous desire to create" is a highlight), and explaining how having children affected their work.
In the film's opening, Ismailos claims she's making this movie in order to learn about the directors that motivate her, and while that could have easily turned into an endlessly fawning valentine she does a savvy job of never staying with any one of the filmmakers for too long. She keeps the movie humming along without making it seem like she's shortchanging any of her subjects.
Great Directors won't teach you how to be a great director, but it does offer a valuable lesson in how passion -- in whatever form it takes -- can be the ultimate muse.