Stop Expecting Documentaries To Be Everything

 

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As we learned from an animated fiction film this week, everything is awesome. But in the real world, everything is impossible. Not every thing. Everything. As in we can’t fit everything into a feature-length film, no matter the subject. So why do people demand that documentaries must include everything? Don’t they realize that to address every single aspect of the Egyptian Revolution would take as long as the actual Egyptian Revolution? Someone ought to remake Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, from the perspective of a documentary filmmaker aiming to be as exhaustive as is expected of her.

Such criticisms regarding insufficiency of information and context and scope and details come along with any nonfiction film, but occasionally this sort of thing becomes “news.” Last week, the New York Times published a piece on Jehane Noujaim‘s Oscar nominee, reporting from Cairo that “seemingly everyone here who has seen The Square has some complaint about omissions or distortions.” As if the film is obligated for whatever reason to provide a full and definitive history. Noujaim has responded with the typical defense, that it’s not supposed to be a journalistic account.

Whenever I see the “it’s not journalism” comment I’m reminded of the “it’s not a documentary” response that many in Hollywood give when similarly criticized for excluding or changing certain facts for a dramatic movie that’s “based on a true story.” So, what do the journalists say when attacked for not delivering every perspective and every who, what, when, where and why? At least journalism is supposed to be depended on for truth, if not for being everything. But it should include everything relevant to what it’s reporting.

Of course, many documentarians consider themselves to be journalists, to be a kind of reporter rather than an artist or mere nonfiction storyteller. That helps to confuse anyone who doesn’t see fundamental difference between a Frontline installment and The Square. Or who might not get the blurred line between journalism and infotainment found in something like Blackfish, which is aimed at influencing opinion and which means to get all the facts right yet also wants to deliver a narrative.

And what of the documentaries that aren’t necessarily journalism but are about a journalistic endeavor? Oscar nominee Dirty Wars, for instance, is first about Jeremy Scahill and his investigation, and then it’s about what that investigation uncovers. But the latter is what comes out on top for most viewers. First-person types don’t help, for sure. Michael Moore movies have, from the beginning, been more about him than anything. His approach has evolved some, but the introspective element will always be associated with his work.

The same is true of those who’ve come after Moore. Josh Fox‘s first Gasland is really about an artist documenting his own inquiries about fracking. But to many it was an introductory report on the issue and Fox’s continued interest and association with the issue has retroactively made it even more significant. With Gasland II he is often more journalistic, less personal, and as a speedily narrated, packed-in work, that documentary does seem intent on being everything. Everything on the issue, that is.

It’s funny, though, that in Gasland II Fox sounds ever more like a low-volume Hunter S. Thompson, and yet it’s the one less like a cinematic equivalent of New Journalism. For a while, overall documentary has been comparable to the New Journalism movement, especially given the inclination for many to make docs that are more like fiction films. That’s been great, as we love the abundance of films that are more cinematic nonfiction — akin to literary nonfiction, or the nonfiction novel — and just as the likes of Thompson, Capote, Wolfe, Didion and the rest weren’t confused with newswriters we should be able to easily distinguish between documentary and a TV news broadcast. Of course, most of them didn’t consider themselves journalists, “new” variety or otherwise, either.

If we want people to stop expecting everything with documentary, do we need to condemn if not also somehow squash those docs that are trying to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, ruining it for the more creative types? Should we be finding and promoting new ways to separate categories? Which one gets to be called documentary? Considering the term was first used to describe a Robert Flaherty film, I’d say the artistic variety owns it.

Those nonfiction films that are primarily observational in nature can be “actualities” again (just don’t call them Direct Cinema or verite). And those that consider themselves journalism can be “infomovies,” and those that are advocacy can be “feature length PSAs” (and like true PSAs should be free of charge) and the rest can be given their own new labels. Call the whole shebang the nonfiction film revolution.

Or we can just be smart about what we’re watching and not be nitpicky due to our own expectations of what we think something should or could or is supposed to be.

 

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2 replies to this post
  1. Great article.

    I’m reminded of the screening of “Return to Homs” I went to a few weeks ago at Sundance. This amazing documentary follows a group of young rebels throughout the Syrian civil war, in a cinema verit√© style.

    At the Q&A at the end of the screening, a snooty journalist stood up and asked a litany of questions about why this film didn’t include interviews with foreign diplomats, didn’t go into the international aid situation, the threats of Al Qaeda, the issue of chemical weapons, etc. She went on an awkward rant about how this film was doing a disservice to viewers by not providing a news-style overview of everything happen in Syria.

    The producer of the film answered succinctly: “What you’re asking for, ma’am, is a different film.”

    He explained, the documentary was a character piece. It follows a small group of activists-turned-rebels and tells the story from their point of view — the personal tragedies and struggles they went through.

    Return to Homs (quite justifiably) ended up winning the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize.

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