Should Film Reviews Avoid Criticizing a Documentary’s Subject?

From the Doc Blog archives, Christopher Campbell argues that it's improper to criticize documentary characters in a review.

Grey Gardens documentary subjects
Portrait Films

This post discussing film criticism regarding documentary subjects was originally published on the Documentary Channel Blog on July 16, 2012.

The headline raises a question I’ve answered often in the past, as I think it’s fairly simple: film critics should review films, not their subject matter. This is mainly the case for documentaries. I can not stand when a film review concentrates on agreeing or disagreeing with the politics or issue or thesis of a documentary. A critic can judge the structure and rhetoric of the arguments made by the filmmaker but not what’s being argued.

Even more important, critics shouldn’t judge the people in a documentary, at least not in a review. What they think while watching is sometimes their own business. It was perfectly fair for Walter Goodman in his New York Times review of Grey Gardens to call the film a “circus sideshow” and accuse the Maysles brothers of exploitation, but I don’t think it was right for him to treat the Beales as crazy or pathetic or write of their “sagging flesh.”

Such mean-spirited criticism of real persons on screen is happening a lot this week in reviews of The Imposter, an issue raised by none other than the film’s titular subject, Frederic Bourdin. He and I discussed the matter in depth on Twitter last week after I posted his video addressing the matter. Since then, he has taken particular offense with David Edelstein’s positive review of The Imposter, with its negative review of Bourdin, for New York magazine. Here are the most judgmental bits:

The film centers on a homeless, 23-year-old French-Algerian wacko named Frédéric Bourdin […] In my view and, likely, yours, anyone who would contact a family that had suffered the most nightmarish tragedy imaginable and pretend to be an almost certainly dead child deserves a one-way ticket to Abu Ghraib.

Now, it could be said that anybody permitting their story and likeness, not to mention committing a crime relatively known in the public domain, is fair game for judgment, but is a film review really the place for such personal criticism? Edelstein devotes most of his review to the plot and painting a negative image of Bourdin that might spoil readers’ own experience of the subject, while only devoting a few words to simply critiquing the film itself as “shockingly entertaining.”

As more and more documentary reviews show up online, it’s probably dangerous for subjects like Bourdin to pay them attention. Just as too often doc audiences laugh at a film’s subjects, it’s also too often that critics and other writers focus on the mental state of real characters. And of course, it hurts the subjects’ feelings, as we saw recently with Errol Morris’s Tabloid. I expect a lot of reviews of the upcoming The Queen of Versailles to also offer opinions of the easy targets in that film.

It doesn’t matter if any of those responding are obvious attention seekers or if the subjects are seen by the majority of deserving or fitting the judgments and opinions. I just don’t think this stuff belongs in a film review. But then, reviewing documentaries is a very tricky task, and I at least understand why some critics aren’t always clear on what’s appropriate to focus on.

Not that I see it as necessarily about confusing real-life characters with fictional ones. I’ve grown tired of critics easily referring to characters as unlikeable, despicable, evil, etc. since many fictional characters, namely well-written ones, aren’t – or shouldn’t be – so black and white when it comes to psychology, morals, and viewers’ tastes.

Critics ought to consider what an objective and comprehensive documentary of their life might entail and expose.

This is re-printed with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.