Nobody likes an “issue film.” Conventionally constructed documentaries built for narrow advocacy tend to drive critics nuts, including this one. We’ve reached such a high water mark of this sort of frustration that it’s not unheard of for critics to comment that “most documentaries are terrible,” or to pan a film simply because it fits the nebulous framework of an “issue film.”
But what does the term actually mean? Not every documentary dismissed as such ends with a call to action and a url where you can send your concerned cash. More often than not it has more to do with a film’s quality than it’s genre. Is Blackfish an issue film because it has a very clear goal or because Gabriela Cowperthwaite pursues this goal with sensationalist use of the footage of Tillikum attacking a trainer? Is An Inconvenient Truth an issue film because its raison d’etre is a political agenda or because Davis Guggenheim basically turned a PowerPoint presentation into a movie?
Frankly, derision frequently gets in the way of trying to untangle this stuff. On the other hand, there’s nothing more frustrating than reading a review that praises a film exclusively for its ideological content. And the misguided neoliberal nonsense discourse around maximizing a documentary’s “impact” certainly doesn’t help things. Not every documentary can get someone sprung from prison.
All of this routinely rises to the front of my mind every year around the same time, in the lead up to the New York City edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. On paper, it sounds like a two-week showcase of the most politically and emotionally potent issue films. It is often covered as such, as well. And so it slips by, despite being an increasingly well-programmed highlight of the nonfiction calendar. Just last year, HRW featured Iva Radivojevic’s Evaporating Borders, Camilla Nielsson’s Democrats, and Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War.
This is not to say that there aren’t films in the HRW lineup that could be criticized as issue films. The glossier work, some of which arrives with major backing from cable television, falls pretty flat. But there is also a very strong cohort of films that approach their subjects much more artfully, focusing on rich portraiture rather than narrow advocacy. The people themselves are no longer props, but fully fleshed out individuals who struggle with complicated situations.
Look no further than Growing Up Coy, a new documentary from director Eric Juhola and producer Jeremy Stulberg (Broken Heart Land). Coy Mathis is a 6-year-old transgender girl growing up in Colorado, not far from the headquarters of the virulently anti-gay organization Focus on the Family. When Coy’s elementary school reneges on their previous arrangement and refuses to allow Coy to use the girls’ bathroom, her parents decide to sue the school, making national news.
The film begins much like many other civil rights documentaries. The family is introduced, followed by the lawyer, who has flown in from New York City to help them through this ordeal. Juhola and Stulberg introduce Coy, her siblings and her parents with empathy and patience. It’s not idyllic, of course, but there is a real sense of optimism for the legal battle ahead.
Yet as things move forward, there is real strain. Jeremy and Kathryn, Coy’s parents, find themselves under a constant barrage of media coverage. It overwhelms Coy as well. Each successive trip to a television studio seems more exhausting, each camera crew to show up at the house finds the family in a further state of disarray. Even though both the legal and public relations battles seem to be going well, it threatens to be too much for the Mathis family to handle. They move to Aurora, a place with less animosity from right-wing Christians. Jeremy and Kathryn’s marriage begins to crack. Their lawyer is helpful but unavoidably distant, and his continued pressure for the family to take interviews begins to grate.
Growing Up Coy is, therefore, a fly in the banal ointment of the “issue film.” This isn’t The Case Against 8, with its glossy style and its conservative message. This isn’t a victory lap. It’s a real interrogation of what happens to those who take on the important legal battles of our time. Juhola and Stulberg ask the audience to quite seriously consider what we expect from our civil rights heroes, particularly the ones who don’t get to fly home to the big city after the battle. Their message is not simple or straightforward, but contemplative and admirably honest.
And this is only a single example. Many of the films in this year’s HRW leave the audience with a similar sense of ambiguity. That’s what the best nonfiction cinema does, it provokes a re-calibration of our relationship with the world. None of these civil rights test cases are truly simple, no matter how much some documentaries portray them to be. There are real lives in the mix, complicating and humanizing the juggernauts of the legal landscape.