Spoilers We Tell: Are Documentary Revelations Not Sacred?


One year ago this week, I read the Toronto Star’s report on the secret of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. The piece opened with a big spoiler, and I got mad, stopped reading immediately. So, I missed the part about how this revelation was just being relayed from a blog post written by Polley herself on the National Film Board website. And it didn’t give away all the details of the twist, either. Having known its basic revelation may have altered how I experienced the documentary and its content, but it definitely didn’t hurt my enjoyment and appreciation. Stories We Tell, which I finally saw in January, remains my favorite film of the year.

This week, another documentary was possibly spoiled by a number of news outlets, including the New York Times. It’s been leaked that Shane Salerno’s Salinger includes a big announcement about the Catcher in the Rye author’s works — a revelation spelled out right there in the headlines. These reports come only a few days following The Weinstein Company’s urging of press and moviegoers to keep quiet on certain things unveiled in the film. The distributor even dubbed this the “Uncover the Mystery But Don’t Spoil The Secrets” campaign.

Sure, that just sounds like a marketing ploy to get curious moviegoers into theaters. However, the sad thing is that not only does the effort seem to be going ignored (the NYT article goes much deeper with details of the film’s material, some of which may be what the Weinsteins are referring to in their campaign), but also we shouldn’t have to be reminded that a documentary deserves to have its contents safe from being shared so loosely, no different from any other movie. Why is that? Isn’t most documentary content factual and therefore open to being reported as news? And shouldn’t a movie still work as a movie in spite of us knowing what happens in it?


Technically, yes to both. But technically, the same is true for fiction films, too. And isn’t it nice to let mysteries and suspense and surprises unfold in any medium, especially if they’re made to be seen and experienced that way? Not all documentaries are journalism, and not all are just straight facts. A lot of them consist of narrative devices and storytelling structures that work best with things being unknown until a certain point. Take Dear Zachary, for instance, a movie that partly became a sensation because we were told it had a twist or we were the ones keeping the twist a secret. On the other hand, my being ignorant to international headlines about LGBT activists in Uganda allowed Call Me Kuchu to feel as if it had a big revelation midway through. For others, that revelation was common knowledge. What would it matter if Dear Zachary’s events were just as widely known?

Given J.D. Salinger’s notoriety, the contents of a film about him are deemed both fairer game and of more interest by the media. But a lot of it is also likely of interest only to his fans, the same people who will see Salinger anyway, even for a biographical story they already know. I’m not a fan of the author, so I don’t have a very high desire to see the film, regardless of whether it unveils secrets about his life or not. If it’s a good doc, then I’ll see it for that reason alone. And if his life story is spun creatively and through that there are twists and turns in the way it’s told, I’ll enjoy the direction more if I’m unaware of those beforehand. But it’s hard to imagine a doc of this sort being like, say, Catfish.

Catfish, meanwhile, has probably been spoiled for everyone. If not through the 20/20 segment devoted to the film and all its revelations upon its release or from everyone talking about the twist, then surely due to the premise of the popular MTV series it spun off. And it’s probably not being viewed or enjoyed much by those in the know. At the time, I was angry with 20/20 for spoiling every detail, just as I tend to get frustrated with 60 Minutes when it unloads the whole story to be found in docs like Searching for Sugar Man and Camp 14: Total Control Zone.

There should be a level of respect given to any movie in relation to how it’s meant to be experienced. Sugar Man was sort of sold on a secret when it debuted at Sundance, but that secret got harder and harder to keep and eventually the fact that Rodriguez is alive was just part of the synopsis of the movie. As for Stories We Tell, if Polley herself is willing to discuss the revelations publicly before people even have the chance to see her film, then she must not believe it’s necessary to go in blind. And as for Salinger’s big story this week, I received an email from the Weinstein Company’s publicity department later stating that Salerno released the news himself about that announcement, though most articles published over the weekend seemed to simply credit the film’s companion book as the source.

Given that many critics review documentaries for their content instead of their quality, they tend to be treated with different rules than fiction works. But many filmmakers treat them differently too, as content delivery more than storytelling and cinema. If the whole point of Food, Inc. is to inform, then perhaps it’s acceptable for Roger Ebert’s review to pass on the informing with fact he’s learned from the documentary. Yet as with any sort of media, entertainment or educational or anything, it doesn’t hurt us to enter the work knowing as little as possible. That’s definitely true for Stories We Tell, but I highly recommend you see it even if you know the secret. Here’s hoping Salinger is similarly worthwhile despite what I’ve read in the NYT piece.
Stories We Tell comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, September 3.

Salinger opens in theaters next Friday, September 6.

*not only through the Star but also the Globe and Mail, CBC, National Post, and other media outlets, mostly Canadian ones — The Hollywood Reporter even spelled it out in their headline

** a press release for an audio clip of Margaret Salinger discussing the news

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.