Over the last decade or so it’s been repeated by film critic and documentarian alike that we’re now in a “Golden Age” of documentary film. Cheap digital technology has enabled many more people to shoot and edit films, new avenues of distribution have opened up, the style is protean, and some docs even make money. That’s the story and, sure, there is some truth to it.
But while this prevailing notion among film critics corresponds with the relative commercial success of documentaries, it’s also legitimate to say that documentary is in crisis, or at least in need of perspective.
Traditionally, viewing a documentary provided a contextualized orientation to an important story or event that The News (meaning TV news, even in it’s heyday) could not or would not provide. As it turns out, as The News and all it’s traditional components devolved and fragmented, documentaries not only bloomed but became that much more important for in-depth perspective on important social, political, and cultural issues and events. Even if the style of documentary has widened remarkably––with humor or what-have-you—the form stayed grounded in social issue and human emotion.
But as docs became more popular with audiences (or visa versa) it seems filmmakers and distribution execs did two things: 1) they wanted to make “entertaining” docs and so found events in the realm of video games, board games, dance contests, and the like that would play out in front of cameras and serve the audience with great suspense; and, 2) filmmakers wanted to play with the form. Films like Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop have done well at the box office. But there’s a tenuous line when it comes to docs. The history of film is full of narrative works using documentary tropes, often effectively (Bloody Sunday, Man Bites Dog, etc.) The idea of docs taking fictional tropes is much more problematic in my perspective. Especially when, in my view, docs are filling an important vacuum in social-political media perspective in this diluted media age.
On the first point, of course we all want entertaining docs. Yet, while there may be some entertainment value, I have to ask what space—in the social-political grounding of my ideal sense of what docs do—these films about crossword puzzles and penguins actually fill? On the second point, we have a trust issue. Of course, anyone paying attention knows, or should know, the famous saying that “every cut is a lie.” Even the most pure Direct Cinema is a form of editorializing. But that doesn’t mean that the form itself is compromised, as it is when an audience member is left thinking—even when being entertained—that the basis of the film is a load of rubbish.
This may sound old fashioned in a time when elastic forms of media are pushed and heralded. But when documentary is pumped up for its “cinematic,” “dramatic,” or genre-busting attributes, it also opens itself up to the brutal effects of the market. Distributors will lean to the lowest common denominator because that is the fallback for what conventional wisdom says will get large audiences. Yet, look at what happened to the hallowed documentary tradition in the UK after Rupert Murdoch aggressively decried as “boring” and “elitist” the social, political, and cultural docs that the BBC and other public service entities made into a well-honed tradition from the ’50s to the ’90s. Though Murdoch is not the sole cause, those well-researched, well-executed (and high-budget) historical and otherwise films have been victim to the same commercial pressures that churn out “reality” and other forms of crap TV.
Of course, there is no “right way” to make a documentary. God knows, the formal mechanisms of righteous-tinged narration are not only often boring but smack of easy filmmaking; still, some films of this kind are not only important, but essential, to document important historical moments. Maybe I just contradicted myself. Oh well. The fact is that, in this crumbling and diluted media environment, there should be documentaries of historical value—meaning archival footage, sit-down interviews, perhaps even some voiceover—to document and give context to important history and events. That is with the caveat, of course, that objectivity doesn’t exist and truth is always with a small “t.”
But while hoaxish devices create their own critical narrative worth—say, the meaning of celebrity in the Joaquin Phoenix film I’m Still Here and the meaning of art in the Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop—they are just not in the same category of my view of what a documentary should do (which is, in case you forgot, to provide information, context, and perspective on issues that affect us all). The tradition of documentary is rooted in this idea and, therefore, comes to benefit a progressive idea of a public informed by multiple perspectives on complex issues.
Again, although I surely don’t want to be accused of being an elite traditionalist, in my view keeping to an idea of trust in form doesn’t mean that filmmakers get a pass. There should always be the paramount objective of keeping an audience involved, if not in awe. Films like Darwin’s Nightmare do that by filming with strong perspective in a particular time and place and managing to raise huge issues doing so—something that is the mainstay of great films. Playing ironically with form is fun, and surely entertaining some of the time, but it doesn’t do much for filling the urgent gap in our media environment to give much needed perspective and impart information about crucial stories and events that effect us all.
For better or for worse, the Academy seems to agree. Inside Job—which has also done well at the box office—recently won the Oscar over some very entertaining “documentaries.” Here’s to Hollywood upholding the old-time tradition!