Over the last couple weeks, I've been thinking a lot about the ways in which documentaries provide social/political context or choose not to. Last week, I pointed out the potential problems that Jason Osder's "Let the Fire Burn" faces because of the way it eschews context, and this week, I found myself doing the same with respect to Shaul Schwarz’s "Narco Cultura" in my Docutopia column at SundanceNow.
I can't exactly determine why, but I found myself defending that lack of context in "Let the Fire Burn" and criticizing it in "Narco Cultura." What's the difference? Does it have something to do with my personal investment in these stories? Or is it matter of the filmmaker's specific approach: In the case of "Let the Fire Burn," which is made up entirely of archival footage, it's far more difficult to identify the filmmaker's specific point of view than in "Narco Cultura," where the film's editing strategy and choice of scenes makes the filmmaker's pointed perspective entirely clear.
So maybe the issue lies with the method of argument. If a film comes across in a more subjective manner, does that same film need more social-political context to counterbalance that bias?
Nearly a year ago, I criticized two much beloved but very different films, "Tchoupitoulas" and "Only the Young" in another Docutopia column for what can also be described as a lack of context. Though wonderfully paced and exquisitely photographed portraits of young people, I still found the films lacking, ultimately arguing that "the films emphasize mood over story, setting over issues... [And] given the social and economic circumstances of the characters’ milieus, perhaps the films should have paid closer attention to those circumstances." But these films don't have any biased argument to make, so what's my problem? I don't know.
When it comes to observational films, the "circumstances" surrounding the characters should come through to the viewer in a more subtle and elegant way. I am certainly not arguing for statistics or talking heads to communicate context. Aesthetically speaking, I'll always choose a beautifully captured observational documentary than some over-stuffed agit-prop. And for that reason, I often champion films of this ilk. But I also think documentaries need to go deep; they need to capture, in many instances, not just the story on view, but the larger issues that define and give shape to that story.
In my article on "Narco Cultura," I mention Natalia Almada's "Al Otro Lado," which I think finds the right balance that I'm addressing here. Almada's film is intimate, poetic and observational, but it's also political and historical. The same could be said for Laura Poitras' "The Oath." These are films that neither forgo politics for aesthetics, nor aesthetics for politics.