This year, if you held your ear to the Oscar keyhole and listened hard enough, you might have discerned a slight disquiet. "Very strong category," people were saying about the nominees for Best Documentary Feature. "I loved all of them," they usually added. "But..."
The "but" concerned the eventual winner, director Malik Bendjelloul's "Searching for Sugar Man." A soulful mystery about the American musician Rodriguez, who rose to prominence in South Africa and Australia a generation ago before being relegated to obscurity, "Sugar Man" was never discussed as anything less than deserving. In certain quarters, though, "Sugar Man" could be seen as insubstantial when placed against the other nominees, all weighing heavy political subjects: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict ("The Gatekeepers," "5 Broken Cameras"), military sexual assault ("The Invisible War"), and the AIDS crisis ("How to Survive a Plague").
The "but," then, plumbed some deeper critical register, an uncertainty about what documentaries should be. The "but" posed an implicit question: what, if anything, is the "proper" subject of documentary?
Note the scare quotes. I am, or would like to be, resistant to the idea that nonfiction filmmaking requires activism, or even front-page-style reportage, to be taken seriously. Perhaps my favorite documentary, the Maysles' "Grey Gardens" (1975), is no less astounding for being, in affect if not in actuality, strenuously apolitical. But I am not quite immune to the reticence that accompanied "Sugar Man." I awarded "The Invisible War" my vote for Best Documentary in Indiewire's year-end Critics' Poll in part on the merits of its real-world political consequences. Even when I've ruminated on the "personal" documentary, as I did in a lengthy essay for Bright Lights Film Journal a few years back, it was only insofar as the intimate bodies onscreen engaged the body politic as well. If one could say that any documentary is "purely" personal — an open question — I certainly wasn't looking for it.
I'm not alone in these leanings. The question of politics goes to the heart of a debate about the purpose of documentary that reaches back nearly to the origins of the form, including Robert Flaherty's ethnographic cinema ("Nanook of the North" , "Louisiana Story" ) and portraits of Britain's working class in the 1930s, such as "Night Mail" (Basil Wright and Harry Watt, 1936). This talismanic belief in the power of documentary remains tenacious; it is no surprise to me that such ardent buzz surrounded "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004) and "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006), featuring, respectively, a polemicist and a politician. The standard bearer of this power may be Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line" (1988), which saved Randall Dale Adams from wrongful execution. Self-consciously "political" documentaries invariably nod at such possibilities, if not always explicitly. This film, each suggests, could save your life.
But documentaries are, increasingly, the harbingers of a new business model, at the leading edge of production and distribution strategies quickly coming to fictional films, television, even criticism.