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Now and Then: What Can We Demand of the Documentary--Subjects, Aesthetics, Goals and Business Models?

by Matt Brennan
March 12, 2013 3:22 PM
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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" [1922], "Louisiana Story" [1948]) 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.


  • Rahul Chadha | March 13, 2013 4:24 PMReply

    Hey Matt, thanks for referencing my interview with Thom and posting a link, but I actually conducted it for the Stranger Than Fiction website, and not Sydney's Buzz. If you could change your copy to reflect that and include the link to the original interview I would appreciate it.


  • joeS | March 12, 2013 6:13 PMReply

    I'm a bit saddened that so much "controversy" has greeted SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN and it's long list of Doc wins culminating in the Academy Award. While I often seek out political minded docs myself, I think it's important that topics coverered are as diverse as possible. Documentaries are still films first and foremost. SUGAR MAN was a well done film. Period. Just because it wasn't based on an "important topic" doesn't mean it wasn't worthy as a piece of cinema.
    A film such as AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH wasn't criticized when it won the Oscar because it was about global warming (and starred Al Gore, a person who most in Hollywood felt deserved to be President). But, as a movie, INCONVENIENT wasn't much more than a filmed power-point presentation. IMHOP it didn't deserve the Oscar (or its other many awards) because it wasn't compelling cinema, even if it illuminated a vitally important issue. SUGAR MAN is a better FILM than INCONVENIENT TRUTH.
    P.S. I am concerned with the Academy's decision to open up voting for Best Documentary to all Oscar voters. I think this makes it more and more of a burden for serious minded and difficult docs to win.

  • Matt Brennan | March 12, 2013 6:38 PM

    It was my own discomfort with some of these questions that led me to write this piece, particularly the idea of "importance." I hope it doesn't sound like I'm trashing "Searching for Sugar Man," a lovely film, though in fact I would have ranked it 4th or 5th of the nominees. For me, the question of "importance" is tied to advocacy, and in some cases, like "The Thin Blue Line" and "The Invisible War," to political consequences. As I conclude, my object of affection may not be "Sugar Man," but new platforms have made it possible to hear every nonfiction voice with a camera, a good idea, and a little luck. (All to the good, as you say.)

    But many documentaries, and our reading of them, remain tied to politics. Your note on "An Inconvenient Truth" is trenchant, in particular because I remember finding its power to be inextricable from its PowerPoint simplicity. Nearly seven years hence, though, its message about climate change seems to have fallen largely on deaf ears. My question is: did its style make it forgettable, or its lack of impact?

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