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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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'The Invisible War'

In a recent interview with Rahul Chadha, Thom Powers — filmmaker, co-founder of the Cinema Eye Honors, Toronto and Sundance Channel programmer, general documentary savant — made clear that the strength and diversity of documentary sales at Sundance stemmed from a shift away from traditional theatrical programming. HBO may now be this country's foremost force in documentary filmmaking, while Showtime, A&E, CNN, ESPN, Sundance Channel, IFC, and Epix are joining the fray. Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon Video, among other VOD platforms, now offer more nonfiction options than all but the best art houses. If you don't live in New York or Los Angeles, small screens are often the only place to see most documentaries these days: of 2012's rich documentary slate, I saw exactly zero on a big screen.

This could be construed as the sad state of movies, yet further evidence to support the doomsday scenarios floating in the Internet's ether. Documentaries, though, have long been at home on television, aesthetically and financially suited to spaces beyond the cinema. Relatively inexpensive to make, relying (as in Jafar Panahi's remarkable "This Is Not a Film") on little more than an iPhone and a surplus of creative juices, focused on content rather than spectacle, nonfiction filmmaking provides opportunities that do not yet fully translate to other genres.

The ever-broadening subject of documentary is the direct descendant of these changes. It is not a coincidence that the Oscars' Documentary Feature category has emerged as the strongest in recent years, thanks in part to rule changes. No longer as controversial for strange snubs (remember "Hoop Dreams"?), the main frustration I experience about the nominees is that there couldn't be more of them, when so many seem deserving. If any category deserves ten slots, this is it.

In this vein, I returned to the tape, and found myself — like the industry itself — making space for the "inconsequential" alongside the "important." I won't retract my vote for "The Invisible War," Kirby Dick's enraging depiction of betrayal, bureaucratic, medical, political, human. I won't relinquish my own talismanic belief that documentaries like this one may indeed save lives, that the litany of stories it collects might make the personal political in ways that effect change.

"Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present."

We need to know, as Staff Sergeant Stace Nelson reports, that one unit supervisor told a rape victim to "stop crying over spilled milk."

We need to know, as Tia Christopher tells us about her own supervisor, that three rape allegations in a single unit in a single week could be marked as a practical joke rather than an indication of a decrepit, violent, misogynistic culture accepted by officials at the highest echelons of the armed forces.

We need to know, as Hannah Sewell, Myla Haider, Kori Cioca, and the dozens of women and men featured in "The Invisible War" testify, that each of the 20% of female and 1% of male veterans who suffer sexual assault is a brave, patriotic, capable human whom we have abandoned by making their war invisible. We need to know that we can begin to recover them only if we hear their voices anew. "Tell Your Story," reads a sign on the wall at a military office, with new and painful irony. "Of Service, Of Sacrifice, Of Achievement."

Yet in this Golden Age of documentaries, spurred by fast-moving economic changes as much as by filmmakers' remarkable acuity, we also need to the know the story told by "Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present," directed by Matthew Akers. My favorite "personal" documentary of the last year, the film builds, as it captures the final day of her endurance test of an exhibition, to a searing kind of momentum. The faces, all the faces, crying, smiling, reflecting, laughing, grimacing, leave one devastated to have missed it. What Abramović made, one art critic says in the film, was "a charismatic space, a little rent in the fabric of the universe that was wholly her own."

By the rousing denouement, one cannot help but be drawn into the same space, even from the distance created by the screen. The last to sit before her, after nearly three months and a million visitors to the Museum of Modern Art, is the curator. The room is filled wall-to-wall with people, and the piano's score carries you aloft. As she stands, the ovation she receives — run through with amazement and the electricity of celebrity, with the utmost respect — is quite moving. I realized, watching this finale once more, that in our brave new world my original question has become a dead letter. It's not the subject of documentary but the art of it that's important, before and after we fade to black.

"Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present," is currently available on HBO on Demand, iTunes, and DVD. "The Invisible War" and "Searching for Sugar Man" are both available on iTunes and DVD. All of the other films discussed in this essay are available on DVD, Blu-ray, and/or VOD.


  • 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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