Tuesday, March 18, 2014


When we watch a documentary I think we feel that we are getting insight into something happening in the real world, as opposed to fiction. Yet I question the truth and honesty in most documentaries, especially when they bring in some known authority [By the way I hate the same old tired parade of credentialed talking heads on news channels like MSNBC to the point where I can't bear to watch them anymore, even if I do agree with what they say].

How do we know what is actually known. Scientists and even social researchers use hypotheses to test theories.  They never say they know something as fact. As a masters candidate in communications, I learned that it takes many researchers doing years of study and having the same conclusions before you can say that a certain theory has some validity. So how then can we watch a documentary film, made by a handful of people (usually not scientists or scholarly researchers), and expect to come to a conclusion about certain things being a certain way?

And this is not a criticism of audiences. It's a criticism of filmmakers, including me. I recently screened a doc for a small group of activists. They couldn't have had better criticisms, and accolades as well, of my film about healthcare reform. But one criticism that bothered was that the film left one person confused. So what? Am I a school teacher or something? Things are confusing.

Anyway, there is no truth. There is only perception. In True Detective, a recent HBO buddy cop series, the main characters come to a conclusion about the world coming down to just one age old story about the struggle between darkness and light. In a world of cops and robbers, or detectives and serial rapist killers, that may be very true. But few of us live in that world of extreme drama. In reality it's more likely people have shades of gray. The good guys have bad in them. The bad guys have good in them. It becomes absurd to label one or the other. Yet I loved watching True Detective.  It had deep characters and extremely intense dramatic moments. It's entertainment.

We are conditioned to expect documentaries to be entertaining. Even Michael Moore suggests to filmmakers that a successful documentary is entertaining. That may be true for audiences that have come to expect what they are conditioned for. But that is not necessarily honest. Perhaps that's why he is harshly criticized by opponents to his conclusions. Filmmakers like this do your thinking for you. They basically tell you what to think. I like Michael Moore and I like his films. But I think he is pandering to the base audiences that expect resolution and certainty, which may conventionally be the most marketable audiences. Distributors and gatekeepers don't want to promote films for thinking people, where you have to consider what you've seen and maybe even then not be sure what it was about exactly. But isn't that what art is?

When a documentary filmmaker writes a script with themes, resolutions, questions, and expected answers, and then goes out to find people who fit into that written mold, that is dishonest. It is a contrivance. It is as fictional as any work of fiction. An honest documentary should merely capture what it finds through open questions and exploration, such as, "What are you concerns?" "Why are you here?" and not, "Do you agree with single payer?" or "Is healthcare a right?" Those are loaded questions.

Even in doing that, any filmmaker has their own bias which comes through to create a sort of narrative. But at least it is found and not sought after. An honest filmmaker would seek unexpected findings as well, to question the expected. At least such things should be revealed. But I think it is wrong to judge or to comment on what is found as most filmmakers do in narration. Keep that bias to yourself. Let the audience look at your characters and make their own judgements, if any, and create their own interpretations. Respect that your audience can think for themselves.

In fiction, good actors strive for honesty in a performance that's true to the character they play in whatever circumstance they are in. A screenwriter avoids expositionary dialogue, which would too conveniently reveal exactly what a character is thinking or what circumstance prevails. Honest characters don't talk that way. They hid emotions or try to. They lie. But the audience sees through them. So do screenwriters avoid convenient coincidences that explain exactly what is going on in the story. But not so in most documentaries where the filmmaker is conveniently at the right place and time to get the story.

In this way, a narrative fictional film could be more truthful than a documentary. In exploring characters, actors (and cinematics) can reveal what's in the mind, unlike in a typical documentary where characters are on guard to keep their personal lives secret. But an audience may be able to read into documentary characters just as they read into fictional characters, if the filmmaker can capture nuances in their emotions, gestures and expressions, and if the filmmaker allows them to do so; or perhaps catches them in an uncomfortable moment or even a lie. I remember a psychotherapist who suggested a mental diagnosis of George W. Bush, just based on observations of his gestures. But we are used to news analysis and narrators telling us what we've just seen, instead of making these sort of judgements for ourselves.

Screenshot from got healthcare?
Arrest of Drs. Paris and Flowers
footage by William Hughes
You wouldn't expect a narrator to tell you what's going on in a fictional film, nor would you want to. The mystery is part of the entertainment. But it's also part of the honesty. After the film we have pie or wine and argue about what we saw, everyone has a different opinion.  This should happen with documentaries as well. Allow the audience to put their heads together to compare notes and observations, just as researchers do when they observe subjects. To me that is much more entertaining than expositionary narration.

This may leave the documentary audience confused, wanting more, and unsatisfied. It's like an ambiguous ending in a fictional film where we can't figure out what happened for certain, or what will happen in the future. There is no closure. This is true to life. In life we have no closure. We simply accept and move on. But we might come away with a new insight from the filmmaker perspective. We may be lead to think about things and see them in a light we hadn't seen them in before. That should be good enough.

I haven't seen Big Men yet. But it looks promising.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive

Popular Posts

Mistress City

Cinephilia and Beyond

Keyframe - Explore the world of film.