Writing about documentaries ain’t what it used to be. Not that I would know — I’m just talking with my tongue in my cheek about the supposedly sepia-tinted times before docs were (relatively) big business. I recently wrote a piece for Spin magazine about the great doc, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which is getting to be known as a real-life Spinal Tap. The film made a big splash at Sundance earlier this year, and its director, Sacha Gervasi, has cautiously put in place a distribution roll-out that should begin soon at colleges, where the film will be accompanied by a live set by the band, Anvil, and then a proper theatrical release early next year.

What struck me as just plain confounding as I spent time with the Anvil guys was this question of whether they were stars in a movie, or people whose lives just happened to be interesting enough that someone wanted to follow them around with a camera. The notion of people “acting” in documentaries about their own lives is a funny one. As Lips, the band’s lead singer, said to me: “I am not an actor. When I walk out of the movie, I’m still me.” He was genuinely wrestling with this concept. He then added: “So when I find myself speaking and I hear my voice and act like I do in the movie, it’s very odd. It’s really weird, man. Very odd.”

The same questions, of course, arise with any documentary subject that is of such a personal nature. I could imagine Big Edie and Little Edie from Grey Gardens speaking of their experiences in the same way. The difference now, of course, is that we are all so hyper self-aware of ourselves, and how anything we do might appear on TV or in a movie. It reminds me of my own 4 1/2 year-old daughter. Like most obsessive parents, my wife and I have recorded her every move from day one. But it’s incredible to me that thanks to a digital camera, by the time our daughter was two, she could immediately view the playback of her own life. It became a sort of compulsive thing for her — whenever we videotaped something, she’d want to see it immediately. I’m sure it’s something most digital-age parents have experienced. I couldn’t help worrying, though, that I was teaching her to be too self-aware at too young an age.

Of course, we now live in the mediated age — YouTube identities and all that. Notions of what it means to be an authentic person in a documentary have changed from twenty years ago. I don’t want to get all Baudrillard (the French academic who claimed the first Gulf War did not take place) on you and say that nothing is real anymore, because that’s academic hula-hoops. But I do think it’s safe to think that most of us, say, over 30, see characters (I use the word with all its implications) in documentaries through slightly out-of-date lenses. We might need to change our prescriptions.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen