How many documentary filmmakers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Three. One to hold the camera, one to record the sound, and one to put it back in, in post.

OK, so maybe documentary bloggers deserve the reputation that we can’t tell a good joke. But when it comes to being entertaining, documentary filmmakers get a bum rap. For the mainstream, there’s still a notion that documentaries are the spinach of the film world, even after an amazing string of aesthetically assured narrative tales that include — and this is a very shortened list — Project NimFahrenheit 9/11Hoop DreamsThe September IssueCapturing the FriedmansCrumbUndefeated and on and on and on.

I bring this up because I was recently asked to speak at the University of Missouri’s Based on a True Story conference for a panel on the subject of “Documentary Entertainment and its Audience.” I was joined by Los Angeles Times critic Betsy Sharkey and producer Andrea Meditch (Buck, Grizzly Man, Man on Wire and other very entertaining docs). The conference preceded the True/False documentary festival, and I can’t speak more highly of both events. This was a doclover’s paradise, and I have Mizzou professor Brad Prager to thank for bringing me there.

A transcript of my talk is below (with light edits). My biggest regret is not tightening it — and not sprinkling in more jokes. In other words, in not making it more entertaining! I should have learned from the doc filmmakers I adore…

Albert Maysles (Photo by Adam Schartoff)
Was Albert Maysles right in saying 'entertainment' is better defined as 'engagement' than 'diversion'?

I’m going to start with a definition of entertainment, which comes from Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Salesman): “If you look up the word ‘entertainment’ in the dictionary, it’s first defined as ‘diversion.’ But the second definition is ‘engagement.’ And the second one, I think, is the best one.”

I have a lot of respect for Albert Maysles, but I think he’s only half right on this one. Because I think we live in an age where both definitions are correct. Documentary audiences are sophisticated enough to hold two seemingly contradictory reactions to a film at he same time — being diverted and being engaged — and are able to balance both at the same time. And that’s why I think documentaries are so exciting at this time because it’s a new, enhanced way to appreciate film.

When did this kick off? You could look back to Nanook of the North. Or you could go back to Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line coming out in 1988 and Michael Moore’s Roger & Me a year later, but what I want to focus on started happening about 10 years ago, with films such as SpellboundThe Kid Stays in the PictureControl RoomEnron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Winged Migration.

At that time, we started seeing documentaries that were depicting truth in an enhanced, or stylized, way. What I think was going on was that the human eye was changing. The way people could see reality, as it is mediated on a screen, was transforming in a way that was fantastic. And it was entertaining and truthful at the same time.

There is this term, ‘truthiness,’ which was coined by Stephen Colbert — People are now getting their news from many sources, but two primary ones are Fox and Comedy Central, two producers of entertainment from which people are getting their news.

Producer Fisher Stevens helped turn what would have been an advocacy documentary about mercury accumulation into an Oscar-winning "eco-Oceans 11."

At the same time that this is happening, feature films were changing. Look at a film like The Bourne Identity, which came out in 2002. It had a very real, visceral feel to it. Here’s a big blockbuster that had a gritty, almost cinéma vérité feel to it.

And so, yes, at the same time that fiction features started to look like documentaries, documentaries were starting to look like fiction features. And a great example is The Cove. It’s about dolphin slaughter. It had been cut and it was pretty much ready to go and it was a pretty dry film about mercury poisoning. Along came a producer a lot like Andrea (Meditch, who had just walked the audience through a “doc whispering” of the recent Buck). In this case, it was Fisher Stevens, who, along with other producers and an editor, totally reworked that film to make what Stevens called an “eco-Ocean’s 11.”

For me, that film was incredibly vivid and moving, and I’ll never forget those images of the dolphin slaughter. And, at the same time, it was very entertaining.

The best way for me to illustrate this transformation and integration of documentaries as a form of entertainment is to look at three films, each with differing degrees of entertainment value and social significance, but all about the same subject: Danny Boyle and co-director Loveleen Tandan’s Slumdog Millionaire, Louis Malle’s Calcutta and Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski’s Born into Brothels.

Let’s start with Slumdog Millionaire. This fiction film was a huge box-office hit in 2008, and the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. The film is, in my opinion, quite good. Boyle has a very kinetic filmmaking style, and he depicts the slums of Mumbai with dizzying force, beautiful handheld digital camera work, fast-paced editing, and lively music.

The acting, some of it by kids from the slums themselves, is also good. The story, basically a romance between a boy and girl, is good enough, but it’s a bit saccharine for my taste. And I really hate the basic structure of the film — It’s told while the main character is in Who Wants to be a Millionaire. It just feels too pat and Hollywood for my taste. Still, it’s immensely entertaining, and we are exposed to the grim reality of life in India, of the power of human spirit, and the power of love.

Second, there’s Louis Malle’s Calcutta, a 1969 documentary that is little more than the raw footage of the everyday lives of the poor people of Calcutta. Malle had made a multi-part series for the BBC, but he cut his material together to make this theatrically-released film. I’d imagine if you were seeing these images for the first time — lepers and slums and a cremation — as most people were back then, it could be pretty riveting. But it’s far from thrilling from my current-day perspective. Although Louis Malle narrates some moments in the film, most of the images float by without context or meaning. And since his narration is in French, it didn’t have an impact on me anyway. In other words, it feels sort of voyeuristic. And although the images resonate, they didn’t really stay with me.

And, last, there’s Born into Brothels. It’s a hybrid of the two previous films. Here’s a documentary that told the story of the children who are raised in the brothel slums of Calcutta. Briski had gone into the slums to photograph the people there, and became close with the children. She and Kauffman shot a film that tells the story of these kids, and Briski’s attempt to help them avoid their terrible fate. It’s very sentimental, but it’s also very real — You get to know these kids and care for them. But it’s important to remember that it isn’t at all a form of direct cinema — It’s very much about the filmmakers impact on them, especially Briski’s. It is about the relationship between the filmmakers and the subjects. You see this when the filmmakers take the kids to the ocean, something they would never have done on their own. Here’s the clip:

I think someone who is suspicious of the notion of documentaries as a form of entertainment might respond to this by saying that the filmmakers created this moment for plot points, and to give audiences a lift and then to bring them down. And, although it’s true that it’s totally created by the filmmakers, to me, that’s not the case. This is an enhanced truth. This sequence shows that these children are capable of joy, and that they deserve to feel that joy. We see that there. And then we see what deplorable conditions they live in, so we see how that joy is taken away from them.

To me, this is an example of highly evolved filmmaking. When documentarians can use the technology and skills that we normally associate with artists — with the ability to craft narratives and shoot cinematically compelling images — and use those skills in a real-life setting to tell important, real-life stories, then we’ve entered a highly evolved realm. And that’s where we’re at with docs these days, with filmmakers creating nonfiction works that are entertaining because they are both diverting and engaging.

Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs.

Published by

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