A couple weeks back, I lit a small candle under Constance Marks, the director of Being Elmo, by raising a question about how well a documentarian should know his or her subject. More recently, Christopher Campbell at Film School Rejects has taken his own flame and went ahead and pretty much torched Waiting for Lightning. In his post, Campbell basically says the documentary is terrible, likening the doc, which was conceived by one of the subjects of the film, to Triumph of the Will. He eventually calls it “propaganda of personality,” noting that the film was partly funded by a company with a vested interest in its subjects looking awesome.
Campbell points out that many documentaries veer into this territory, but what really caught my eye about his post is his willingness to knock a doc. I really found it refreshing. It’s something I’ve written about before; the documentary press, and the whole movie critic establishment, is just so nice to docs. Maybe, too nice.
I am very much a culprit in this; but who wants to knock the little guy? Or break down a filmmaker’s life work that’ll never make them a dime? Or rip a film that advocates for the plight of children in Africa?
The only time I’ve mustered up a critical take on a doc is when I saw blatant and misleading flaws in the politics of a film, such as 2016: Obama’s America; and what do you know, it was the post that earned me the most bashing I’ve ever received here.
On the other hand, as much as I admired Campbell for taking out his blowtorch, I found The New York Times review of Ethel unreasonably harsh, even though I haven’t seen the film yet. See, I can’t let go of that impulse to defend a doc from criticism even though I haven’t seen it.
But most docs have that all-powerful out: they mean well. And even when a film’s motivations appear to be less than altruistic, like the many vanity projects that keep coming out, what’s the point of knocking it?
I’ll tell you what: just as an exercise, I am going to try at some point this year to call a spade a spade, and give an honestly negative review of a documentary that I don’t like, simply because it’s not well-made, not because of its politics or possible grandstanding. Why? Because being real and truthful is what doc lovers are all about, right?