A still from the documentary Oxyana.

Last week, the documentary Oxyana was released on Vimeo, for the reasonable price of $3.99. You should see it because there’s a lot that’s great about the documentary, and there’s also a fair amount that’s not. In fact, I think it’s a good case study for a lot of what’s both right and wrong with where documentaries are heading today.

I (mostly) held my tongue after I saw Oxyana at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, but the recent reports that Oxyana director Sean Dunne didn’t vet facts and statistics articulated by subjects in the film have prompted me to take the film head on. The issue, I think, is as much what he didn’t do as how he seems to be so proud of what he didn’t do.

The film is about how the small town of Oceana, West Virginia, is being decimated by its citizens’ rampant addiction to OxyContin. There are horrific stories of death and self-destruction, as Dunne interviews addicts who appear to have no way out. It’s like slipping into Appalachian hell.

In an interview on the West Virginia PBS website, Dunne had the following exchange with reporter Jessica Y. Lilly:

Lilly: In the documentary, there were people that spouted out percentages, numbers, information about homelessness, overdoses, hepatitis C cases, babies born on methadone and so on. How did you verify that information?

Dunne: That’s the thing. This isn’t a film that is meant to be informational in that way. It’s meant to be immersive. It’s meant to show the up close and personal of what drug addiction looks like. These are stories from the people down there. These are their perspectives. These are people dealing with this every day. We didn’t question those things we just we were a vessel to their voice.

I’ve been hearing this sort of thing from other filmmakers and I think it’s time to take a step back.

First, I have to note that I love the way documentaries are not just talking heads and that aesthetics in documentaries have become so innovative and exciting. Documentary filmmakers consider themselves formal filmmakers first, more than ever. And I revel in the grey area between fiction and nonfiction, and how reality is such a slippery slope, thanks, in part, to our overmediated age.

This has all led to what one could call Verite Impressionism, or, if you’ll allow me to be cute, The New Doc Vague. When Dunne says the word “immersive,” that’s code for putting primacy on a stimulation of the senses through imagery (and sound, editing, etc.) over the actual documentation of reality. The facts might be vague, but the feelings are not.

Films like Only the Young, Tchoupitoulas, and the upcoming 12 O’Clock Boys and Flex is Kings are all examples. (And the first three are distributed by Oscilloscope, so they’re clearly on the vanguard here.) These films have impressed me with their impressionistic representations of life. They’re not about social trends or issues or injustice, although those themes could be found in the background. These films are all about the long shots of sunlight, kids running in the streets, sweat on a boy’s cheek. This is life!

(And there are more formal examples; films like The Act of Killing, Stories We Tell, Searching for the Sugar Man, the whole Errol Morris oeuvre, all of which filter real stories of real people through the lens with a distinctive style. But those films have more conventional story arcs and narrative tropes, whereas these others I’m discussing can sometimes feel like someone just flipped on a camera and captured what was happening, which of course, is never the case.)

But not everyone does it so well. And when I watched Oxyana, I was bothered by the lack of context and long, languid shots of that dirty old town and its beautiful blue hills.

I sometimes didn’t know what I was watching. Or didn’t know why I was watching what I was watching.

After the film was over, in the Q&A, Dunne spoke of how he went to West Virginia a few times to film, with one trip lasting several weeks (maybe it was a couple of months.)

But how the hell are you going to make a truthful document of a complex problem that’s destroying real lives if you’re skimming the surface, with a few drive-by days of filming?

The problem arises largely because Oxyana is depicting serious social problems (poverty, drug addiction). And the aestheticization of real social issues can feel like documentary voyeurism or slumming. Some of the more wretched cases (a guy with clear mental impairment) reminded me of fetishistic quality that I’ve seen in the films of Harmony Korine and Larry Clark.

Perhaps I am being too harsh. Dunne seemed like a good guy, and maybe he thought he was doing a good thing. But, for me, it didn’t play that way.

And if he had looked into the facts, maybe he would have found reason to throw in an interview with a drug counselor or expert. Or added some interstitial cards with facts. (A brief interview with a cop left me with more questions than answers.) In fact, the reporter from West Virginia relays in her story that although some of the disturbing facts mentioned in the film about drugs and its effects were dead wrong, there are plenty of equally, if not more so, dire facts that are out there to be cited.

Not part of his vision? Too informational?

Perhaps, but I believe a little information would have supported his vision.

Of course, Dunne can make his film the way he wants to, but I’m calling him out because he’s among a group of young filmmakers — some of whom (including him!) I admire greatly — who are slipping into a fog of Terrence Malick lyricism.

Before I go too far, I’ll mention that during the Oxyana Q&A, an older gentleman raised his hand to talk, but became overwhelmed with emotion and lowered his hand, weeping quietly to himself. I doubt Dunne noticed, but if he had, he could have taken it as affirmation that his film had touched someone so deeply.

I conclude with that image, because I have some qualms about making this argument. Maybe this new wave in docs is all too new, and these filmmakers should be making mistakes as they experiment, stretch the form, and find new ways to create documentary.

But consider this: Imparting factual information isn’t necessarily exclusive of stimulating the senses. Everyone from Charles Dickens to Diego Rivera to Jenny Holzer has known that.

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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