Sometimes, you read an article in the mainstream press and it’s so removed from reality, you have to wonder if something’s wrong with you. So you read it again. And if things still seem amiss, you look online too see if anyone else has cried foul. But if you look and don’t find anyone agreeing with you, and instead find another reputable outlet corroborating the original piece, then you have to question yourself.
OK, I’m done doing all that. Now, I have to push back and ask, what the montage of heck is Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday talking about?
A couple of weeks ago, tied to the AFI Docs festival that just concluded, she wrote a broad article about the state of documentaries under the heading, “In the Golden Age of documentaries, the medium could use more artistry.”
She then went on to write that, despite some wonderfully innovative, artful films, “it’s possible to see a medium in need of freshening up, as nonfiction filmmakers fall into the trap of relying on their charismatic, timely subjects to engage viewers, rather than bold, daring or artful filmmaking itself.”
That’s her thesis. I’m going to ignore the fact that she spends several graphs pedaling back on that assertion, lauding filmmakers such as Sarah Polley, Joshua Oppenheimer and Brett Morgen, and noting that a cinephile, Tabitha Jackson, has recently been appointed the head of docs at the Sundance Institute.
Ms. Hornaday needs to be corrected. Alas, Indiewire gave her a high five with the header, “Why Documentaries Need More Artistry,” and summarizing her story, “with exceptions few and far between, most contemporary documentaries don’t really contain any artistry or personal style. Oftentimes, they’re just bland talking head info-dumps rather than a filmic exploration. The Washington Post‘s Ann Hornaday examines why the medium isn’t improving in this ‘golden age.'”
Y’all are wrong.
Did you not see the improvements in cinematic storytelling in The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, Manakamana, Virunga, The Square, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? or Exit Through the Gift Shop? Have you not heard of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, where they’re turning out films (Sweetgrass, Leviathan) that are as fluid and stylized as Faulkner novels?
Hornaday’s critique is coming in the year when Joshua Oppenheimer is providing his bookend, The Look of Silence, to one of the most daring bits of doc filmmaking of all time, The Act of Killing?
I’d suggest that Ms. Hornaday’s problem might be with this year’s AFI Docs slate, but if that’s so, then she certainly should have considered Uncertain, which played there. The whole documentary is a friggin’ metaphor, a piece of verite wizardry, shot as if Terrence Malick was behind the camera!
I don’t remember the last time I had a conversation with a documentary director who defined him or herself as anything but a storyteller, untethered to journalistic ethics or, feh, issues.
Talking head info-dumps? The doc curators I know tend to treat those sorts of films like superfund sites. If those films exist at festivals, and sure they do (because they serve a certain need, certain audiences and there’s production money there), they’re easily avoidable.
What’s ironic about all this is that Ms. Hornaday came up with the thesis after attending True/False, which is as close to a ground zero for innovative, artistic thinking in nonfiction as I can think of. Isn’t that where Robert Greene (Actress; a stylized film about reality as performance as reality) has been welcomed with beer-soaked arms? Those T/F guys are the court jesters of the doc world! Their nonfiction festival programmed a fictionalized reenactment (Computer Chess) of the 1980s and let (some) unsuspecting audiences just roll with it. They pack huge theaters with Midwesterners to see stylish docs about lost musicians (Searching for Sugar Man) and searching artists (Stories We Tell).
Ms. Hornaday mentions Montage of Heck, which is enough of a colossus to crush her thesis, but what about HBO’s other big hit this year, The Jinx? That series was so chock full of style, I bet its opening montage alone gave David Fincher goosebumps.
Look, I know writers should stick their necks out, but I’m begging Ms. Hornaday to reconsider where she stands on this one. Perhaps she should see a few more films that are coming out in theaters or going on the circuit this year. Just this year, there’s The Nightmare, Thank You for Playing, The Arms Drop, The Cult of JT Leroy, Elephant’s Dream, The Wolfpack and Peace Officer. One I haven’t seen, but I bet will knock her socks off, is We Come as Friends, Hubert Sauper’s follow-up to his masterpiece, Darwin’s Nightmare.
I’d also suggest she see Stand By for Tape Back-up, which I just caught at Hot Docs. It is hilarious, over-the-edge artistry! Now, some might call it video art rather than documentary, but that’s exactly my point. We now live in a world where gatekeepers like Hot Docs head Charlotte Cook (who recently announced her departure) champion films like Stand By. She’s not alone. They are broadening the scope beyond just facts. There’s Jackson at Sundance. Thom Powers likes to jazz things up up in Toronto. Dan Cogan and Impact Partners may support issue-related films but they are also putting money into crazy s*** like 90-minute albatross elegies (Midway) and the aforementioned Baby Yaga.
I don’t shy away from talking about the current era as a golden age of documentaries. I believe it. And I’m not just talking about box office. I am specifically talking about the sort of innovations in artistry that Ms. Hornaday is somehow missing. They’re everywhere. That’s a fact.