Note: This post may contain spoilers.
The best documentaries feature fascinating people. Many of these people are heroes who face obstacles, make sacrifices, and chase goals.
Not all documentary characters are represented as heroes, and nor should they be. The best stories have an antagonist — the evil corporation, the dictator, the environment, the criminal justice system — who blocks the hero’s way. These antagonists represent conflict, which drives narrative. Without conflict, there is no story.
Also interesting are the characters who exist between these poles and resist easy classification.
No matter the role, every person appearing within a documentary must be represented fairly. It is easy to think of documentaries that represent heroes in a positive and fair light. But “fair” does not necessarily mean positive. So what about the documentaries that focus on people who aren’t heroes?
In preparing a class session about this question, I asked on Twitter, “What are some documentaries that make people look bad?” The Tweet elicited many responses: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The Armstrong Lie, Roger & Me, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Sudanese Twins, Capturing the Friedmans, The Art Star, The Imposter, and the Paradise Lost trilogy.
Errol Morris’s films garnered frequent mention. It should be no surprise — Morris gravitates toward difficult subjects and issues. Consider The Unknown Known, about Donald Rumsfeld; Mr. Death, about the execution device designer and Holocaust denier; Standard Operating Procedure, about the torture in Abu Ghraib prison; and Fog of War, about former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.
Few words can even begin to describe Shirley Turner in Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father. Kurt Kuenne’s documentary started as an attempt to create a profile of a deceased father for a surviving son. Then Turner murdered their child. If you have not seen this one yet, make sure you stock up on tissues first. It is tragic and heartbreaking.
But even when everyone, no matter the role, is represented fairly, not every audience member will bide by that representation as the filmmaker envisioned it.
To spark class discussion about these ideas, I used what might seem like an odd choice: a trailer for The Queen of Versailles. The trailer itself inspired a divided discussion about David Siegel, Jackie Siegel, their marriage, their wealth, and their privilege. Some liked the couple, while others disliked their wealth and their attitudes about it.
Their comments showed perfectly how no matter what filmmakers do, audiences still react in myriad ways even to the representations within a trailer.
I then asked them to shift their positions as engaged audience members to that of filmmakers in order to consider if the Siegels were represented fairly. A consensus emerged that they had been.
This conversation has been just one among many about representation, fairness, and ethics. More on these issues in the coming posts.