Ross McElwee‘s Sherman’s March may not be the “greatest” documentary of all time but, in my mind, it’s the greatest personal doc, and unquestionably the most influential. It certainly was for me.
The docs of my youth were fact-based and boring and overtly message-driven. A few that deviated from the norm, like the early films of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers, are now considered vérité classics, but back then I didn’t know what to make of them. To my inexperienced eye they seemed to have no story, and they meandered at a pace that felt slower than death.
Instead, I fell headlong for works of true cinema art like Citizen Kane that told riveting stories with an unmistakeable directorial voice. That was the film that made me want to be a movie director, by which I meant “real” movies – movies with actors. I dreamed of spinning narratives that would capture life in all its complexity, and make audiences laugh and cry in the process. I loved every kind of movie from the silent classics of Keaton and Chaplin to modern-day Hollywood to the foreign films of Bergman and Truffaut. But documentaries always left me cold.
Then one day in 1986, a good decade into my ‘breaking in’ period in the movie industry, I found myself in a jam-packed Bleeker Street Cinema watching a critically-acclaimed new film called Sherman’s March. It was, by turns, quirky and smart, comic and thematically serious, very personal yet highly entertaining, with an auteur’s voice stamped indelibly on every frame. It was pure revelation.
It was also a documentary. And it’s the reason I’m making documentaries today.
Doug Block’s most recent personal documentaries are 51 Birch Street (2005) and The Kids Grow Up (2009). He’s currently in post-production on his latest, 112 Weddings, and his short film The Children Next Door is making the international festival rounds. He’s also the founder and co-host of The D-Word, the popular online discussion forum for documentary filmmakers worldwide.