If documentaries want to be treated like movies, they need to behave like them

If documentaries want to be treated like movies, they need to behave like them

Last weekend, two new movies opened in arthouses to mixed-to-positive notices. A Place At The Table, a documentary about hunger in America, got kinder reviews overall than Park Chan-wook’s dark coming-of-age film Stoker, with a 68 Metacritic score to Stoker’s 59. And I can understand why the numbers broke down like they did: A Place At The Table provides a lot of good information about the facts and myths behind a problem that affects upward of 50 million people, and it ought to leave any conscientious person seething with outrage. Stoker, for all its directorial flourishes, has trouble overcoming a scenario far more banal than the gothic mystique that swirls around it. 

And yet, rhetorically, I can’t understand it at all. I’ve often argued that the “movieness” of movies is undervalued—that we accept the indifferent, workmanlike craft of deliberate mediocrities over flashier, more conspicuous failures. But the “movieness” of documentaries rarely becomes an issue, which only encourages the stereotype of the documentary as a hearty gruel of talking heads and archival footage, spooned out as artlessly as the school lunches A Place At The Table criticizes so vociferously.

The thinking that documentaries need merely to seek or present some kind of truth, regardless of how those truths are presented, strikes me as dated at a time when the elasticity of the format is constantly being tested. Why should documentaries be forgiven any more than fiction films for failing to use the medium expressively or dynamically? Why give a pass to bland info-dumps like A Place At The Table?

In an interview by Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, co-director of the impressionistic new fishing doc Leviathan, puts it bluntly: 

“I hate most documentaries,” he said. “The moment I feel like I’m being told what to think about something, I feel that I want to resist the authority of the documentarian. We’re more interested in making films that are more open-ended, that ask the spectators to make their own conclusions. We’re always implicitly, if not explicitly, fighting against how bad documentary is. Documentary claims to have this privileged purchase on a truthful version of reality—it’s not fiction, this is the real—but most documentaries’ representation of the real is so attenuated and so discourse-based and language-based. We lie and we mystify ourselves with words. Words can only take us so far.” 

Here are some of the words proffered by A Place At The Table

  • More than 50 million people in America are “food insecure,” meaning they don’t know where they’re going to get their next meal. 
  • Obesity and hunger are related epidemics, because our farming subsidies have made the materials that go into soda and junk food cheaper than the whole fruits and vegetables required for a healthy diet. For families of limited means who aren’t already trapped in “food deserts”—rural and urban areas without access to fresh fruit and vegetables from grocery stores—food-stamp programs are far too stingy to make good eating affordable. Ditto underfunded school lunches. 
  • America didn’t have this problem until Reagan started slashing social programs in the ’80s, and it’s a problem that remains solvable.

Sorry for the lack of a spoiler warning, but that’s A Place At The Table in bullet points, and all the human-interest elements in the film exist entirely to reinforce them. It’s pure propaganda—well-meaning propaganda, and at times crudely effective propaganda, but nonetheless a form of cinematic activism where art is of secondary concern. For the makers of A Place At The Table, that may not matter: They want to call attention to an urgent issue, and if it takes the battering ram of statistics and testimonials to do it, all the better. But for critics, form should matter in documentaries just as it does in features, or else bad filmmaking gets incentivized.

My position isn’t even as extreme as Castaing-Taylor’s, or that of our own Mike D’Angelo, who rejects documentaries like The Gatekeepers, which he believes would be nearly as effective in transcript form. The camera has the power to pick up on human expression that doesn’t translate to the page, so while we watch the six former heads of Israel’s secret internal-security service talk about their regrets and the country’s future, the ache behind their worst memories lingers, as does the power of all six of them speaking in chorus. Ditto something like Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War, which gathers the testimony of female sexual-assault victims in the military for a powerful, damning record of institutional crime. Cinema makes these stories stronger because there’s drama in the telling, even when the form is simple to a fault.

These are all broad arguments, with some exceptions, and entire categories of documentary unaccounted for, like acts of investigative journalism (the Paradise Lost movies, for example) or essays both personal (like the films of Ross McElwee or Michael Moore) and editorial (like Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job or No End In Sight). But there’s been movement lately toward non-fiction films that prove the elasticity of the form, which can find truth—or “ecstatic truth,” as Werner Herzog put it—through more creative means than talking heads, archival footage, and tidy little stories like the ones in A Place At The Table. Oscilloscope released two documentaries on the same day last year, Only The Young and Tchoupitoulas, that chucked the conventions of documentary realism in favor of beautiful, highly aestheticized portraits of young people testing their own boundaries. And the list goes on from there, from a deceptive profile of a deceptive man in The Imposter to the staged, lip-synched testimonials in Clio Barnard’s The Arbor to Whores’ Glory, which explores prostitution through a triptych of vividly realized locales. 

Indifferent filmmaking shouldn’t be tolerated in any form, but documentaries tend to get a pass, perhaps because the information they provide is considered more valuable than the way they provide it. But accepting documentaries made in tired, cut-and-paste formats only encourages more like them, and even undermines the legitimacy of films that try different things. It wasn’t that long ago that Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, with its then-radical use of staged reenactments, was disqualified from competing for a Best Documentary Oscar; he won one 15 years later with The Fog Of War. New ways of making documentaries have gained broader acceptance—and based on Leviathan’s strong opening weekend, broader audiences as well. Now we can do better in rejecting the old.