Last week, I reviewed Eugene Jarecki’s very good documentary The House I Live In, about the pervasive, destructive failures of America’s “war on drugs.” But as sympathetic as I am to the movie’s explanations of how our drug policies have led to a self-sustaining industry of prisons and law-enforcement equipment—with no vested interest in rehabilitation—I couldn’t help thinking throughout the movie that Jarecki did his case a disservice by not giving his opposition a strong voice. Most of the pro-drug-war points made in The House I Live In come from footage of old political speeches, and not from people who necessarily believe in the cause, or can argue for it intelligently. And this is a common problem with issue docs, which frequently don’t allow the other side to advocate strongly for itself. It doesn’t matter whether I’m in agreement with the filmmaker. Without a forceful counter-argument, I feel like documentaries are fudging something.
Let me clear: I am in no way saying that documentaries about hot-button issues need to remain neutral or objective. One of the biggest problems with the news media today is that in the interest of fairness, reporters give both sides of a debate equal weight, even when one side is either lying or crazy. Documentaries are a different kind of journalism, more like magazine reportage or a non-fiction book, where a strong point of view isn’t just allowable, it’s preferable. But one of the other biggest modern problems with the media—and politics, for that matter—is that too much of it is designed to play on emotions, not reason. In the documentary Windfall, for example, the argument against wind farms is largely carried by the story of one rural community that was torn apart and perhaps permanently ruined by the arrival of “big wind.” And while that’s a moving story, and one worth telling, it’s ultimately too personal and constrained to one perspective to be as persuasive as it could be.
Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan adviser Ed Meese was quoted as saying that reports of hunger in America were possibly “anecdotal,” which left-wingers cited for years as an example of the Reagan administration’s insensitivity. But with each passing year, the more I get what Meese meant, though I still disagree with how (and why) he expressed it. It’s not that Meese was denying the existence of the poor; he was only saying that if one were describing the state of the union in the early ’80s, it would be inaccurate, statistically speaking, to say that the small percentage of people struggling to afford food represented what was happening in the country as a whole. (The irony of all this was that few politicians were more committed to using anecdotes as a substitute for data than Reagan, who earlier in his career helped conjure the specter of the “welfare queen.”)
Issue-driven documentaries don’t need to be wonky per se, but if a filmmaker is trying to define a right and wrong side of an issue, hard data doesn’t hurt. Nor is it a bad idea to provide some appropriate perspective, to give a sense of how important the issue actually is. Is this one of those “the balance of nature is about to be upended and we’re all going to die” kind of problems, or is it just that something that used to be nice is going to become a little bit less so? A lot of agit-prop docs stack the deck in that way as well, turning every matter of public policy—from gerrymandering to school lunches into the last stand for civilization as we know it. Watch enough of these films, and the standard for genuine alarm gets higher by the frame. (This may be why I enjoyed the recent Side By Side so much; it’s a documentary about digital filmmaking that presents strong arguments for and against shooting digitally, and never presumes that this is a life-or-death matter.)
Oddly, the best way to avoid the trap of making every issue doc too scarifying and one-sided is to narrow the focus. This has actually been a very good year for documentaries overall, and the best have been narrative-driven, exploring larger issues through a single story: For instance, The Queen Of Versailles looks at how the financial crisis affected one ridiculously rich family, in the process offering some clues to how the economy got screwed up in the first place. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi considers tradition, taste, and foodie culture in the context of one brilliant Japanese chef. The Imposter is a tricky true-crime doc that manipulates the audience to show how the film’s subjects could’ve been similarly misled. And arriving this weekend are two more very good, blessedly “small” docs: The Iran Job, which shows life in a complicated Islamist republic from the perspective of an American basketball player who joins an Iranian pro team, and Ross McElwee’s beautiful Photographic Memory, which is sort of about how modern technology is widening the generation gap, but is mostly about how McElwee understands his teenage son too well, and sees rough roads ahead for the boy.
McElwee is one of the pioneers of the first-person documentary style, later popularized by Michael Moore. This can be a powerful tool for documentarians, to put themselves in front of the camera and thus put their agenda and opinions front and center, openly eschewing objectivity. Or it can be a terrible distraction, turning complex sociopolitical problems into a feature-length ego-stroke for the filmmaker. One of the better recent examples of how to do first-person in an issue doc is You’ve Been Trumped, in which Anthony Baxter makes himself part of the story of Donald Trump’s seizing of Scottish farmland, mainly because Trump’s people forced the issue by having Baxter arrested in the middle of an interview. But even though Baxter is an unabashed on-camera advocate against Trump, he still shows himself trying to get answers and explanations from Trump and his lackeys throughout the film. And whether Baxter’s efforts were genuine or not (I imagine they probably were), it’s easier to take You’ve Been Trumped seriously because it at least seems sincere in its efforts to cover the story comprehensively.
The real question may be whether documentaries should be considered as journalism or cinema, and whether the same standards apply for both. I have friends who are only interested in documentaries as movies, and as such, tend not to like many docs, because they feel they’d be better-served by reading about the subject in a magazine article than watching fuzzy video images of dull talking heads. I get that. When I’m watching documentaries at film festivals in particular, I often think of what my friend Scott Renshaw (critic for City Weekly in Salt Lake City) says: If you can learn just as much from reading the description in the festival program as you can from watching the movie, then it’s a bad documentary.
But for the most part, I tend to judge documentaries based on what they’re trying to be. If they’re narrative-based, I’m interested in how well they tell the story. If they’re abstract and arty, I consider the imagery and the rhythm more. If they’re personal, I look for passion and insight. And if they’re issue docs, I want sound journalism.
Again, I’m not saying documentarians should come at their subjects without opinions to express, and I’m not even saying it’s a problem when they stack the deck in favor of those opinions. But it’s always frustrating to me to watch a documentary in which some corporate spokesman spouts the company line, and then the filmmaker cuts to another interviewee who thoroughly refutes the spokesman’s statement. I always want the filmmaker to cut back to the spokesman and present the case we just heard, to spark a real debate. When that doesn’t happen, the documentary loses some of its credibility. If the movie has the form of journalism, it should be journalism. Otherwise, the filmmaker should’ve found a different way to get the point across.