The Challenges of Writing Documentary Reviews

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I have a sort of love/hate relationship with blogging. I love the idea of connecting with other like-minded folks and providing my own commentary on films and filmmakers, however I’ve never been able to consistently uphold the level of dedication that seems to come so naturally to other bloggers. Sometimes it’s laziness, other times I just don’t have much to talk about. Having said that, I’m ALWAYS watching films, and usually it’s a good doc that inspires me to load up the ol’ wordpress page and share my deepest, most personal feelings with you all.

In this case, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the whole process of writing documentary reviews. First off, I am in no way an authority on this topic. In fact, I’m exactly the opposite. Sometimes I find it difficult to sum up and sort out my thoughts on what are some of the most challenging films I’ve seen. The topics can be pretty heavy, the information dense, and the technique inconsistent. How do these critics do it? Well apparently many of them don’t. AJ Schnack recently posed the question ‘Do Print Film Critics Matter Anymore When It Comes to Documentary?’ This is in reference to an article by Gregg Goldstein of the Hollywood Reporter, pointing out the fact that many major newspapers aren’t reviewing docs upon their theatrical release. Not that surprising I suppose. Maybe they find it as difficult as I do? If so, maybe they’ll appreciate my list of things to be mindful of when reviewing docs.

Being Critical.

For some reason it can be tough to be critical when it comes to documentaries. It’s pretty easy to get caught up in films that are topical, but in my opinion, controversial or socially relevant subject matter does not automatically make a good film. As for filmmaking technique, people simply don’t know what to look for. Most people have a certain idea of what a documentary SHOULD look like. It’s somewhere between a 20/20 segment and Cops. (I love Cops.) Personally, I love a great non-fiction film that challenges those expectations, but I know I’ve had many discussions with people who think that brilliant cinematography cannot exist within a documentary film.

herald-advertiser.jpgIs it shallow to pick apart the technical aspects of a film that explores important social issues or tragic events? Last year I reviewed a film called ‘Marshall University: Ashes to Glory’. It looked at the horrible death of the Marshall University football who parished in a plane crash. The story is tragic but inspiring and has been made into TWO documentaries (as far as I know) and a feature film adaptation by none other than McG. Unfortunately, I ended up giving ‘Ashes to Glory’ one star out of four based entirely on technique. At first I felt sort of guilty for slamming a film that clearly set out to pay tribute to the victims of this horrible accident. Unfortunatley, as I watched this uninspired, dreadfully paced and painfully cheesy film, I couldn’t help but think that the story deserved better. A commentor named ‘herdcrazy’ left me a message:

“…please realize Deborah Novak did not have a Hollywood budget to work on. She had to scratch and crawl for funds. The music was originally composed and recorded on the spot. I agree with some of your remarks, but you really don’t understand the documentary genre. Documentaries are not made with a Hollywood flare. Their made for truth and honesty. Deborah Novak and John Witek and(sic) very good filmmakers and I applaud them for ASHES and the upcoming documentary about Marshall’s greatest coach, CAM HENDERSON.”

The first point of interest is the commentor’s name, ‘herdcrazy’. An implied reference to the Marshall football team, otherwise known as ‘The Herd’. Obviously this story hits close to home for this person, and therefore my concern for craft comes across as petty. I applaud the filmmakers for telling this story and congratulate them on finishing a film. That’s a very tough thing to accomplish. However, it doesn’t mean I have to like the film.

Knowing Your Subject Matter.

lostboysofsudan.jpgIn the span of one week, I’d received two copies of films dealing with illegal immigrants looking for work in small town America. After reviewing one of them (Farmingville, read my review here) I really didn’t know what to say about the second. Suddenly my movie review becomes an editorial about my thoughts on illegal immigration, something I know very little about. (Aside from what I’d learnt from the film.) I find this happens pretty often. I’ll watch a documentary about a certain subject, be it abortion, bull riding, evangalism…suddenly I’m writing a universit paper on the migratory habits of penguins. Some films simply don’t leave much room for the analyzation of technical craft. This is why it’s such a thrill when a documentary manages to combine non-fiction elements with a cinematic approach. (Manda Bala most recently comes to mind.) The non-fiction world can be pretty notorious for multiple films dealing with similar subjects. Off the top of my head, The Lost Boys of Sudan and God Grew Tired of Us. (Don’t even get me started on the Iraq and Global Warming films.) What’s going to seperate these films for me? The presentation of the subject matter, not the subject matter itself.

Style Wars.

Just to expand upon this idea a little more; style can be just as important in the non-fiction world as it is in dramatic filmmaking. Whether the approach is slick or sloppy, there’s a dependence upon accomplished filmmaking to capture a story properly. I’m totally blown away by Robert Richardson’s cinematography in the trailer for Errol Morris latest film, ‘Standard Operating Procedure’. Morris has always been breaking down barriers in terms of style in doc filmmaking. His consistent use of Hollywood cinematographers has given his films a distinct look.

Creative use of music is also another major plus that is sometimes ignored in the non-fiction world. Again, Manda Bala automatically comes to mind with it’s crazy-good 60’s and 70’s Brazillian pop score. I was blown away by Paul Matthew Moore’s brilliant score for Robinson Devor’s Zoo. I also remember being 100% sold on the film Rank, simply because of the epic church organ score that so perfectly accompanied the rodeo footage.

I suppose it comes down to deciding if a film could have benefited from these elements. Afterall, not all documentaries will benefit from a rock score and flashy cinematography.

Genre Bending and the Importance of Truth.

void.gifPersonally, I try not caught up in the definition of documentary. Lately there’s been a wave of films pushing the boundaries of non-fiction filmmaking, subsequently re-writing the definition of documentary. Films like Zoo, Touching the Void and Manda Bala have been blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction, refusing to shy away from dramatic techniques in telling their stories. Personally, I love this new sense of creativity, but others might be put off by the ambiguity of it all. Critics who sense something is amiss will most likely spend the rest of the film trying to figure out what has been staged rather then letting themselves become absorbed by the story. For me, it’s a case by case basis. If I think I’m being manipulated in order to serve the filmmaker’s own political agenda, I’m certainly put off. However, I’m always open to interpretation and I think some creative filmmaking can work wonders for helping a viewer get into the minds of their subjects. Do I care that the interviews in Errol Morris’ ‘A Brief History of Time’ were conducted on soundstages, recreating the subjects offices? No. How is it any less honest than sitting someone in front of a marble backdrop?

The best examples of a documentary blurring the fiction-non-fiction lines is of course, Errol Morris’ ‘The Thin Blue Line’. The film investigates the murder of a cop and the subsequent arrest and prosecution of Randall Dale Adams, whom Morris believed was falsely accused and wrongly convicted. The evidence was revisited and re-examined with extreme attention to detail as the film utilized re-enactments to portray the different points of view. If you’re reading this site, you’re obviously aware that the film is held in high regard as one of the best documentaries of all time. Oddly enough, it didn’t qualify for a Academy Award nomination thanks to its dramatized elements. Morris has recently discussed his use of re-enactments in great detail on his New York Times blog. You can read more about it here.

Anyways, there’s a little taste of what sorts of things go through my head as I’m trying to share my thoughts on some of my favourite, and not so favourite, documentary films.

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