At the end of a recent blog posting, Premiere film critic Glenn Kenny wondered aloud about some of the documentaries he’d seen at the Sundance Film Festival. Summing up his thoughts on Nanette Burstein‘s hit “American Teen” Kenny wrote “Burstein’s trim, fast-moving film utilizes tricks and techniques that would give old-schoolers such as Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers rage attacks. The pop soundtrack, the voiceovers, the graphic collages, the animation sequences illustrating the dreams and desires of some of its subjects…none of it’s a surprise, coming as it does from the co-director of the Bob Evans fantasia “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” but all of it does raise the question of just how documentary is defining itself these days.” Kenny’s questioning reflects a decades-old discussion, often fueled by film critics (and sometimes by journalists or by some within the documentary community) over the use of construction — created or recreated content — within the context of nonfiction filmmaking. Often this is accompanied with a similar name check of a veteran filmmaker, with the implicit understanding that construction represents a shift in tradition within the genre.
In fact, you can travel back to the earliest days of documentary filmmaking to find construction — from Flaherty’s staging of scenes in “Nanook of the North” to Vertov’s use of enhanced techniques such as fast-cuts, split screens and, yes, animations. Despite the existence of construction from the earliest days of nonfiction cinema, some, more recently, have come to think of documentary as an offshoot of journalism, in which the camera, the director and the editor serve as invisible observers (and reflectors) of real events.
And as Frederick Wiseman himself has noted, “There are lots of different ways to make film. I don’t believe there has to be any orthodox way to making movies, or any rules. It’s what works for the filmmaker, and, theoretically, the audience.” Rage attacks, indeed.
Where once this debate was seemingly contained between the two dominant schools of nonfiction in the mid-1900s — direct cinema (where invisibility is the goal and the ideal) and cinema verite (which implicitly recognizes that the camera’s very presence alters the reality) — over the past few years we have seen a “Nonfiction New Wave” that rejects dogmatic strictures of form and that is, ironically, a return to the genre’s roots.
This Nonfiction New Wave not only embraces every kind of stylistic tool (and is especially fond of animation and graphic design), it also seems not to fear that space between truth and fiction, between documentary and narrative. And it was on full display at this week’s Sundance Film Festival, which, over the past several years — as seen in “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)” and “Chicago 10” among others — has been a leading proponent of the movement.
This year in Park City, animation was nearly universal as seen in the dreamscapes of the “American Teen,” in recreations of the Watts riots in “Made in America,” in the moody, artistic transitions of “Secrecy” and in the graphic illustrations of “I.O.U.S.A.” and “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*.” Voice-over narration of the Michael Moore school (wherein the director takes the viewer on a wry journey from small, personal story to large, encompassing investigation) was on display both in Morgan Spurlock‘s “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?” and the aforementioned “Bigger, Stronger.” Whole scenes were created (from scratch? as composites?) in the world competition doc “A Complete History of My Sexual Failures.” And a number of scenes in “American Teen” wherein the subjects send and receive emails, texts and phone calls are clearly staged for cameras that likely were elsewhere when the event in question occurred.
For critics who tied themselves into knots over the limited construction in “Billy the Kid,” the films of Sundance 2008 may seem sacrilegious, but they are really just the solidifying of a trend that reaches back several years. Even the Motion Picture Academy, which isn’t exactly on the front lines of innovation, recognizes that construction is a viable part of documentary. Three of this year’s five nominees for best documentary use extensive construction from the traditional Moore approach in “Sicko” (complete with pop music soundtrack and boat trips to Guantanamo) to the re-enactments and portraiture of “War/Dance” as well as actors who do voice-over in the animation for “Operation Homecoming.”
That’s not to say that more traditional (yet no less artistic) visions weren’t on display. Witness the rapturous response to Margaret Brown’s “The Order of Myths.” Yet one would be hard pressed to watch the bulk of this year’s documentary competition without acknowledging that the line between traditional ideas of narrative and nonfiction is becoming ever more blurred. Whether one thinks that’s for the good or the bad may be a debate as old as the genre itself, yet it’s a debate that shows no sign of ending any time soon.
“Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” and “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?”
Few films were as anticipated at this year’s Sundance as “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?,” Morgan Spurlock‘s follow-up to his breakthrough hit “Super Size Me.” So much of the project has been shrouded in buzz and mystery — from its initial screening of footage for distributors in Berlin (complete with a confidentiality agreement) to the rampant Internet speculation that Spurlock succeeded in tracking down the “most wanted man in the world” — that it seems nearly impossible to judge the film on the merits. If Spurlock doesn’t meet or interview or personally take revenge on bin Laden, are we supposed to feel cheated?
Viewed without the baggage of expectations, one can see “Where in the World” for what it is, another step on the personal filmmaking journey that began with “Super Size Me” and continued with his FX television series “30 Days.” The pop culture sensibility that informs much of Spurlock’s work is on high display in the film’s initial moments — a quick-moving introduction that’s as entertaining as anything we’ve seen from him thus far. Once Spurlock moves into more serious territory, trekking in the steps of bin Laden, the balance of tone becomes more tricky, not to mention the balance of the personal (the impending birth of Spurlock’s child) with the professional — both the cinematic hunt for elusive prey as well as the tacit acknowledgement that said hunt is a gimmick that forms the basis of the film.
Interestingly, Christopher Bell‘s “Bigger, Stronger, Faster,*” an exceptional and often hilarious look at steroid use in America, comes from the same school of filmmaking as Spurlock, and Bell’s film feels like the breakthrough “Super Size Me” was several years ago.
Starting with the small, personal story of anabolic steroid use within his own family (his two brothers have used steroids for years, Bell tried them once and felt so guilty that he stopped taking them), Bell expertly expands the tale to indict an American culture obsessed with winning at all costs. Like Spurlock and Michael Moore, Bell leads the viewer on this journey and proves to be an excellent guide, equally at home quizzing his family as he is questioning U.S. congressmen and sports heroes. But Bell (aided by strong editing from Brian Singbiel) does something more and equally unexpected — he challenges society’s preconceived notions about steroids. ‘What if,’ he wonders, ‘much of what we’ve heard about steroids is a lie or an exaggeration?’ The best nonfiction films get audiences to see the world in new ways and on this point, “Bigger Stronger” is an unqualified success.
“Man on Wire” and “Trouble the Water”
As the week in Park City comes to a close, two other nonfiction films have been garnering raves from attendees. Tia Lessin and Carl Deal‘s “Trouble the Water,” which looks at the still-simmering aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is said by many to be the emotional powerhouse among the docs at Sundance.
Some fest attendees described James Marsh‘s “Man on Wire” as the best film they saw at the festival. The film, which didn’t debut until Tuesday afternoon, recounts the story of Philippe Petit who, in 1974, walked a tightrope suspended between the Twin Towers. One major U.S. film critic told me how much he admired the film, set against the backdrop of the World Trade Center. for avoiding sentimentality and cliche.
“Man on Wire” joined “Stranded” amongst the most admired docs in the World Documentary Competition. There was also positive word-of-mouth for “Alone if Four Walls,” “Be Like Others” and “Derek.”
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.