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Is Michael Moore Right About Documentary Filmmakers? Documentary Filmmakers Respond

Is Michael Moore Right About Documentary Filmmakers? Documentary Filmmakers Respond

Last week, Michael Moore presented the keynote address at the Toronto International Film Festival Doc Conference and, as always, he provoked some strong responses. In his speech, Moore shared his advice to documentary filmmakers, beginning with the notion that they shouldn’t be called documentarians at all. “We are not documentarians, we are filmmakers,” he told the crowd at the start of his 13-point manifesto.

Moore went on to say that most documentaries are too preachy, telling the audience things they already know. Mostly, Moore suggested, documentaries should entertain their audiences instead of trying to teach them a lesson. “And the audience, the people who’ve worked hard all week — it’s Friday night, and they want to go to the movies. They want the lights to go down and be taken somewhere. They don’t care whether you make them cry, whether you make them laugh, whether you even challenge them to think — but damn it, they don’t want to be lectured, they don’t want to see our invisible wagging finger popping out of the screen. They want to be entertained,” said Moore. 

Indiewire reached out to a selection of documentary filmmakers to gauge their response to Moore’s manifesto. Their responses are below:

Marshall Curry (“Point and Shoot,” “If a Tree Falls”)
“I don’t think there are many hard-and-fast rules for making documentaries. It’s difficult to think of something that applies to ‘Sherman’s March,’ ‘To Be and To Have,’ ‘The Times of Harvey Milk,’ ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ and ‘Roger and Me.’ But Michael’s first point comes close. All of those docs feel like ‘movies.’ They are emotional, and most of them have compelling characters and a narrative arc. They are spectacular or dramatic or funny or heartbreaking, and that’s what makes them powerful. That’s why we admire them.”

READ MORE: Michael Moore’s 13 Rules for Making Documentary Films

Dawn Porter (“Gideon’s Army,” “Spies of Mississippi”)
“There are two points that really resonated with me, the first is when he said: ‘The politics is secondary. The art is first. … if I make a shitty film, the politics aren’t going to get through to anyone. If I ignore the art, if I have not respected the concept of cinema, and if I haven’t understood why people love to go to the movies, nobody is going to hear a damn word about the politics and nothing is going to change.’

“I think that’s really true.  My 9-year old son said to me after seeing ‘Gideon’s Army,’ ‘Mom, its like a movie!’ I think even at that young age he was expecting a documentary to be boring. I don’t see why that has to be the case. I’m attracted to non-fiction because I love people. I love seeing how they handle adversity, how they manage conflict. 

“But I don’t agree with his whole piece, and specifically, here’s where we part company, here’s where I think we just have to acknowledge we can’t be all things to all people. Michael says: ‘Remember, people want to go home and have sex after this movie.’ Don’t show them a documentary that is going to kill their evening! They’ve waited for sex all week.’ I just can’t get behind that. If people have to wait until Friday, well then you deserve to have your date ruined.”

Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco (“Give Up Tomorrow,” “Almost Sunrise”)
“Michael Moore inspired us to make ‘Give Up Tomorrow.’ In fact 10 years ago when we were trying to decide wether or not to make the film, I was asking the universe to give me a sign… later that night we ran into Michael Moore at a screening and I got to shake his hand. That was the sign, and the impetus I needed. So we quit our jobs and the following week we were on a plane to the Philippines.

“As storytellers I believe we must first and foremost engage and entertain. Otherwise we won’t find an audience. This goes for all films: narratives and documentaries alike. If we’re able to successfully engage and entertain our audience, then they will care about the social issues at the root of our stories, and we’ll have a better shot of inspiring action and galvanizing change.  Which as filmmakers (and not just documentarians!) is what turns us on.”

Doug Block (“51 Birch Street,” “112 Weddings”)
“I agree with just about all of Michael’s ‘rules,’ and in his inimitable fashion I think he makes some really important points. That said, in addressing his remarks to doc filmmakers he may be preaching to the choir in that even issue-driven docs are more story driven these days than ever, and have incorporated more and more of the techniques of fiction films. I just wish he were speaking to film and TV critics, as well, who almost always review the subject matter of a documentary rather than its artistic merit as a film. I think it’s more critics who need to have it drummed in that documentaries are movies. P.S. It cracks me up how in the same breath he can apologize for going on so long then site “Less is More” as one of his golden rules. That’s so Michael Moore.”

Ryan White (“The Case Against 8,” “Good Ol’ Freda”)
“I think there are many types of documentary filmmakers, just as there are many types of narrative filmmakers. People pursue this career for different reasons — my goal is to make films that entertain, but I have lots of friends and colleagues who make great documentaries for other reasons than to entertain. I think the prevailing asset is good storytelling. Quality storytelling will find an audience, but when it is sacrificed — for entertainment value, or preachy education, or any other reason — audiences see through it and lose interest.”

READ MORE: Joe Berlinger on Michael Moore and The Changing Market for Documentaries

Joe Berlinger (“Brother’s Keeper,” “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills”)
“While I absolutely agree with Michael that there are certain age old principles regarding the art of storytelling that aspiring filmmakers should consider heeding (in their own way of course) that Michael includes in his manifesto, such as ‘don’t tell me things I already know’ (I would just add, ‘unless you are doing it in a fresh and engaging way’) and ‘don’t talk down to or lecture the audience,’ but exhorting filmmakers to exclusively aim for popularity, to use humor and to focus on ‘entertainment’ (i.e., to pander to populism) for theatrical success runs the risk of killing off important social issue filmmaking; humor is not the only technique in the filmmaker’s arsenal and humor runs the risk of oversimplifying complex issues which in turns risks preaching to the converted instead of engaging people on the other side of the issue.

“And in today’s world where serious journalism is under attack, we need serious, social issue filmmaking more than ever.  Print journalism has been gutted and the corporate control of most networks has meant certain subjects are off limits out of fear of offending advertisers. So, most of the important social issue reporting is being done by independent documentarians who often take great risks to bring their stories to the screen. Putting yourself on camera and being funny is certainly one formula for moving audiences, and no one does it better than Michael, but it is far from the only technique, as not every filmmaker can or wants to be funny, and not every subject lends itself to humor. Rape in the military (“Invisible War”), for example, is not fertile ground for humor.

“Let’s not define cinema by the screen size and how many people see it in a movie theater — this is the problem of the latest rules for documentary eligibility for the Academy awards, which favor better known films and filmmakers and discourages theaters from playing smaller, more social issue driven films, in my opinion. I agree we shouldn’t be lecturing but the word ‘entertain’ scares me a little.

“Good storytelling is paramount but humor and entertainment isn’t the answer for everyone and every situation… it’s not always about ‘entertainment’ — it’s about persuasion, treating your audience with intelligence and balance (as opposed to lecturing) — to me, balance (showing both sides of an issue and letting the audience make up its own mind) is indeed that’s what many documentarians are afraid of; but being entertaining and funny isn’t necessarily the way to win the audience over.” Read Berlinger’s full response here.

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