2010 has been a very good year for documentaries (maybe the best of all time?). But it’s also been a good year for fiction films that documentary fans should find appealing and that documentary filmmakers should find inspiring. I probably am only noticing this trend because I typically like non-fiction more, but lately a number of dramatic films, studio and indie fare alike, have made me think of documentary practices. I’m not even referring to “I’m Still Here,” which I still consider a doc in spite of its fictional elements. However, there is something to be said for this being a year in which we’ve all thought more about the blurred line between fiction and non-fiction, whether due to the questionable realities of docs like “I’m Still Here” and “Catfish” or the very narrative-focused docs like “Last Train Home” and “Restrepo” (which I wish would be inspiring for dramatic films of their kind) or the ever-increasing amount of doc-style fiction movies and TV series.
I’ve already written a prior post about how “Please Give” relates to current trends in doc filmmaking, so I needn’t revisit that. But I’ve thought of five more. The first film I’d like to bring up as having spoken to my documentary interests is one opening in limited release this Friday:
Aside from the opening sequence, which is very, very similar to the opening of “Restrepo,” Gareth Edwards’ cheaply made, minimalist sci-fi road movie offers a few dialogue exchanges pertaining to journalistic ethics that can be applied to documentaries. Early on in the “It Happened One Night”-esque meeting of the film’s two main characters, Samantha (Whitney Able) asks photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) if it bothers him that he needs something bad to happen in order to profit. He points out that doctors do, too. Then he adds that he doesn’t cause the bad thing, he only documents it (that image above, from later in the film, calls to mind all the photojournalistic work of the Hurricane Katrina disaster). He also tells her that sadly he earns a lot of money for a photograph of an unhappy child but zilch for a photograph of a happy child.
The thing is, though, documentaries seem to be more popular if there are eventually images of happy children and poor people whose lives have been turned around (see “Born Into Brothels,” “Waste Land,” most festival audience award winners). I don’t necessarily think filmmakers should adhere to the practice of documenting poverty and tragedy, and “Monsters” even later focuses on a theme of finding the beauty in bad things — and, if we must equate the aliens to Mexican immigrants, not thinking of them as bad at all. So the message to docmakers might be to keep in mind that non-fiction films can be spectacular and beautiful and not always about miserable subjects that need to be saved or problems that have to be fixed.
“Dinner for Schmucks”
I’ve already complained about the hypocrisy of and manufactured by this admittedly hilarious comedy. The movie’s message seems to be that we shouldn’t treat these “schmucks” as freakshow spectacle, yet the movie does in fact exploit them as such for comedy. Many documentaries do this very same thing where they either have definite contempt for their subjects or they try to come off as not being exploitative when they clearly are. “Catfish” might count, and I’ve seen a number of films that mean to hide behind their being focused on someone else doing the direct exploitation (I thought “Waste Land” was like this, but its director is actually in cahoots with the exploitative artist) — a kind of demoralization by proxy. This film is the one title on this list where I’d like docmakers to be inspired to be less like the fiction filmmaker.
I think, though the acting in this film is great, the story of Betty Anne Waters would have been better told with a documentary. But I’d have liked it to end the same way this dramatized version does, without mention of Kenny Waters’ death six months following his exoneration. Documentaries need to adhere to the story they’re telling and shouldn’t always feel an obligation to communicate via epilogue title cards where each subject is today or what became of them overall. It only encourages more audience members to ask about the status of subjects during filmmaker Q&As. You might as well also put in a title card stating which subjects have seen the film and what they think of it. We can and ought to just let a story be a story, and even though it’s a true story it can have a clear-cut ending, plot-wise.
“Paranormal Activity 2”
Last weekend’s box office champ made me think more about a new doc out this week, Doug Block’s “The Kids Grow Up.” I’m not much of a fan of Block’s work, though I do appreciate his latest more than I expected to. Now that I’ve seen this horror sequel, though, I am back to imagining how “Kids” could have been better. In “PA2,” there’s a father-daughter relationship documented (though scripted and acted, obviously) that I found far more interesting than the one in “Kids.” Maybe because the camera was primarily in the hands of the daughter? Maybe because it wasn’t limited to the hands of one person? None of the family members seemed to be hiding behind a camera the way Block does, and so you can see real bonds between the characters rather than an over-analyzed and mechanically detached experience. In general, I’d love to see some first-person films that don’t use any voice-over. “PA2” has none and we’re able to get enough exposition and character information without it. Of course, the scripted aspect is one reason, but if your coverage is exhaustive you should be able to get as much detail. Hopefully no filmmakers will be inspired by the dark and shaky climax of “PA2,” but anything up to that point is worth paying attention to.
“Enter the Void”
Speaking of first-person documentaries, perhaps some filmmakers can try something even more objective than just leaving out the voice-over. Gaspar Noe’s latest film features a first-person POV that doesn’t interact a whole lot with other characters. Once the protagonist is in his pre-death dream state (misunderstood as his afterlife state), he’s just walking and floating around invisibly observing what’s going on in front of him. So in doc terms how would this be considered first-person over direct cinema style? It’d be confused, for sure. The key would be that we still occasionally see the arms and legs of the director/cameraman, be it Doug Block or Ross McElwee or whomever. They just wouldn’t talk to people. I don’t know what the point would be. I’m just curious. It’d be interesting to see if this would be worthwhile or just another bad first-person experiment like “Lady in the Lake” (which, I know, had an interacting first-person camera). And if anyone is interested in making a documentary about what sex looks like from the penis’ perspective, you’ll find that this film is sufficient. No need to be inspired by that.
Other films I think documentary filmmakers and fans should see this year include “Winter’s Bone” (a look into a strange and darkly fascinating society that I think objective docmakers could try to replicate; also I’d like to see more mysterious investigative docs follow its form), “The Social Network” (docmakers are also permitted to manipulate facts, chronology and causation to stick to a main thesis — and many already do), “Carlos” (docs can also be longer than 90 minutes and will find an audience if they’re riveting enough; no more of this “there wasn’t time to add that to the film” defenses I’ve been hearing from so many docmakers) and “How to Train Your Dragon” (instructional docs can be fun, too! okay, just kidding about this one).