This year, if you held your ear to the Oscar keyhole and listened hard enough, you might have discerned a slight disquiet. “Very strong category,” people were saying about the nominees for Best Documentary Feature. “I loved all of them,” they usually added. “But…”
The “but” concerned the eventual winner, director Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man.” A soulful mystery about the American musician Rodriguez, who rose to prominence in South Africa and Australia a generation ago before being relegated to obscurity, “Sugar Man” was never discussed as anything less than deserving. In certain quarters, though, “Sugar Man” could be seen as insubstantial when placed against the other nominees, all weighing heavy political subjects: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (“The Gatekeepers,” “5 Broken Cameras”), military sexual assault (“The Invisible War”), and the AIDS crisis (“How to Survive a Plague”).
The “but,” then, plumbed some deeper critical register, an uncertainty about what documentaries should be. The “but” posed an implicit question: what, if anything, is the “proper” subject of documentary?
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Note the scare quotes. I am, or would like to be, resistant to the idea that nonfiction filmmaking requires activism, or even front-page-style reportage, to be taken seriously. Perhaps my favorite documentary, the Maysles’ “Grey Gardens” (1975), is no less astounding for being, in affect if not in actuality, strenuously apolitical. But I am not quite immune to the reticence that accompanied “Sugar Man.” I awarded “The Invisible War” my vote for Best Documentary in Indiewire’s year-end Critics’ Poll in part on the merits of its real-world political consequences. Even when I’ve ruminated on the “personal” documentary, as I did in a lengthy essay for Bright Lights Film Journal a few years back, it was only insofar as the intimate bodies onscreen engaged the body politic as well. If one could say that any documentary is “purely” personal — an open question — I certainly wasn’t looking for it.
I’m not alone in these leanings. The question of politics goes to the heart of a debate about the purpose of documentary that reaches back nearly to the origins of the form, including Robert Flaherty’s ethnographic cinema (“Nanook of the North” , “Louisiana Story” ) and portraits of Britain’s working class in the 1930s, such as “Night Mail” (Basil Wright and Harry Watt, 1936). This talismanic belief in the power of documentary remains tenacious; it is no surprise to me that such ardent buzz surrounded “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) and “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), featuring, respectively, a polemicist and a politician. The standard bearer of this power may be Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), which saved Randall Dale Adams from wrongful execution. Self-consciously “political” documentaries invariably nod at such possibilities, if not always explicitly. This film, each suggests, could save your life.
But documentaries are, increasingly, the harbingers of a new business model, at the leading edge of production and distribution strategies quickly coming to fictional films, television, even criticism.
In a recent interview with Rahul Chadha, Thom Powers — filmmaker, co-founder of the Cinema Eye Honors, Toronto and Sundance Channel programmer, general documentary savant — made clear that the strength and diversity of documentary sales at Sundance stemmed from a shift away from traditional theatrical programming. HBO may now be this country’s foremost force in documentary filmmaking, while Showtime, A&E, CNN, ESPN, Sundance Channel, IFC, and Epix are joining the fray. Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon Video, among other VOD platforms, now offer more nonfiction options than all but the best art houses. If you don’t live in New York or Los Angeles, small screens are often the only place to see most documentaries these days: of 2012’s rich documentary slate, I saw exactly zero on a big screen.
This could be construed as the sad state of movies, yet further evidence to support the doomsday scenarios floating in the Internet’s ether. Documentaries, though, have long been at home on television, aesthetically and financially suited to spaces beyond the cinema. Relatively inexpensive to make, relying (as in Jafar Panahi’s remarkable “This Is Not a Film”) on little more than an iPhone and a surplus of creative juices, focused on content rather than spectacle, nonfiction filmmaking provides opportunities that do not yet fully translate to other genres.
The ever-broadening subject of documentary is the direct descendant of these changes. It is not a coincidence that the Oscars’ Documentary Feature category has emerged as the strongest in recent years, thanks in part to rule changes. No longer as controversial for strange snubs (remember “Hoop Dreams”?), the main frustration I experience about the nominees is that there couldn’t be more of them, when so many seem deserving. If any category deserves ten slots, this is it.
In this vein, I returned to the tape, and found myself — like the industry itself — making space for the “inconsequential” alongside the “important.” I won’t retract my vote for “The Invisible War,” Kirby Dick’s enraging depiction of betrayal, bureaucratic, medical, political, human. I won’t relinquish my own talismanic belief that documentaries like this one may indeed save lives, that the litany of stories it collects might make the personal political in ways that effect change.
We need to know, as Staff Sergeant Stace Nelson reports, that one unit supervisor told a rape victim to “stop crying over spilled milk.”
We need to know, as Tia Christopher tells us about her own supervisor, that three rape allegations in a single unit in a single week could be marked as a practical joke rather than an indication of a decrepit, violent, misogynistic culture accepted by officials at the highest echelons of the armed forces.
We need to know, as Hannah Sewell, Myla Haider, Kori Cioca, and the dozens of women and men featured in “The Invisible War” testify, that each of the 20% of female and 1% of male veterans who suffer sexual assault is a brave, patriotic, capable human whom we have abandoned by making their war invisible. We need to know that we can begin to recover them only if we hear their voices anew. “Tell Your Story,” reads a sign on the wall at a military office, with new and painful irony. “Of Service, Of Sacrifice, Of Achievement.”
Yet in this Golden Age of documentaries, spurred by fast-moving economic changes as much as by filmmakers’ remarkable acuity, we also need to the know the story told by “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present,” directed by Matthew Akers. My favorite “personal” documentary of the last year, the film builds, as it captures the final day of her endurance test of an exhibition, to a searing kind of momentum. The faces, all the faces, crying, smiling, reflecting, laughing, grimacing, leave one devastated to have missed it. What Abramović made, one art critic says in the film, was “a charismatic space, a little rent in the fabric of the universe that was wholly her own.”
By the rousing denouement, one cannot help but be drawn into the same space, even from the distance created by the screen. The last to sit before her, after nearly three months and a million visitors to the Museum of Modern Art, is the curator. The room is filled wall-to-wall with people, and the piano’s score carries you aloft. As she stands, the ovation she receives — run through with amazement and the electricity of celebrity, with the utmost respect — is quite moving. I realized, watching this finale once more, that in our brave new world my original question has become a dead letter. It’s not the subject of documentary but the art of it that’s important, before and after we fade to black.
“Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present,” is currently available on HBO on Demand, iTunes, and DVD. “The Invisible War” and “Searching for Sugar Man” are both available on iTunes and DVD. All of the other films discussed in this essay are available on DVD, Blu-ray, and/or VOD.