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Do Critics Understand Documentaries?

Do Critics Understand Documentaries?

Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of making my maiden voyage — the first, I hope of many — to the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. The ranks of nonfiction festivals are steadily swelling, but True/False, which Time recently named “One of 50 Cultural Experiences to Try in 2014,” struck me as being uniquely, if subtly, dedicated to shifting the understanding of what documentary can be. In addition to movies like Nick Bentgen’s Northern Light, a favorite of just about every critic in attendance that was inexplicably slept on by more high-profile festivals, and the poetic These Birds Walk, which opens in theatrical release this week, True/False’s slate included movies like Computer Chess, fiction films that share a certain aesthetic overlap with documentaries. (Also, they have bands playing before every screening, and the festival climaxes with a parade.)

One of True/False’s highlights was a panel discussion called “The Revolution Will be Criticized,” moderated by filmmaker Robert Greene, who’s been building a second career as a fine writer on documentary film, and including critics Eric Hynes, Miriam Bale, Vadim Rizov and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. True/False has now put video of that panel up on the web, along with a downloadable audio file, and it’s well worth watching (or listening to) in full.

“The Revolution Will Be Criticized” was inspired by a piece on “Cinematic Nonfiction” Greene wrote for Hammer to Nail, which in turn was prompted by what Greene called Manhola Dargis’ “amazingly tone-deaf” review of Only the Young. The problem, he argues, isn’t that Dargis disliked the film — although that part clearly stuck in his craw — but that it showed little understanding of the ways in which the form can productively diverge from the stock elements of talking heads and story-driven structure. 

You can tell Greene’s a true advocate, as opposed to a simple booster, by the fact that he’s calling for critics to be harder, not easier, on most documentaries. “We need better criticism that isn’t about being nice,” he said at True/False, “that’s about talking about the films for what they are.” That not only means accepting less-traditional approaches — or, really, a return to pre-verite models like Joris Ivens’ Rain — but not falling back on pre-fab notions of what documentaries should and shouldn’t do. The reviews for After Tiller, a portrait of the four American doctors who openly perform third-trimester abortions that also screened at True/False, were almost unilaterally concerned with issues of “balance,” either praising the film for evenly presenting both sides of a hot-button issue or damning it for failing to do so. Even A.O. Scott’s nuanced Times review, which says that Tiller directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson are “less interested in recapitulating political debates than in understanding how the doctors approach work that would be emotionally difficult and ethically challenging even without the incessant controversy,” bore the web headline “After Tiller Is a Documentary About Abortion Doctors,” as if it were simply a platter on which to serve up its subjects. Few critics seemed to understand that Tiller, rather than an advocacy doc, is a character documentary about advocates. While it maybe one-sided in the sense that pro-life protestors are only glimpsed from car windows as the doctors drive into work, it’s less about painting them as valiant crusaders for choice than calculating the toll of being forced to man the battlements in the culture wars.

As documentaries like These Birds Walk increasingly take up the mass media’s slack in representing other cultures and points of view, the questions raised by “The Revolution Will Be Criticized” only become more important.

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