“A banner year for documentary” is what you’re likely to have read in more than a few year-end overviews in recent weeks, and not without reason: 2013 was a great year for documentaries, though also one that drew attention to the ways in which our (mis)use of that word tends to shape and shift our expectations. “Documentary,” after all, is a formalist construction, a lens that can clarify as much as contort the manner in which we view a work and its responsibility to its subject and its viewers.
That was never clearer in 2013 than in the case of “Blackfish,” the Oscar-shortlisted Seaworld exposé whose box office success and social media storm didn’t entirely protect it from a small but substantial backlash against its perceived formal failings. For as much as Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s tale of Tilikum the killer whale may be an engaging, alarming indictment of animal abuse, according to its detractors being an “issue film” doesn’t excuse it from cinematic obligation: documentaries are films first and foremost, as much beholden to their medium as to their message.
And what about “Salinger,” the profile whose critical reception could scarcely have been more different to the one facing “Blackfish,” but which equally earned scorn for the simplicity of its presentation (albeit, in its case, of rather more dubious material)? The axe that fell on Shane Salerno’s film may have carried the force of more considerable criticisms, but it was a blade sharpened by the ire toward the movie’s lacking visual approach. Be they adored or reviled, 2013’s documentaries — especially those of the talking head variety — focused on content above and beyond form at their peril.
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It’s of course no new sentiment in the documentary debate, but it is one that seems to have come right to the fore this past year, the aesthetically unambitious and formally formulaic of 2013 afforded far fewer free passes than their forebears. The success of “Blackfish” may be evidence that the strength of the tale still matters for most above the weaknesses of the telling, but the growing loudness of dissenting voices stands out as proof of that safety net shrinking.
That such works should find less favor than they have in the past is perhaps most obviously a consequence of one simple fact: We’re spoiled for choice. The relative ease of contemporary production and distribution has opened our eyes to an astonishing array of international efforts that make the erstwhile “ordinary” look ugly by contrast. From the jaw-dropping head-over-heels cross-continental camerawork of “¡Vivan las Antipodas!” to the gorgeously soft shots of “Cutie and the Boxer” to the extreme close-up effulgence of “More Than Honey,” the movies that made their way to our screens this year not only expanded our view of the world, they showed it to us in more beauty than ever before.
It’s especially appropriate that we should come to question documentaries now, given they’re doing the same themselves: “The Act of Killing” and “Stories We Tell,” perhaps the year’s most highly-regarded exemplars of the format and Oscar-shortlisted themselves, are both concerned—obsessed, even—with a meta-analysis of their own function, particularly in their relationship to reality. In the latter, Sarah Polley playfully skirts the line between fact and fiction in presenting her family’s subjective recollections of their late mother. In the former, Joshua Oppenheimer uses his recordings of abstract reconstructions of his subject’s murders to confront them with the reality of the horror they wreaked.
The films’ thinning lines between fact and fiction, between reality and fantasy, are emblematic of the way in which our impression of documentary cinema is changing: no longer do we maintain the same distinction embedded in cinema from its earliest days in France, where viewers could choose between the Lumière brothers’ “actualities” and the effects-driven adventure stories of Georges Méliès. As much as it’s easy to find today’s heirs to those respective strands of storytelling, modern cinema has endless shades of grey to offer amidst the black and white of documentary and fiction as we’ve come to define them.
Perhaps no documentary better challenged our conceptions in 2013 than that which opened in its very first week: “56 Up,” the latest entry in Michael Apted’s extraordinary septennial series of films chronicling the growth of a group of English children, focused as much on its own fictionality as it did on explicating the facts the original set out to discover. As one of the subjects notes with frustration, the people the series has portrayed aren’t so much representative of their life as they are all life, an unreal image that somehow reveals reality.
And that from a film that suits to the letter our traditional take on what a documentary should look like. You’ll find “Leviathan” high on many lists of the year’s best documentaries, yet much of its acclaim comes precisely from the fact that it expands our notions of what documentary can be. It’s unsurprising, then, that so many opted instead to label it “nonfiction,” a cover-all term that’s unsurprisingly awash with its own difficulties: as even the new website nonfics.com felt obliged to note on its launch last year, “what qualifies as nonfiction is rather complicated.”
Quite so, especially in terms of films like “More Than Honey” and “Lunarcy!” — and of course “Stories We Tell” — which playfully perpetuate their own little fictions to make more effective and impactful the facts they reveal. That’s to say nothing of the fictional films predicated on fact: are-they-aren’t-they-documentaries like “Caesar Must Die” and “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty”; retrofitted mockumentaries such as “Computer Chess” and “No”; even workshopped narratives where the cast are the characters, like “The We and the I.” Aesthetically and ideologically, the line between fiction and documentary has never been blurred quite so often, and quite so effectively.
It’s not a trend that looks set to change anytime soon: 2014 promises plenty of films that should continue to challenge and change what we mean when we say documentary. Particularly fascinating is a pair that presents dramatic readings of transcripts to very different ends: “Charlie Victor Romeo” (which played the festival circuit last year) sees black box recordings “performed” in a minimalist cockpit set in 3D, while “Reckoning with Torture” — tellingly, the first documentary from “Bourne Identity” director Doug Liman — features actors and members of the public reading Guantanamo Bay confessionals. Then there’s “The Great Flood” and “The Island of St. Matthews,” both intent on abstractly reviving mementos lost to the elements, melding reminiscence and recreation. And from the same cloth as “Leviathan” comes cut “Manakamana”; from the folks who rendered truth as thriller in “Man on Wire” and “The Imposter” comes the stranger than fiction spy story “The Green Prince.”
With more movies than ever sat firmly on the fence between fact and fiction, it’s never been clearer how rickety that old fence is. That’s not to suggest it doesn’t remain a useful boundary of course, rather to remind that it can hide a whole other view. Where some documentaries falter in forgetting to function as films as well as facts, and others excel in exploring where their limits lie, all serve to remind us that they shouldn’t be separated from the cinema of which they’re a subset, not a sideshow. If 2013 was a banner year for documentary, it was a banner whose small print we shouldn’t forget: a great year for documentary, however we might choose to define it, is a great year for cinema.