Docs in the House

Why documentary film is finally burning up the big screen

TV with a translucent blue graphic floating on the screen
Nam June Paik, Magnet TV (1965), black-and-white television with magnet. / Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation, 2004)

Michael Moore (Bowling for
, 2002; Fahrenheit 9 /11, 2004)

Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the
, 2004)

David Sutherland (The Farmer’s
, 1998)

Nick Broomfield (Heidi Fleiss:
Hollywood Madam,

Despite the recent wailing and gnashing of teeth over Hollywood’s creative decline, one form of moviemaking is flourishing: documentaries are revelling in a golden age.

In 1989, when Michael Moore sold his first film to distributors for over $1 million (US), the Industry was amazed. Documentaries do not make that kind of money! The Industry was wrong. Roger & Me went on to make a tidy profit for all concerned. Even so, the record-breaking run of that movie and the popular success, in 1992, of the Canadian political documentary Manufacturing Consent were explained away as the result of clever niche marketing that pandered to a bunch of dissatisfied lefties. Only when the extraordinary Hoop Dreams, in 1994, and Crumb, in 1995, filled theatres was it clear that documentaries had arrived. Over the last few years, titles such as Mr. Death, Bowling for Columbine, Bloody Sunday, Être et avoir, Winged Migration, and Touching the Void have entered the mainstream. It had only taken eighty years or so—not since Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was a box-office success in 1922 have audiences flocked to see documentaries at their local theatres.

After decades of playing second fiddle to dramatic directors, documentary filmmakers are entering the spotlight. In North America, Errol Morris (Mr. Death; The Fog of War) is arguably the most interesting director working in any film genre, while Ken Burns (The Civil War; Jazz) is the most popular documentary filmmaker, and Michael Moore is certainly the best-known.

Documentaries have even taken over the headlines. The controversial films of Australia’s Dennis O’Rourke (The Good Woman of Bangkok, Cunnamulla), Japan’s Hara Kazuo ( The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Goodbye CP) and—until he was murdered in Amsterdam by an Islamic viewer enraged by his film’s criticism of the treatment of women by Muslims—the Netherlands’ Theo van Gogh (Submission, 0605) sell newspapers and get on TV talk shows.

Why the sudden popularity of documentaries? Perhaps one reason is that documentaries have become more accessible at the same time as a whole generation is hungry for what they have to offer. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that in a democracy like America’s, the people are not governed by inherited traditions, but instead make judgments based on their own observations and information. Today, the young everywhere understand this. The fragmentation of the market and the multi-channel universe have given documentaries an unprecedented opportunity to reach the public, and the fact that, by Oscar night this year, Fahrenheit 9/11 had grossed more than each of the Academy nominees for Best Picture marks a fundamental change in the culture. A generation has grown up on the Internet and sees Hollywood as only another form of entertainment and TV as just another utility. It is not that the young have deserted movies or television; it is just that many are looking elsewhere for information and entertainment.

Like broccoli and Latin, fact-based films have always claimed the higher ground. Having accidentally taken a vow of poverty, documentary filmmakers like to see themselves as the high priests of cinema—unbiased observers struggling to reveal pure truth. It is no coincidence that documentaries thrive in cultures with Calvinist tendencies, although today this single-minded quest for truth seems quaintly evangelical. After a whole century of movies, and hours spent each day in front of the TV, audiences have become too desensitized to care. Jayson Blair’s made-up stories in the New York Times, cnn’s self-aggrandizing presenters, the planted flaks in the White House press corps, Ben Affleck’s protestations of undying love to whomever—isn’t it all just entertainment? How does truth come into it?

Perhaps in response to media that seem to prefer opinion over information, we have become a society obsessed with personal documentation. We step off the bus with a camera pressed firmly to our eye, concerned with capturing the moment. We can hardly wait to hurry home to relive an experience we have yet to truly enjoy. Things, and our reaction to things, do not seem to exist unless they have been captured in an image. Our most recent creation, the Internet, has quickly become a vast record of an age infatuated with itself. Millions no longer find it necessary to wait for their fifteen minutes of fame, as the video messages, on-line docs, personal homepages, visual diaries, web-cams, and home movies filling cyberspace clearly demonstrate.

Jonathan Caouette’s award-winning film Tarnation, about his troubled childhood, draws from all these sources. His chaotic video diary seems both more and less than a documentary. Abused and unloved, Caouette began to compulsively record his life as a lonely, gay teenager. Super 8, family snaps, recorded conversations, home videos, answering-service messages, and clips from favourite movies were obsessively collected to shore himself up against the blows of society. Much later, he would download his collection of images and sounds into an inexpensive computer and begin the long process of making sense of the fragments. Ostensibly about his institutionalized mother, the film is really a cry to be noticed—“This is me. I am special.” With hardly a shot in focus, or a sequence that can be held for more than a few seconds, the film is a victory of need over form. The avalanche of images and the manic editing scheme always feel truthful despite the clumsiness of the craft. Caouette is relentlessly self-dramatizing, but never self-pitying. Jonathan and his mother, Renee, have led horrible lives but the filmmaker does not blame anybody for their fates. The wry, third-party narrative that scrolls across the flickering images reads like a medieval morality play, without a moral. In the end, Caouette’s generosity of spirit and obvious joy in making the film gives a delightful optimism to the chaotic footage.

I saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival with Caouette. After the screening, the director was surrounded by young people asking questions, both technical and confessional. Familiar with the mechanics of image transfers, Java-based software, frame manipulation, and digital editing, the audience clearly understood how central to the modern experience editing has become—not just one’s own material but the shuffle button on your iPod, the channel changer on the TV, sampling in hip hop, the delete button, the use of Internet material for class essays, etc. I felt that at any moment, Caouette and his questioners could take out their laptops and start exchanging editing notes. I could not help thinking that Tarnation was just the tip of an iceberg, the first of an avalanche of therapeutic documentaries. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 cost more, and made more money, but sprang from many of the same impulses. To both filmmakers, you feel like saying, “There, there, dear, just get it off your chest!”

Politically, both the right and the left distrust the mainstream media, whose claims of objectivity are patently belied by the perceptible biases of their owners. Documentary makers make no such claim. Indeed, it is the pleasure of a good rant and a clearly defined enemy that make Michael Moore’s films and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me so popular. Sure, these films can be factually sloppy, ridiculous, and often too slick, but the energy and talent of their attack is invigorating. While many of us feel the old forms of film drama have become moribund, and slowly starved of intellectual energy, these documentaries are bursting with dramatic creativity. Accustomed to the artistic paralysis of Hollywood, many theatregoers are surprised to see that film is still experimenting with the possibilities of visual storytelling. Unlike most films found at our neighbourhood the theatres, documentaries feel as if they belong to the twenty-first century and at least on nodding acquaintance with other contemporary arts.

Like Jonathan Caouette, Moore plunders the whole history of documentary to make his point. Whether you agree with his message or not, Fahrenheit 9/11 is filmmaking at full throttle. Like a mixed tape given to you by a crazed lover, the film promises that even if you hate one cut, you will love the next—a touch of agitprop, a scene or two of purest cinéma-vérité, the World Trade Center collapse handled with the sensitivity of an art movie, Bush’s early days in power treated with the excesses of reality TV, the rest cut, shaped, and layered to live up to National Film Board founder John Grierson’s command to use film as a hammer. For many, it was a reminder of why we loved movies in the first place—the sheer pleasure of experiencing an art form that would use anything to grab our attention.

As was amply demonstrated by the anti-Kerry campaign created by a group called Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, documentaries can powerfully convey the opposite viewpoint as well. After first releasing short, weird docs on the Web, the Veterans then incorporated them into an ad campaign, and eventually packaged all the materials into a more formal documentary. This was political propaganda at its most paranoid and powerful, surely more influential than either Moore’s noisier film or George Butler’s moving but traditional documentary, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry.

Well before Michael Moore, influential British filmmaker Nick Broomfield, the director of documentaries about the Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, and the death of Kurt Cobain, had enraged purists by using his own performance as the reporter to blur the gap between impartiality and point of view. Again and again, Broomfield is clearly being manipulated by his subjects, yet his stubborn struggle to reveal the truth, or at least the truth as he sees it, creates films that aim at the very heart of documentary’s traditional claims of objectivity. After years of listening to politicians, sports figures, business leaders, and government inquiry witnesses lie to us, we cannot help but identify with Broomfield’s frustration, anger, and futile efforts to reveal the truth.

One film last year seemed to reflect all the strengths of the modern documentary. Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans told the complex and tangled story of the Friedman family of Great Neck, Long Island. In a sensational trial in 1987, the father, Arnold Friedman, and the youngest of his three sons, Jesse, were charged with sexually molesting children who were attending computer classes held in the family basement.

While Broomfield punctuates documentary’s traditional balance of interviews and testimonials with scenes of his own humiliation, Jarecki has an even more powerful resource: the hundreds of hours of home movies made by the Friedmans themselves. The family members obsessively documented their lives and continued to do so right through the trials. Both Broomfield’s scenes of direct confrontation and Jarecki’s use of the Friedmans’ home movies expose the filmmaker’s inability to understand fully, let alone reveal, the complete truth. As witnesses and friends provide conflicting pieces of evidence, we see that much of the abused kids’ testimony is untrustworthy, while Arnold Friedman is exposed as a collector of child pornography; the sequences filmed by the family comment on and then destroy our perceptions and expectations. It is as if Greek tragedy has been turned on its head. While the gods desperately make a case for their champions below, the mortals on stage refuse to co-operate, holding up damning evidence and uncomfortable information that can be used against them.

More than with any film I can remember, with Capturing The Friedmans I was forced to question why and what I was watching. Why did the middle son, David, film these terrible moments, and why would he even consider allowing Jarecki to use the material? The lines from the film’s opening music—“They’re gonna put me in the movies, they’re gonna make a big star out of me,” by Buck Owens—do not answer the question or explain our own sense of voyeurism. Does David’s decision to show his family being destroyed make it all right for us to watch? Days after seeing the film, my wife and I were still arguing about the guilt or innocence of the family.

Two sequences in particular reveal the power of using home movies in this framework. A few days before Arnold Friedman is to go to jail, found guilty of sexual abuse, the whole family sits at the meal table discussing the trial and Dad’s still-proclaimed innocence. As always, David is filming with his video camera. The three sons are outraged: “Of course, the trial was rigged, the charges outrageous, the whole process a grotesque distortion of justice!” The scene seems like a parody of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, as the camera pans from face to face around patriarch Arnold until the mother, Elaine, is forced to speak. She alone feels uncomfortable being filmed. Marginalized by the men of the family, her opinion never truly valued, she is now being forced to commit herself on the record to family and husband—and she cannot. Perhaps Arnold, her brilliant and charismatic husband, is indeed capable of these crimes. She has lived and slept with this man for years but now does not know, or is unwilling to face her three sons and husband, about her suspicions. If she is the Judas at the table, Arnold makes no effort to defend himself. Like the self-satisfied smirk on President Bush’s face in Fahrenheit 9/11 or Jonathan Caouette’s desperate body language in the early vignettes of Tarnation, the fleeting shots of Arnold’s indifference beside Elaine’s anguish are more powerful than any statement by filmmaker or subject.

Later in the film, Jesse Friedman, Arnold’s youngest son and teaching assistant, is about to join his father in jail. Waiting to be sentenced, the young man clowns and dances on the courthouse steps for his brother’s camera. The scene is tragic, enraging, and amusing all at once—proving neither guilt nor innocence, but rather simply showing human behaviour without comment. Only later do we consider David’s almost desperate need to document the moment.

Ambiguity lies at the heart of the film, as Jarecki examines the complexity of character and behaviour without any claims to objective truth. Later, David will tell the filmmaker that he recorded the destruction of his family so that he does not need to remember it. The subtext of this movie—our obsession with documenting the details of our lives in order to find some bigger meaning—eventually becomes its message.

You are changed by the film because you cannot watch it without at least considering changing your own mind. Leaving the theatre drained, I felt I had experienced the start of a new chapter in film. Not since first seeing Pulp Fiction had I felt this hopeful for cinema.

It is exciting to watch an art form bursting into its own, but it is the ability of documentaries to portray character that stays with you. Aspiring inner-city Chicago basketball players William Gates and Arthur Agee, growing up before our eyes in the wonderful Hoop Dreams, or even the racist Coach Pingatore in the same movie; Robert Crumb and his strange family in Crumb; Roméo Dallaire in Peter Raymont’s Shake Hands with the Devil; above all the pathetic and ultimately frightening Fred Leuchter in Errol Morris’s brilliant Mr. Death, linger in your memory long after Hollywood heroes have faded.

A few years ago pbs ran the film The Farmer’s Wife over three evenings. The six-hour documentary, directed by David Sutherland, is about Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter’s struggle to survive as small farmers in the American Midwest. As the film unfolds, the viewer cannot help but be sucked into the rhythms of their world of harvests and birthdays, bank loans, and planting. The quiet intimacy and measured pace of the film take on the transcendental power of a Robert Bresson movie as the couple’s dreams of raising a loving family on their Nebraska farm are slowly crushed by modern economics. After years of heroically struggling together, their marriage suddenly falls apart, and, as with any true tragedy, we are left shocked and drained by the inevitability of the climax. By the last episode, the series had won an emotional depth most feature films seem incapable of even attempting. For once, a happy coda, as the couple reunites in the end, seems well-earned.

For many of us, seeing a documentary in a cinema is a new experience. Even if you are only slightly interested in film, the discovery that it can build a sense of community draws you in. Dawdle in the foyer after a documentary and the chatter of an audience still connected to the subject and to the film itself is intoxicating and addictive. After being battered into near-submission by Hollywood and prime-time programming, it is exhilarating to be trusted to make up our own minds on what constitutes entertainment.

It may only be for a short time that documentary can have its cake and eat it too, claiming both artistic privileges and journalistic standards. But for the time being, with new tools, new material, and new markets to explore, what more can any art form hope for?

Alastair Brown