(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2004)
There’s a general consensus that last year was filled with great documentaries: Capturing the Friedmans, The Fog of War, Spellbound, Winged Migration, Bus 174, Etre et Avoir, and it continues this year with The Corporation, Fahrenheit 911 and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. I liked all those movies too, except for Spellbound which seemed to me to bang the patriotic drum a little too fervently. Fahrenheit 911 became the highest-grossing documentary of all time, and continues to be – in my experience – a film that comes up in conversation unusually often. At the movies, documentaries are finally cool.
On TV meanwhile, “reality” programming fills an ever-increasing portion of the schedule. Of course, “reality” in this context really needs those quotation marks, for the genre relies primarily on foregrounded artifice. The mundane rhythms of ordinary life are anathema to the form, which generally places people carefully chosen for their buff narcissism into situations where they’re pushed into the exaggerated reactions of second-rate melodrama, and then edits it so as to heighten the likeness. I guess however much you feel your buttons being pushed, it still has a frisson that’s missing from pure (or acknowledged) fiction.
It might sound like the two preceding paragraphs are about two entirely different things, but actually they’re about different places on the same continuum. The editorial choice inherent in any form of documentary is at least as wide as that involved in creating fiction. Even for a filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman, whose films present long slabs of unmodulated real life, there’s an obvious choice in what to film, when, how. That might sound like a pointless truism, but it’s easy to overlook how (say) even minor differences in the camera angle (for example, in the relative prominence of people within the frame) adjust the subtext and nuance. There’s barely an event that couldn’t be shot to seem either anarchic or conformist, either complex or banal, either progressive or complacent, When you have someone like Michael Moore, whose films prominently feature his self-generated projects and escapades, the distinction from fiction seems especially tenuous.
After all, Moore’s films have a beginning, a middle and an end – they have comedy and tragedy and celebrities. Even the film’s greatest admirers can see where Moore blatantly overstates or fakes things – such as the idealistic portrait of Toronto in Bowling for Columbine. So why would we believe anything else in the movie?
I can only advance some rather glib theses. The standard blurb on the Internet tells you how our sense of personal space is changing – connectivity pierces almost any moment of privacy. It’s supposed to be cool to have a camera on the cell phone, as though the intimate ability to pass on our quotidian visual experiences was suddenly a necessity. Anyone can get hold of a digital video camera, shoot a movie, and stick it up on the Internet. Of course, only a small percentage of us actually do this. But the awareness of the possibility is pervasive; if you’re not hooked up, you’re probably on the defensive by now.
Add to this the Blackberries and the other gadgets and you get an environment that increasingly denies limitations. Add to this the knowledge of technology we all possess now, the astonishing transparency (largely through all that padding on DVD’s) of the movie-making process, and you get an environment where the allure of fiction as a privileged form of escapism increasingly has to be discounted. It’s so easy to play with reality itself – and isn’t that obviously better?
Maybe in a way the appeal of watching spoilt rich girls on the farm, of watching endless permutations on dating games, of watching interactive singing contests - maybe our power of identification with these hi-jinks is heightened by our lengthening sense of possibility. Of course, there’s nothing very elevated about any of this. Those changes I mentioned haven’t made anyone more intelligent, except in a glib, narrowly defined kind of way. Maybe it’s the opposite. Still, it may be that at the more elevated end of this range of experience, you end up with a somewhat enhanced sensitivity for documentary.
Intersecting with this, I think you can sense a hardening in our social discourse. American politics, famously, is more divided than anyone can remember. Canada isn’t in anything like the same state, but in the free trade protests, in the relative resurgence of the NDP and elsewhere, you can see the activist spirit rumbling. As every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so the frivolity I described above may harden the arteries of some of us, and drive us to sterner stuff. A recent example is The Corporation, which I wrote about earlier this year. The movie was very well attended (especially in the premiere screening, when the Bloor Cinema ceiling fell in on them), and when I went, it looked like the kind of committed crowd that wasn’t just there for fun (it could be seen as a case of preaching to the converted).
But there’s a problem here. The Corporation had an extensive pre-release email campaign. One of the messages I received read in part as follows:
HELP US SPREAD THE WORD AND KEEP THE CORPORATION IN THEATRES!
In today's context, it's a political act to see this film in a commercial movie theatre.
The implication, as I read it, is that seeing the movie on TV is an action that can carry no specific interpretation. But paying money and getting off your ass to go to the theatre connotes a degree of commitment to the film’s “message” that has the same incremental information content (for our political masters) as marching in a protest rally. But that can only be the case if the film’s promoters think that people who see the movie inherently agree with its position. In other words, it’s barely contemplated that someone might go to see the film just out of interest, just because they want to see a good documentary. And the thing is, they’re very probably right.
This is how far documentary has to go. The TV shows get the mass audiences; for now, everything else occupies a niche. When I went to see Etre et Avoir, about a French schoolteacher, I’m quite certain the theatre was filled almost entirely by educators (somehow I could just tell). Ironically, despite the obvious gap in quality, the contrived machinations of primetime seem to people to possess the greater relevance, the greater capacity for identification and self-enhancement. In our brave new world of transformation by technology, it’s the equivalent of tinkering with the on-off button while vast layers of functionality go unexplored.