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Culture Warrior: This Week in Non-Fiction

I’m going to force the interwebs to take a momentary break from continuing to go nuts over Watchmen this weekend and take a look at a couple of documentaries below the radar…
By  · Published on March 7th, 2009

I’m going to force the interwebs to take a momentary break from continuing to go nuts over Watchmen this weekend and take a look at a couple of documentaries below the radar…

While it might be a bit reductionist to do so (as there exist many exceptions to the rules of nonfiction filmmaking), I think at this point one can safely categorize popular American documentaries according to three evident trends in format and approach: the retrospective doc, the firsthand doc, and the argumentative doc (which often combines the approaches of the first two).

The retrospective documentary often features a combination of archive footage, still photographs, contemporary interviews, and (often) staged reenactments that recount an incident or trend, and these filmed and archival materials are often constructed and juxtaposed in a way that gives an argument to the subject or incident’s significance and (in many cases, implicitly or explicitly) the documentarian’s opinion of the importance of said subject. A textbook example of this would be this year’s Best Documentary Oscar winner, Man on Wire. While the investigative documentary can take place in almost any form, most docs that investigate often take this retrospective approach, like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988) or Standard Operating Procedure (2008).

The second type of doc investigates an incident or subject as it happens, which gives these films a certain degree of spontaneity and serendipity, as they just so happen to capture the right moment in the right place at the right time. This format first became popular in the 60s and 70s with the invention of lightweight, mobile 16mm cameras and made popular by the work of cinéma vérité documentarians D. A. Pennebaker (who famously followed Bob Dylan around at the height of his popularity in Don’t Look Back (1967) and later chronicled the Clinton campaign in The War Room (1993)) and the Maysles brothers (Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1975)). Now, with digital video, such firsthand documentation is made even easier and the results can be quite uncanny, like the extreme tension in observing the personal videos of a family about to experience Hurricane Katrina in last year’s Trouble the Water.

All these styles, of course, overlap to varying degrees. The argumentative documentary often combines the archival utilities of the retrospective with the observational style and investigative reporting of the firsthand account together in order to deliver a predetermined message. The major difference between the argumentative doc and the two other types is that it often wears its objective, or agenda, on its sleeve and everything in the documentary is designed to deliver on these grounds, often based in an overt political ideology. In recent years this has been the most popular type of documentary, and the documentarian—or, in some cases, the documentary “host”—is often just as much the focus of the documentary as the subject itself, as their heavy personality is often inextricable from the way in which the subject is approached. Religulous, An Inconvenient Truth, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, and the films of Michael Moore are evident examples of this. (Perhaps the most literalized manifestation of the documentarian-as-subject trend is Super Size Me, where the very body of the documentarian is the subject of the documentary itself.)

Astra Taylor’s Examined Life refreshingly flips the argumentative approach on its head. Where many retrospective and argumentative documentaries frequently interview famous academics and treat them as an unquestioned source of authority to further the filmmaker’s aims (what recent political documentary has Noam Chomsky NOT been in?), Examined Life takes superstar academics (in this case, eight cultural and art theorists all labeled under the same umbrella as ‘philosophers,’ including Slavoj Zizek, Cornel West, and Judith Butler) out of the typical office or blue screen setting and forces them to be outside, amongst people, into the practical everyday reality where abstract ideas are at their most vulnerable. Here, while the filmmaker is undeniably present, her agenda arguably doesn’t extend beyond letting the philosophers speak for themselves, as they do separately in ten-minute segments. With the exception of West book-ending the film, there’s no cutting between these individuals and their ideas—no manufactured discussion or argument between them. While several ideas are repeated between these segments and complement one another, they aren’t juxtaposed in such a way as to constitute a single aim or theme per the agenda of the filmmaker. Examined Life is simply a mosaic of ideas presented to the audience that they—not the filmmaker—may choose to accept or reject.

The academics and experts themselves are the subject of the documentary here, not some political objective that their soundbites are positioned to advocate and inform. This shows a remarkable amount of trust in the spectator to make up their minds for themselves rather than being told what’s right and what’s wrong, and hopefully proves that contemporary audiences are much more intelligent than most movies treat them to be. It’s argumentation, but without enforcement or agenda. While the film may sound boring, the positioning of these academics outside the classroom and into the real world creates a surprising effect that remains functionally in tune with the visual and aural language of cinema.

A much different documentary opened recently called Must Read After My Death, in which filmmaker Morgan Dews has taken his grandmother’s archival recordings that were discovered after her death—hundreds of hours of home movies and dictaphone letters—and assembled them into a narrative chronicling a history of subordination and dysfunction inside the claustrophobic walls of a white picket fence 1960s suburban household. Think Revolutionary Road except the fights, infidelity, and suffocating gender politics are all painfully real.

Must Read After My Death is a retrospective documentary in its purest form, as the entire film is assembled from archival materials. Dews has painstakingly juxtaposed all these stock materials together into a collection of silent home movies and still photographs recounting happier times, all running counter to the angry voices we hear in the family’s numerous audio recordings. No interviews were made, no new footage was shot—a simple story has been constructed strictly from the materials immediately available.

While Examined Life and Must Read After My Death approach the documentary form in new (albeit oppositionally different) ways, they each bring to light common issues that arise in non-fiction filmmaking.

Examined Life gives its first ten-minute segment to Avita Ronell, who rhetorically turns the camera around on the filmmaker by citing the problem of cutting verbose intellectual ideas down to ten minutes in order to better satisfy the demands of the film medium (thus, what is more important, the medium or the message?). So while Examined Life avoids the agenda-fueled manipulation of ideas and simplification of complex thoughts into soundbites, it also acknowledges that the very existence of a camera and editing equipment can construct a fiction even when attempting to document what’s “real.” Just because a film is “non-fiction” does not mean it’s inherently truthful.

This issue takes on less theoretical, and more immediate, ethical proportions in Must Read After My Death. In the film, the family’s matriarch explains why she’s making long dictaphone recordings of herself, stating that it might be something “nice for the children to have” in her memory, yet these recording prove to be such an outlet for her intense suburban frustration that it is hard to believe that she intended these recordings as objects for nostalgic consumption. Repeatedly, the husband and the wife express dread in these recordings at the idea of the secrets within their family “getting out,” thus forcing them to confront the judgment of others and allowing the façade of the white picket fence to crumble under their feet.

These two films bring up many questions. What is the responsibility of the filmmaker in assembling together personal materials never intended to be seen or heard, especially when such materials come from his own family? What are the responsibilities of the nonfiction filmmaker in general? Can “truth” ever really be captured in a medium that involves such a great degree of formal manipulation through editing and the framing of the shot? Is it even possible to make a film without an agenda of some sort?

I have no idea what the answers are to any of these questions, but I’m pretty glad some recent films have been asking them.

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