Essays · Movies

The Depressing Reality of Nonfiction Christmas Movies

There’s nothing drearier than death, destruction, and destitution during the holidays.
Casting Jonbenet Christmas documentary
By  · Published on December 6th, 2017

Welcome to Alt-Christmas, our week of articles dedicated to movies that we like to watch this time of year, especially if we’re not entirely in the spirit of the season. This entry looks at why typically a Christmas documentary is going to be anything but holly jolly entertainment.

There is a good reason why documentaries set at Christmas are so depressing. Not all, but many nonfiction films focus on problems, issues, tragedies, and unfortunate situations and circumstances that would be bad enough on their own but are heightened in devastation when the holidays are involved.

That’s the case with real life. Depression is a serious concern around Christmas, and suicidal thoughts may be more rampant during the holidays even if the suicide rate isn’t that high during the season. Loneliness is worse at the time, deaths of loved ones harder to deal with, and job loss, foreclosure, and poverty are obviously weighted during such communal and commercialized festivities.

When I think of nonfiction Christmas fare, a handful of titles come up, and all are upsetting. The first is Michael Moore’s breakout directorial debut, Roger & Me. The 1989 documentary follows the filmmaker as he personally responds to General Motors’ shutdown of automotive plants in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and attempts to get an interview with GM CEO Roger Smith.

One of the most memorable sequences of the movie intercuts contrasting holiday scenes: in one, Smith gives his annual Christmas message to corporate employees, focusing on it being a time for warmth and charity and forgiveness; in the other, Sheriff’s Deputy Fred Ross is seen evicting families on Christmas Eve. It’d be sad enough to see people removed from their homes anytime, but the image of a Christmas tree being carried out makes it even worse.

And yet Moore is such a jester that he doesn’t play the sequence for tears. I forever associate the goofy novelty cover of “Jingle Bells” by barking dogs with Roger & Me, and the song plays just before the sequence described above, for not so much comedic but lighthearted effect. Afterward, the contrast of Smith and the evictions is met by the audience with a shake of the head rather than a tugged-at heart.

Another horrible Christmas story is portrayed in Kitty Green’s new Netflix documentary Casting JonBenet, which takes a fresh yet problematic approach to considering the unsolved death of JonBenet Ramsey in 1996. She was killed on or just after the holiday, and a neighbor dressed as Santa Claus for a Christmas party at the six-year-old girl’s home was one of those suspected of the murder.

Casting JonBenet uses reenactments to show what might have occurred, staging different theories with help from locals from the area of the tragedy in the roles of the girl, her family members, the police detectives, and even the guy playing Santa. The sets on which these reenactments and interviews are shot often include Christmas trees and decorations, sometimes just as props for the ready, always reminding us of when the story takes place.

As upsetting and disturbing as its narrative is, though, the doc doesn’t target the audience’s emotions. It’s not even about the story so much as it’s about its own meta machinations, which just so happen to exploit the murder of a little girl to make broader points about crimes of this nature. So it’s not the film itself that comes off as depressing. It’s too artificial and cerebral and cold to garner such a response.

War is certainly depressing, and so holidays during wartime are especially sad. But is the Oscar-nominated 1941 short doc Christmas Under Fire a tearjerker? Not really, and part of that is just the way British nonfiction films were molded and narrated at the time. We see footage of devastation from bombing raids and are told of how citizens are coping with celebrating the holidays during the Blitz. Yet it’s ultimately a hopeful doc.

Christmas Under Fire was made as a propaganda film directed at Americans, to garner their support, but by centering on how the British people are sufficiently overcoming the war and the changes to their lives, such as having to take shelter in Christmas-decorated tube stations, and how the country has maintained its strength and courage through it all, it plays as inspiring instead of heartbreaking.

The one doc with a depressing story that plays as a depressing film is Carol Morley’s 2011 feature Dreams of a Life. The film explores the mysterious case of Joyce Carol Vincent, who died alone in her flat and wasn’t discovered for more than two years. What makes it a holiday-themed doc is the death happened sometime in December, evident in the fact that Vincent’s mostly skeletal remains were found surrounded by Christmas presents she’d been wrapping.

For whom was she preparing gifts? Someone not close enough that they’d wonder about her whereabouts between the end of 2003 and the start of 2006, apparently. The doc introduces us to many people who knew the attractive and likable woman in her brief life (she was only 38 when she died), yet none of them were close enough to get in touch, either. It’s the most tragic scenario of someone dying alone.

Dreams of a Life is so effectively unsettling that it will have you contemplating your own social value. How long would it take for you to be discovered if you died? Would it be any different during the holidays? Would it matter now that everyone is on social media? Would it help if you lived above a popular shopping center, as Vincent did? The doc is extra gloomy because we try not to identify with her and see the potential of something similar happening to any of us, but it’s impossible to avoid doing so.

There is lighter nonfiction fare out there, but even among the docs superficially about things such as professional Santas, holiday music, and the Christmas tree industry we can find negative tones, as well as cynical attitudes about the season, characters separated from their families, and attention on material greed associated with the religious observance.

For something truly uplifting, your only option might just be TCM’s A Night at the Movies: Merry Christmas!, which showcases feel-good fiction holiday favorites. For the rest, see a list of 12 essential yet mostly depressing Christmas docs selected by our sister site, Nonfics.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.