Should Documentaries Be More Entertaining?

By  · Published on September 10th, 2014

Overture Films

In our review for Fed Up, a documentary on the American obesity epidemic, I recommend that it be distributed free, at least to the poor. “Who wants to pay $10 or more to watch a bunch of talking heads make claims about how the food industry and government have made the problem even worse over the years?” I wondered. “This shouldn’t be the content of a theatrical release.” Now the film is on DVD and Blu-ray and through digital outlets, and we do think it’s worth seeing. But like many issue films of today, this is not a movie so much as it’s a necessary news report ‐ the kind of thing that the networks would air to large audiences (albeit ones with much fewer choices in TV channels and other media options) in the ’60s and ‘70s.

Presumably, Michael Moore would agree with the stance on such a doc. He has long been arguing the case for more cinematic nonfiction films in theaters and on Oscar ballots. This week, while being honored at the Toronto International Film Festival with a 25th anniversary screening of Roger & Me, Moore spoke out on the need for docs to be more entertaining. The Guardian quotes him as saying, “People want to go home and have sex after your movie. Don’t make them feel ‘Urggggghhhh’.” In his speech, a keynote for the TIFF doc conference, he urged the filmmakers who are primarily lecturing viewers with their docs to quit the business and become teachers, because we need more of them. Otherwise accept that they’re entertainers with a movie. Of course, he’s recommended Fed Up on his website and programmed it at his film festival. He might find it more entertaining than I do, or he allows room for all kinds.

And there are all kinds. Filmmakers who want to be advocates can be, with their feature-length ads for a cause or about an issue, docs that ultimately tell us what website to visit in order to do our part. There are also a lot of necessary docs that have no business being entertaining, like The Invisible War and Shoah. The new Nick Broomfield film is one of his least entertaining due to his holding his personality back from dominating the material, and it’s also one of his best. Not that issue-centered docs can’t be entertaining. How to Survive a Plague is very sad for a lot of its AIDS history, but it also has a lot of entertaining moments, including a rather triumphant climax. There are also other issue films that function first as character-driven stories where the message is easily understood by an audience not hit over the head with propaganda-like form and rhetoric.

“Entertainment is the big dirty word of documentary,” Moore stated, regarding the stigma in his community. “’Oh no! I’ve entertained someone. I’ve cheapened my movie!’” That is a problem that many filmmakers need to get over, but it’s not just about them thinking their film is less important. Turning an informative doc into infotainment can seem to cheapen that information. It can seem to also cheapen the seriousness of an issue, cause, real people, events, etc. Moore’s own movies tend to be celebrated by some for what they’re saying, but there are those of us who look at his work as first and foremost entertaining comedies, and the significance of factories closing or American capitalism is secondary (he admits it in the speech: “art first, politics second”). To entertain and amuse, there’s no question that facts and reality wind up manipulated and exploited. It’s similar to why we don’t think of The Daily Show as news.

Just ask Billy Mitchell, one of the main characters in The King of Kong. Considered one of the most entertaining docs ever made, the movie has no issue or agenda other than to present a good story, and for that Mitchell wound up being portrayed as a villain. It doesn’t always have to be that way, however. Adventurous docs, of which I’ve long been clamoring for more, can easily entertain through actual action and discovery. We didn’t get a lot of docs like Grass and Kon-Tiki for a while, though just this year we could count Maidentrip, Sick Birds Die Easy and The Expedition to the End of the World. Thrilling storytelling is close enough, for reenactment-heavy docs like Man on Wire and Touching the Void. And it can definitely work for a cause, as seen with The Cove.

Entertainment doesn’t always mean exciting, either. It doesn’t have to be the equivalent of mindless fictional movies. It doesn’t even have to be about spectacle, as in IMAX science docs and cinematic wonders such as Baraka and Samara. Entertainment can be engagement, stimulation, provocation, a challenge. It can be sad. Depressing even. Not just laughs and a fun time. Moving. Startling. Angering. Still, when we think of entertainment, we think that all that experience is left behind in the theater. For some docs, that is the case. Outside of coming away informed, even the least entertaining docs may not necessarily stick with us and push us to change.

One simple response I had to Moore’s speech, which was quite long and involved a lot more points (see his full manifesto below), is why isn’t he at least making more entertaining docs? It’s been five years since Capitalism: A Love Story and all we’ve really heard about his future plans is that he might make another fiction movie. But seeing as how his movies are what we need more of ‐ especially to show how successful they can be (Fahrenheit 9/11 is indeed the highest-grossing non-IMAX doc of the modern era, which is to exclude the 1916 WWI propaganda film The Battle of the Somme in particular) ‐ why isn’t he continuing to lead by example?

Michael Moore’s 13-point manifesto for nonfiction filmmakers, via Real Screen:

1) Don’t make a doc, make a movie.
“The art is more important than the politics,” said Moore. “Because if I make a [crappy] movie, my politics won’t get through to anybody. The art has to come first.”

2) Don’t tell me anything I already know.
“Give people something new they haven’t seen before,” said Moore. “With Roger & Me I said there shouldn’t be one shot of an unemployment line. People are numb to those images.”

3) Don’t let your documentary resemble a college lecture.
“We have to invent a different kind of model than the college lecture model,” said Moore.

4) Too many of your documentaries feel like medicine.
“Don’t show a doc that’s going to kill [an audience’s] evening,” said Moore.

5) The Left is boring.
“It’s why we have a hard time convincing people to think about some of the things we’re concerned about,” said Moore. “The Left has lost its sense of humor and we need to be less worried.”

6) Why don’t we name names?
“Why don’t we go after the corporations and name them by name?” asked Moore. “You will be sued. People will be mad at you. But so what?”

7) Make your films personal.
“People want to hear your voice,” said Moore. “It’s what most docs stay away from, and most don’t like narration. But who’s saying this film?”

8) Point your camera at the cameras.
Moore advised doc makers to challenge the mainstream media and film its coverage of various events.

9) Follow the examples of non-fiction books and television.
“People love to watch [Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert,” he said. “Why don’t you try to make films that come from the same spirit? People just want the truth and they want to be entertained.”

10) Film only the people who disagree with you.
The director said that while filming Roger & Me he tried to stay away from interviewing union workers to tell the story, since they were basically friends. Interviews with those who held contradictory opinions are harder to secure, but more interesting to audiences, said Moore.

11) Make sure you’re getting emotional when filming.
“Are you getting mad when filming a scene? Are you crying?” asked Moore. “That’s evidence that the audience will respond that way, too… [You] are a stand-in for the audience.”

12) Less is more.
“Edit, and make it shorter,” Moore advised, saying it’s okay to let audiences fill in the gaps. “People love that you trust they have a brain.”

13) Sound is more important than picture.
“Sound carries the story,” said Moore. “Don’t cheat on the sound, and don’t be cheap with the sound.”

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.