The theater was packed on a warm summer Tuesday night and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Why the widespread tears? The unbelievable, untainted niceness of Mr. Rogers. Won’t You Be My Neighbor went on to become the top grossing biographical documentary of all time. It tapped into a need on the part of the audience, providing a breath of fresh air to see an honest and kind person honored on the big screen. It was also a relief to see someone making an argument for the protection of public broadcasting in these uncertain times. Later that summer, RBG came out and another documentary earned big in the box office (at least as far as documentaries go). This bio doc on Ruth Bader Ginsburg also fulfilled an audience need – telling the story of an inspiring feminist hero who bridges the gap from the last wave of feminism to the modern MeToo movement. This time, instead of bawling in our seats, we were on our feet clapping for only ourselves to hear.
2018 was a big year for documentaries. The form has a long and important legacy in the history of cinema, but documentaries only touch large audiences once in a great while. Two documentaries hitting it big at once felt like the beginning of a movement (one I sincerely hope continues to gain traction). Few films have the power, capacity for impact, and responsibility of the documentary form. The ideal technical craft for a non-fiction film has long been debated to the point that by the end of film school, most students can tell you if they are in the Night and Fog or the Shoah camp. In the tradition of these two foundational films (which each approach the holocaust from a different perspective), documentaries have the power to expose devastating, but essential truths. However, in the hands of a villain, the format can have destructive propagandistic effects
– as was the case with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
Bad actors aside, many documentaries have the similar goals: to inform, to experience, and to learn alongside the documentarian. A huge variety of styles can be employed to meet this goal from Frederick Wiseman’s minimally invasive fly-on-the-wall techniques to Ken Burn’s heavy-handed history lessons and everything in between. The most exciting documentarians often play the role of investigator, asking questions and seeing where the answers take them. A good example of this technique is the Oscar winning film Icarus which began with a simple question: how do athletes like Lance Armstrong pass their drug tests while doping? The resulting documentary ended up blowing the lid off the greatest scandal in the history of organized sports – Russia’s systematic doping of Olympic athletes.
A great documentary is crafted with a subtlety and nuance that eclipses many top achieving fiction films. Upon watching a film like The Cove, the audience not only feels upset at the senseless slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, but also well informed on the many complicated causes and effects surrounding the practice. Also an Oscar winning investigatory documentary, this carefully crafted film uses every foundational element of film technique to craft an exposé which is both informative and disturbing. Other recent documentaries have notably failed to achieve this nuance. I don’t need to see Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes to know that if a film about a serial killer can spur droves of people to post online about their attraction to said mass murderer, then the documentarian either failed egregiously to balance the story with the victims’ perspectives or should be accused of having malicious intent. Nonfiction cinema is serious business.
The seriousness of the genre likely accounts for its reputation as being educational rather than entertaining. I would suggest it’s both. There are many documentaries such as the heart-pounding rock-climbing epic Meru which provide a wealth of information while also keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. All responsible documentarians are sensitive to the authority of the non-fiction format. Though these films are meticulously crafted (and in some circumstances, manipulated) they create an authoritative air of absolute truth. The audience forgets that behind the camera, there is still a filmmaker telling a story and he or she is doing so with a purpose. As documentary filmmaking has a strong history of social justice, often the documentarian’s cause is important and valuable to society. For example, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth shifted the political discourse on climate change. Also, the film Blackfish – which exposed the mistreatment of orcas at theme parks – garnered such a strong following that SeaWorld was forced to change their policies or suffer the ticket loses. The impact of these films demonstrates the popular potential of documentary cinema, yet the genre still fails to garner the public attention it deserves.
This year’s Academy Awards offers a fascinating case study for the modern identity of documentary cinema. True to form, the Academy ignored the most popular choice for best documentary feature by failing to nominate Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. RBG earned a nomination as did three exceptionally artistic, socially conscious films. The winner had the biggest budget and the biggest box office (of the five nominees): Free Solo. Though Free Solo is a crowd pleaser and a stunning triumph of the human spirit narrative, it seems unfathomable to me that the story of a rock-climbing zealot could take home the award over a film like Of Fathers and Sons, in which the documentarian quite literally goes undercover with Al-Qaeda for TWO YEARS. What does it mean for modern documentary cinema that neither the film with the biggest cult following nor the most serious/significant art piece took home the award, but rather the one that played the most like a Hollywood action thriller? The sad part in all of this was that Minding the Gap – in my opinion the most experimental and interesting documentary of them all – got lost in the shuffle.
There is nothing wrong with making a film primarily for entertainment value, but the best documentaries are capable of more; they take you deep into the heart of life. They seek to inform (see 13th), build understanding (Minding the Gap), fight injustice (Period. End of Sentence), inspire (RBG) or simply to remind us that there really are good people in the world (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). They have something for everyone.