Wanted: Documentary Critics
by Thom Powers
Stranger Than Fiction
Auteurism had Andrew Sarris. Abstract expressionism had Clement Greenberg. Punk rock had Lester Bangs. Where is the equivalent voice for today’s documentary scene? In the past, nonfiction film has drawn the attention of a few notable critics. Starting in the 1920’s, John Grierson actively championed the form. His generation gave way to the breakthroughs in direct cinema, covered by Jonas Mekas for the Village Voice and the “Living Room War” of Vietnam, analyzed by Michael Arlen for The New Yorker. Back then, documentary filmmakers were still dreaming of a future when equipment would be cheaper and distribution more accessible. Now, thanks to digital technology, that future has arrived. But America’s critical arbiters have lagged behind. Newspapers and magazines still follow the customs of an old era, squeezing in the occasional documentary review between saturation coverage of Hollywood dramas and comedies.
Two years ago, I lamented this state of affairs for an Indiewire survey titled “Wrapping 06 and Looking Ahead at 07.” Around that time, I was plowing through myriad Top Ten lists with dismay over the propensity of critics to name ten fiction films and one token documentary. I suggested that newspaper and magazine editors look to the example of book reviews by distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction lists and cultivate critics who can specialize in the latter.
Now the situation has grown even worse. Documentary filmmakers are increasing their output, but publications are decreasing staff and space for reviews. Bloggers fill some of the void. But the pressure on blogs to be quick and current leaves a gap for more thoughtful analysis. For any critic who wants to delve into documentary, an exciting job awaits. But the job is not likely to be offered. It has to be seized.
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Critics, like explorers, make their names by charting new territory. The documentary landscape offers plenty to uncover. After decades of being a commercial stigma, the d-word has turned into a hook for brands like Docurama and festivals such as Silverdocs and Hot Docs. The festival cottage industry flourishes not only in big cities but also in the smaller markets of Durham, NC (Full Frame), Columbia, MO (True/False), and Missoula, MT (Big Sky). An even more dramatic shift has taken place in viewing habits through Tivo, Netflix, Amazon and iTunes. Despite these changing trends, publicists and critics still tend to lump documentaries together with art house cinema. My programming experience indicates that nonfiction has wider and more varied demographics. Titles such as Business of Being Born, I.O.U.S.A., or Young @ Heart connect to general audiences who have little affinity for the fiction from Sundance or Cannes. Earlier this month, I spoke on a documentary panel at the Chicago Humanities Festival where the sold-out audience was representative of viewers I’ve met elsewhere. They increasingly turn to documentaries to interpret the world in a way that’s more rewarding than television news and easier to digest than books. My co-panelist Gordon Quinn of Kartemquin Films cited another appeal with a quote from John Dewey, “The real purveyors of the news are artists, for artists are the ones who infuse fact with perception, emotion, and appreciation.”
The Cinema Eye Honors serve as a growth index for documentary output. Its website lists over 100 feature-length documentaries eligible for the 2008 award based on theatrical release or prominent festival play. I’d wager that few critics have seen half those titles. Even more nonfiction films make their way to audiences through television, DVD and other means. The lack of critical awareness was inadvertently expressed in November 2007 by a Village Voice reviewer who wrote, “I have seen more than 25 documentaries this year, and after a while they all start to run together, both structurally and thematically.” One wondered what she was watching in a year that included Crazy Love; Ghosts of Cite Soleil; Into Great Silence; Lake of Fire; Manda Bala (Send a Bullet); Manufactured Landscapes; The Monastery: Mr Vig and the Nun; No End in Sight; Sicko and Zoo – to name ten prominent titles that have little in common structurally or thematically.
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