Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

What’s up doc?

What’s the deal with documentaries anyway?

In my personal foggy memory, documentary films used to be serious, staid, sober, black and white, and, well, kind of boring. Then, in 1970, a four-and-a-half film by a Frenchman named Marcel Ophuls came out. It was about the German occupation of France during World War II, and it was hard to watch. Still you felt that it was worth the numbness in your rear end because it was Important and Worthy. In 1988, a film by an American named Errol Morris came out. It was called The Thin Blue Line, and it was visually mesmerizing and had a beautiful soundtrack by Philip Glass. It was a documentary, but it had all the suspense and emotional impact of a feature film. It also felt Important and Worthy because it was about a man who seemed to have been wrongly arrested and convicted for murder and sentenced to death. The film unabashedly and convincingly argued that this man was innocent, and the movie led directly to a re-opening of his case and his exoneration.

Since then the documentary genre, as a compelling and fascinating form of visual literature, has absolutely flourished. True-life stories as wide-ranging as those told by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s in Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and, more recently, by Andrew Jarecki in Capturing the Friedmans and by Morris in The Fog of War.

But if the artistically creative examination of specific real people and events has become a de facto documentary sub-genre, there is another one that seems to be flourishing as well. It might be described as the filmed political tract. The master par excellence of this art from is, of course, Michael Moore, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last month for his latest film, Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore’s Roger & Me, a 1989 film about General Motors plant closings in Flint, Michigan, was the first in a series of films about American society and politics that have entertained audiences, while simultaneously seeming to say something Important. They have also, increasingly, enraged people on the political right. By all accounts, Fahrenheit 9/11 is his most ambitious film to date, and it was greeted by a lengthy standing ovation when it was screened at Cannes. Moore’s detractors sneered that the enthusiastic reaction and top festival prize were to be expected at a French film festival, given the (supposed) anti-American attitude of the French. In fairness, there was only one French person on the film festival jury and the audience was probably similarly international. So, this probably actually tells us more about the people who go to the Cannes Film Festival than it does about the French in general.

As I mentioned last month, Moore’s increasing celebrity and audience reach have resulted in a backlash. If you do a Google search on his name, you get a serious list of web sites devoted to exposing alleged factual errors in his documentaries. As I’ve probably made clear in previous commentaries, I am not particularly a Michael Moore fan. It doesn’t bother me that he has gotten very rich by making movies about, among other things, how corrupt the wealthy are. And it doesn’t particularly annoy me that he has gotten tons of free publicity by pretending that his film is being suppressed. But I do find it a bit hypocritical that he has publicly announced that he will file libel and slander suits (presumably using the wealth he has acquired by selling his own point of view) against anyone who tells “lies” about his film. Fortunately, the First Amendment severely limits his ability to silence people who disagree with him. As a major beneficiary of the First Amendment, he surely knows that, making his threats seem strange indeed. Since I have yet to see the movie, I can’t and won’t comment on it, but I suspect I may be slightly kinder than Christopher Hitchens, who wrote the following in the online magazine Slate: “Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of ‘dissenting’ bravery.”

An award-winning documentary that I have seen is also experiencing something of a backlash. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised won prizes at the Galway Film Fleadh, the Chicago Film Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival. Audiences have received this account of the abortive 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela enthusiastically. As I noted in my own review, this piece by a pair of Irish filmmakers takes a definite point of view, which is specifically the very one-sided point of view of Hugo Chavez. I just figured that this was par for the course for idealistic young filmmakers, but I was surprised to see that the film attracted the attention of the Columbia Journalism Review, one of the most respected voices in journalism and indispensable reading for journalism students. Writing in the May/June issue, Phil Gunson asserted, “Constructing a false picture of a classic military coup devised by an allegedly corrupt and racist oligarchy, they omit key facts, invent others, twist the sequence of events to support their case, and replace inconvenient images with others dredged from archives.” He then goes on to list the distortions and errors. In a sidebar, the filmmakers counter that they never intended their film to be “the definitive or only narrative of what happened during the coup” and that Gunson’s criticisms reveal his own ideological prejudices. The funny thing is that one of the filmmakers, Kim Bartley, answered audience questions after the screening I saw, and she was much more even-handed and objective and (dare I say it?) nuanced in her spoken comments than she was in her film. While she and her co-director deny that their film is “propaganda,” they certainly seem to have compartmentalized their facts to make their movie appeal to a specific target audience.

Are films like Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised really documentaries? Just for the heck of it, I checked the definition of “documentary” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and found the following:

1 : being or consisting of documents : contained or certified in writing (documentary evidence)
2 : of, relating to, or employing documentation in literature or art; broadly : factual, objective (a documentary film of the war)

The words “factual” and “objective” may present a problem for Moore, who said on ABC’s This Week, “I’m not trying to pretend that this is some sort of, you know, fair and balanced work of journalism.” Fair enough. But I think we need a new word for these sorts of non-fiction films that function essentially as a public relations device for or against a government or a company or an industry or other target. “Infomercial” might apply, but that is a television term, and we should probably have a word that is specifically for the cinema. There is, as it happens, a term for what these filmmakers do, when it is done in a print medium. It is called “advocacy journalism.” How about “advocacy cinema”? Somehow, I suspect that the likes of Moore would just as soon as cling to the “documentary” label (which is essentially used by all sorts of people and organizations to denote any film that is not a work of fiction) because of the very sense of factualness and objectivity that the term conveys by association.

-S.L., 24 June 2004

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