2014: The Year When Activist Documentaries Hit the Breaking Point

If I were making a documentary about the uniformity that has infested modern documentaries, it would go something like this: Open with a sequence detailing the extent of the problem, flashing on examples of its reach, cutting in quick, declarative sound bites, scored with music of steadily mounting tension that climaxes just as the title is revealed. Over the next 90-120 minutes, I would lay out the problem in greater detail, primarily via copious interviews with experts on the subject, their data points illustrated via scores of snazzily animated infographics. Along the way, I would introduce the viewer to a handful of Regular Folk affected by the issue at hand, and show how their daily lives have become a struggle (or an inspiration). But lest I send the viewer staggering from the theater bereft of hope, I’d conclude by explaining, in the simplest terms possible, exactly how to solve the problem. And then, over the end credits, I would tell you, the viewer, what you can do to help — beginning with a visit to my documentary’s official website.

What you would learn from this film is that too many of today’s documentaries have become feature-length versions of TV newsmagazine segments, each a 60 Minutes piece stretched out to two hours, two pounds of sugar in a five-pound bag. And perhaps this viewer became more aware of it in 2014 because, early in the year, I saw a film that was like a case study in what’s wrong with this approach: Fed Up, a position-paper doc on the obesity epidemic. It’s got the thesis-paragraph pre-title opening, the animated graphics (complete with cutesy, nonstop sound effects), the closing-credit instructions. And then, as if its TV-news style isn’t obvious enough, it’s even got the comically commonplace “headless fat people walking down the streets” B-roll and narration by, no kidding, Katie Couric.

Fed Up plays like something made to burn off time on MSNBC some Saturday afternoon between reruns of Caught On Camera and Lock-Up, but nope: I saw it at the beginning of 2014 because it was playing at the Sundance Film Festival. It received a simultaneous theatrical and VOD release in May; last month, Indiewire reported that its robust earnings in both have made it one of the year’s most successful documentaries.

Look, this could just be a matter of pet peeves and personal preferences, and of trends that have merely made themselves apparent to someone whose vocation requires consumption of more documentaries than the average moviegoer. But this formula, and the style that goes hand in hand with it, is infecting more and more nonfiction films, lending an air of troubling sameness to activist docs like Ivory Tower (on the financial crisis of higher education) and Citizen Koch (on the massive casualties of the Citizens United decision). But it’s been in the air for some time, with earlier films like Food Inc., Bully, The Invisible War, Waiting for “Superman,” and the granddaddy of the movement, Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth — a film, lest we forget, about a PowerPoint presentation. And it doesn’t stop there; even a profile movie like Nas: Time Is Illmatic has a big, state-the-premise pre-title sequence, which plays, in most of these films, like the teaser before the first commercial break.

The formulaic construction of these documentaries — as set in stone as the meet-cute/hate/love progression of rom-coms or the rise/addiction/fall/comeback framework of the music biopic — is particularly galling because it’s shackling a form where even fewer rules should apply. The ubiquity (over the past decade and a half) of low-cost, low-profile, high-quality video cameras and user-friendly, dirt-cheap non-linear editing technology has revolutionized independent film in general, allowing young filmmakers opportunities to create professional-looking product even directors of the previous generation could only dream of.

But it particularly freed documentary filmmakers, who always had a far harsher financial burden in the era of prohibitively expensive 16mm film. It was one thing for a Kevin Smith or a Robert Rodriguez to scrape together enough cash and/or credit to make their tightly scripted debut films; they just had to buy raw film stock roughly equivalent to a couple of takes of everything they’d written. But their documentary counterparts had to have enough film to shoot everything relevant to their picture — full interviews, on-the-ground action, scenes of daily life — develop it all, and then pull out the good stuff.

Video, while far cheaper, looked so shoddy that it was never an option for a serious filmmaker, until 24-frame HD came into the picture. The arrival of that technology roughly coincided with two key events: the rise of reality television, which bastardized and corrupted the documentary style while making it palatable for mainstream audiences; and the commercial success of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, which proved that provocative, political nonfiction cinema could find an audience beyond critics and bleeding hearts.

And make no mistake, many filmmakers have taken that freedom and run with it. Many found that the low cost and flexibility of video allowed them to better establish and solidify their particular style — I’m thinking of Errol Morris, who was able to push past the exquisitely crafted yet single-camera interviews of The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time to the multi-camera one-on-ones (augmented by his Teleprompter-inspired, eye-contact video device The Interrotron) he conducted for The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure, and this year’s The Unknown Known. Nick Broomfield is a filmmaker who always traveled light in the 16mm days, carting his own sound operating equipment while conducting interviews. He still works that way, but now he can embed himself in a community and story for as long as it takes, and come up with a nonfiction masterpiece like this year’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper.

Meanwhile, new filmmakers are bending the form in fresh and unusual ways. Robert Greene’s recent Actress focuses on Brandy Burre, a recurring player on The Wire who dropped out of acting to raise a family and decides, years later, to get back in the game. For the most part, it’s a slice-of-life affair, but Greene occasionally augments that traditional documentary footage with elaborately staged, impeccably lit, dreamlike interludes that find his star inhabiting some sort of pseudo-Sirk melodrama, doing her housework in pearls and heels. Those scenes are brief but effective, underlining the trickiness of capturing a “true” portrait of someone who is, by nature, a performer.

Still image from "Mistaken for Strangers"

Confession and performance also come into play in my favorite documentary of the year, Tom Berninger’s backstage doc/familial reckoning Mistaken for Strangers, wherein the lost-soul director is given the opportunity to work as a roadie on his brother’s band The National’s tour and ends up making a personal, painful, and hilarious movie that’s less like Don’t Look Back than a particularly sharp episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. That transformation ends up as a part of the film itself; with the aid of his brother and subject, the director reaches a point where he realizes his film can be anything he wants it to be, and he winds up with something uniquely confessional and unexpectedly powerful.

It’s easy to arrive at that point with these diverse subjects, the logic goes, but a more straightforward, news-doc approach is required for aggressive, activist documentaries with points to make and moviegoers to educate — and the commonness of that thinking is perhaps why so many critics have gone nuts for CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras’ account of Edward Snowden’s leak of NSA documents detailing surveillance programs around the world. That’s a giant topic, but the surprise of the picture is how intimate and personal it is, primarily due to the filmmaker’s place within the story: she was the contact point for Snowden, hooked in to his actions via encrypted messages, in the room with the whistleblower as he walked through the documents with Glenn Greenwald.

As a result, much of the film is spent in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel, Poitras’ camera capturing those explanations and strategy sessions, a procedural detailing logistics, conferences, and conversations. There are no expert talking heads to provide (unnecessary, I would argue) context; there are no jazzy charts and graphs to explain it all to the (presumably) slower folks in the audience. The only such images come in a quick-cut montage of illustrations within the leaked documents, and they’re solely that — illustrations. The most powerful and informative graphics in the film are the mesmerizing images of encrypted messages from Snowden to Poitras, which fill the screen with impenetrable numbers, letters, and symbols, before clearing away to reveal the truth underneath, a powerful metaphor for Snowden’s actions (and the film itself).

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in "CITIZENFOUR"

Back in 2003, the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr slammed one of Poitras’ earlier films for being “too cinema-verité to provide the context viewers need,” and one could, I suppose, lob the same argument at CITIZENFOUR. But within the current climate of spoon-feeding documentaries, it feels like a breath of fresh air. Poitras assumes some knowledge of the Snowden affair — probably correctly, considering the audience that will most likely seek out her movie — and doesn’t presume to be the definitive or final word on it. Her style is, yes, rooted in the tenets of the “direct cinema” movement that sparked the modern documentary style; its earliest practitioners didn’t make the same presumptions as today’s filmmakers about the limitations of its use. Robert Drew’s Primary didn’t need to dwell on exactly what was at stake in the 1960 election, nor did his Crisis need to explicate fully the lead-up to Alabama’s school desegregation battle. He (and fellow journeymen like Pennebaker, Leacock, and the Maysles brothers) assumed some familiarity, and didn’t want to waste precious screen time that was better spent on the footage no one else had, in those rooms, behind closed doors.

It’s not that every single worthwhile documentary must be formally groundbreaking; some of my favorite nonfiction films of the year (Whitey, Finding Vivian Maier, The Internet’s Own Boy, Life Itself) are fairly traditional, stylistically speaking. But the mold is starting to set, and it’s important for filmmakers — narrative and documentary alike — to remember that there’s never only one way to tell a story.

And with that, allow me to tell you what you can do to make a difference, starting with a visit to this website…