Now that every Tom, Jane, Dick or Harriet has a digital camera and seems to be making a documentary, it might be a good time to think about what they’re doing and just what is “documentary” anyway.
“Documentaries have been with us since the movies began, and they’ve left — and are leaving — a long and winding trail since about 1895.
The very first film ever shown to an audience in something like a theater on something like a movie screen (and not a Thomas Edison peepshow) was a “documentary.”
The film ran about 50 seconds. It’s called Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, and it was made by the two sons of the factory owner — Louis and Auguste Lumière. The title is literal — the film shows workers leaving the factory, along with a horse and a dog.
But given what we now think documentary film should be, the film had a major problem. It was scripted, meaning that the workers stood inside the factory until they were told — cued — to walk out toward the camera.
So the first documentary ever was also set up, and was not a genuine observation. More than that, this first movie was also the first film to be remade, and it was remade twice. So much for the birth of documentary film.
And what is documentary anyway? If you’re thinking that whatever it is it’s not fiction, Workers Leaving the Factory has a distinct scent of fiction.
Documentary film got its name from a Scotsman in the late 1920s, John Grierson who thought non-fiction films should document social problems.
Along the way, some people — the Maysles brothers (Salesman, Grey Gardens), Donn Pennebaker (Monterrey Pop, Don’t Look Back) and Ricky Leacock (Happy Mothers Day, A Stravinsky Portrait) — made what they called cinema verité, film truth.
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Frederick Wiseman started in 1967 with Titicut Follies and released Monrovia, Indiana less than a year ago, he observes people and situations, always trying to be unobtrusive, but he smartly calls his films “reality fictions,” because the mere presence of a camera changes people’s behavior.
Wiseman also, of course, edits his films, so they are a long way from anything like a reproduction of actuality.
For decades, documentary film was made by formal organizations. Time-Life, in this country produced tons of documentaries, and so did the three TV broadcast networks who actually did extraordinary work, once upon a time. The great Harvest of Shame was a CBS production.
In Britain, the post office maintained a crack documentary unit. Their work during World War II is still touching and beautiful: Fires Were Started, Target for Tonight, Listen to Britain, Diary for Timothy.
Now, because it’s so easy to make documentaries — at least in an equipment sense — they’re everywhere and mainstream movie houses that never used to show documentaries are full of them.
Many are good, but there’s a split in the kinds of documentaries flooding the market. I’ve often complained in print or over the airwaves that some non-fiction movies have good subjects, but no feel for the art of filmmaking, that they’re just put together from a series of interviews with (usually) knowledgeable people sitting beside potted plants while they talk about the subject of the film.
Frankly, the grumping gets me nowhere, and I’ve come to believe that it’s a useless complaint. A better way to look at documentary is to say that some documentaries engage with the art of the cinema, and others work as reporting, like many stories you find in good newspapers and magazines — except that they’re based at least partly in pictures, not just the written or spoken word.
It’s like the situation with books; some books think of themselves as one kind of art, while other books think of themselves as another kind of art.
RBG, for instance, the flattering portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has sequences of Ginsburg talking about herself and her work, of her granddaughter, of Ginsburg with her personal trainer.
The movie shows photos of Ginsburg at different times in her life and pictures of Ginsburg and her husband with their dear friend, the late Justice Antonin Scalia. It’s a good portrait, especially if you already are a fan of RBG.
The same holds true with Cold Case Hammarskjöld or Ask Dr. Ruth or Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins.
Timothy Greenfield Sanders’ documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, about the famous writer who died just after the movie came out, takes things another step; Sanders is a particularly skilled filmmaker with an eye toward the visual image having meaning in itself — in addition to the things people say.
Sanders chooses background colors to match and contrast with the color of Morrison’s skin and hair, and he positions her in the image to set her off from the other people in the film.
When Morrison talks, the visual image of the film adds to the words; you understand them more deeply than, say, if you read them on a page.
Other documentary filmmakers take things yet another step. In her Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A., about striking coal miners, Barbara Kopple took her camera into people’s homes, into meetings, onto picket lines and to miners’ picket lines on Wall Street in New York. She talked to all sorts of people, almost none of them in conventional “interview” settings.
Ken Burns, in everything from The Civil War (and earlier) to his latest, Country Music, questions the very idea of “truth” in film — or anywhere else. Burns brings in dozens of voices, as well as archival film and photographic images, because he knows that truth and understanding are multiple, not singular.
Jazz Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis may be a central voice in Burns’ Jazz, but his is not the only understanding of a music that can never be reduced to a singular truth anyway.
And then there’s Errol Morris. Morris first gained serious attention — and criticism — with The Thin Blue Line in 1988, which demonstrated that Randall Harris, sitting in a Texas prison with no possibility of parole for shooting a Dallas policemen, could not have committed the murder.
Someone might argue that The Thin Blue Line is the most effective documentary film ever, because shortly after the picture’s release, Harris was freed. But along the way to that result, Morris broke some of the most cherished rules of documentary.
Morris tries to picture what’s in the minds of people in his films, and what drives them to do or say what they do. So in The Thin Blue Line he created many scenes of how the crime may have taken place.
Each repetition adds a detail or two that’s come to light — how did the murdered cop approach the car he’d stopped? what kind of car was it — the taillight was a disputed factor for a time? Did the cop’s partner stay in the police car and what did she do with the milkshake she was holding?
Morris backed all of these repetitions with a repetitive score by Philip Glass, and what he’s getting at is the way detectives go over and over the story obsessively until they understand it.
The Thin Blue Line also pops in clips from silly 1940s Boston Blackie detective movies because one of the loony witnesses brought in to convict poor Randall Adams says they’re her model for how to help the police.
When he’s been asked about his approach to non-fiction compared to the cinema verité filmmakers, Errol Morris has often said that no style guarantees truth, and he’s worked in this way for now decades — as in The Fog of War (2003) with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, The Unknown Known (2013) with another former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld Morris’ 2018 film American Dharma with the infamous Steve Bannon, and a bunch of other movies.
For several years, a lawyer friend and I did a presentation of The Thin Blue Line to incoming University of Colorado law students. He talked law and I talked film, and I always loved the moment when I could say that it wasn’t the law that freed Randall Adams — the law is what stuck him in prison supposedly for the rest of his life. What saved him was art, and not the kind of documentary filmmaking that’s basically reporting.
It was film that ventured outside the literal into the realm of imagination where in poetic/imaginative imagery, freed from the bounds of “just the facts, Ma’am,” the movie could get into our heads just as Morris got inside the heads of Randall Adams and those who put him in prison.
Finally, I say hooray to the makers of films about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Robert Mapplethorpe, and to the many movies of Alex Gibney, who’s taken on Scientology, the energy giant (and fraudster) Enron, writer Hunter S. Thompson and some of the horrors perpetrated in Iraq after the U.S. invasion.
That work gets to us primarily through our rational selves, and it matters. But other work grabs us from different directions, and makes our understanding richer and deeper.
Howie Movshovitz teaches film in the College of Arts & Media at the University of Colorado Denver and is a film critic at KUNC.