The Fate of Documentary?

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Guest blogger Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site almost a decade ago as a resource and outlet for documentary media. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.

In a response to a New York Press essay about the current state of documentaries, McIntosh offers a second view, that documentaries are thriving and always have.

A recent article in the New York Press raises some gloomy questions about “the fate of documentary” and “the precarious position of documentarians.” The article provides some interesting perspectives on documentary, but I wonder if they are too narrow in their viewpoints. In many ways it is skewed toward reinforcing the dominance of mainstream fiction-based production, or at least the appearance thereof, and documentary’s position as “the other.” You may want to read that article before you read my thoughts below.

The article begins with mentioning the early innovations in motion pictures, such as through the experiments of Edison and, of course, The Lumière brothers. The author claims, “the earliest films were all documentaries.” While these early pieces did record and project the phenomenon of motion, they fall short of becoming fully realized documentaries. Instead, they are a mark in the development of the form. They are documents, not documentaries. These pieces show us something, but they do not make any further assertions beyond the spectacle, beyond the novelty of the technology. They do not make much impact or sense beyond that.

From those early experiments come the rise of narrative production and the dominance of the motion picture industries. According to the author:

But the expense of film stock and the enormous popularity of the infant fictional film invariably led to the creation of movie stars and the entrenched studio system, where every variable from setting to theater projection could be easily controlled for maximum efficiency and a substantive return on investment. Documentaries were relegated to wartime newsreels and exotic travelogues.

Newsreels and travelogues certainly existed, yes, but what about the work of Robert Flaherty? Pare Lorentz? Leni Riefenstahl? Dziga Vertov? John Grierson? Esfir Shub? Walter Ruttmann? Alberto Cavalcanti? Joris Ivens? Or Hollywood directors who moved to documentary production during World War II, such as Frank Capra and John Huston? And those journalists who moved into television during the 1950s? Not to mention all the educational production and distribution of the 1940s–1970s? And the collective productions of the 1930s? Makers found ways to pursue documentaries with mainstream industry support and cooperation, with government support, and with independent means. These makers’ relationships with industries and the documentaries they created were much more complicated than just “being relegated” to those options.

The article continues with the ideas that videotape (and you could add in here the development of cheaper technologies) helped revive the form. Part of this idea appears in the histories of documentary development, in that the new technologies did enable significant changes.

But two assertions are disturbing to me at this point in the piece. Here is one:

But viewers were not too keen on the experimental films of the ’60s.

This point needs to be much more specific. Which viewers? Which media? Which experimental films? If we are talking documentary specifically, some mainstream media — particularly television — did struggle with the cinéma vérité styles of Robert Drew and others in terms of integrating them into television in ways that drew and engaged audiences. (Happy Mother’s Day is an example here.) But what about the intense explosion in documentary-making that happened during that era and so many of the titles that since have become canonical? Concert documentaries can use a celebrity connection to bolster their popularity (Dont Look Back, Gimme Shelter, and, of course, Woodstock), but what about Salesman, The Endless Summer, Harvest of Shame, In the Year of the Pig, The Battle of Newburgh, and other social interest titles? Some of these appeared on television, and some of these appeared on film. Were these and other titles really that unpopular?

And here is the other assertion:

In the end, it took the creation of reality television programing to revitalize the genre.

Really? An American Family (which goes unmentioned) was a fascinating idea that since has become a foundation for so many other shows, but “reality” programming began in the 1950s with television and the 1930s (maybe even the 1920s) with radio. Several scholars point to the innovations of Alan Funt as part of this development. Television’s Candid Camera started on radio as Candid Microphone. Also consider the game show Queen for a Day.

Media industries may have found a way to streamline production and package reality, but reality programming did not “revitalize the genre.” If anything, it narrowed one part of the documentary form into a pretty box with a pretty bow. Those industries found a way to make cheap productions for mass consumption, something they have been doing since networked radio. Many more innovations of the form happened outside reality programming. For one example, the 1960s and 1970s saw the development of the autobiographical documentary, a strong precedent to Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and others working in that style now.

(Before you think me elitist, know this — I do watch and like some reality TV: “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Restaurant Nightmares,” “MasterChef,” some “Idol,” some “America’s Top Model,” and bits and bobs of some others. I do think reality television belongs under the umbrella of documentary, as it is just one manifestation of the form, among many.)

The article continues with pinning the recent rise of documentary on twin arcs of Michael Moore’s success and the growth of reality television through “Cops” and others. Arguably, Moore has had some amazing success, particularly financially, but he also has been quite a divisive figure. Does that make him the standard to follow? Do people want the same success that Michael Moore has achieved? Is “success” really all about making money? Are there other ways of measuring success? What about those makers who want to make a difference as their primary goal? (Hat tip to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills for their recent success with the changes in the cases of the West Memphis Three.)

Also, what about educational distribution, with many of the powerhouses there founded by makers themselves, such as New Day, Cinema Guild, Women Make Movies, and others?

The remainder of the article delves into the limits of documentary distribution and offers some interesting ideas. It mentions how few people achieve the Michael Moore level of success, how the festival route to distribution favors the few, and how the Internet offers democratic distribution possibilities (or impossibilities). It highlights the local production community in Brooklyn, as well. It further brings up the conundrum of maintaining a voice or message from the documentary throughout the distribution process.

With the hybrid distribution deals of today, some makers go for a combination of PBS exhibition on television and online, Women Make Movies educational distribution, and self consumer distribution. The mainstream ideas of distribution barely hint at the complexities of distribution for documentary, then and now. For some makers, these outlets provide a way to get their messages out without having to concede their visions or messages.

The article concludes on a mixed note:

Unfortunately, right now many films are getting lost between production to consumption. It is uncertain what the future of distribution — web and otherwise — will bring for documentary filmmakers, but one thing is clear: documentary will still survive.

I guess what catches me about this overall piece is the undertone of how documentary is in — jeopardy? danger? something? — of getting lost somewhere. The article’s subhead, with its reference to “precarious positions,” cues that idea somewhat. The final statement’s assertion that “it will survive” also cues that tone. But is the situation really that dire, and are mainstream distribution and success like Michael Moore’s really the ultimate goals?

That goal might be the case for some, but not for all. Documentary is an amazingly flexible, versatile and innovative form, and its makers and believers have been remarkably creative in applying it and bringing it to audiences. The mainstream presence is new, and it will become part of the documentary history as we move through the changes over time. The mainstream presence certainly expands the documentary conversation, but it is such a small part of the rich form with an even deeper and more nuanced history. Not to mention, an even deeper and more nuanced present.

A version of this post originally appeared on Documentary Site.

Keep up with documentary news and more on POV’s blog or follow POV on Twitter @povdocs.

Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.