The Cautious Critic

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I am a bit reserved when it comes to making grand declarations about the state of things in documentary. Call me a “curmudgeon.” Call me a “stick in the mud.” Call me whatever you like so long as it is polite.

Earlier this month, a Slate headline declared, “We’re Living in a Golden Age of Documentary Filmmaking.” The writer wisely cited Steve James in this quote, “I feel and have felt for a long time that we are in a golden age of documentary filmmaking.” And overall, I agree with what the author asserts in that story following James’ comment.

But then came this story: The Golden Age of Documentaries: What’s the Best Doc of the Last 5 Years?. The story featured a poll asking readers to choose from the following titles:

  • Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi)
  • The Arbor (Clio Barnard)
  • Armadillo (Janus Metz Pedersen)
  • The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica)
  • Babies (Thomas Balmès)
  • Buck (Cindy Meehl)
  • The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
  • The Cove (Louie Psihoyos)
  • Earth (Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield)
  • Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy)
  • Food, Inc. (Robert Kenner)
  • Hell and Back Again (Danfung Dennis)
  • Inside Job (Charles Ferguson)
  • The Interrupters (Steve James)
  • Last Train Home (Lixin Fan)
  • Man on Wire (James Marsh)
  • Manda Bala (Jason Kohn)
  • Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg)
  • No End In Sight (Charles Ferguson)
  • Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán)
  • The Oath (Laura Poitras)
  • The Order of Myths (Margaret Brown)
  • Pina (Wim Wenders)
  • Restrepo (Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger)
  • Sicko (Michael Moore)
  • Tabloid (Errol Morris)
  • Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney)
  • Trouble the Water (Carl Deal, Tia Lessin)
  • Waiting for Superman (Davis Guggenheim)
  • Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)

(Here are the results, if you’re curious.)

It’s these kinds of polls that make me twitchy. They raise more questions than they answer, ultimately. Why the last five years? Why not the last eight, 10, or 22? Why these titles, which cover such a range of subjects? Trouble the Water and Taxi to the Dark Side are both haunting pieces, but do they belong alongside the portraits of Man on Wire or Marwencol, the stomach-turning of Food, Inc., or the deep hope of Anvil?

Why draw only on mainstream publications and profits lists for items to include on the list?

And why do only five of the listed 30 titles feature women makers in the directing role? Why do even less than that feature stories about women?

While these polls might be fun, they really don’t contribute much to overall understanding of documentary today. This one, like so many others, just reinforces the dominance of the mainstream discussions about the form and overlooks the immense variety that is happening out there.

This post first appeared on DocumentarySite.com.

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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.