Of course, we have to start by acknowledging that the whole idea of the ‘Greatest Documentary’ is absurd. When I was in high school, the radio station would do a countdown of the ‘Greatest Song of all Time’, and we’d tune in every year to see if it was going to be Stairway to Heaven or Free Bird (or, one year, Born to Run– it was New Jersey, after all.) But the truth is there is a lot of great music, and there are a lot of great documentaries, and trying to compare Koyaanisqatsi, The Times of Harvy Milk, Roger and Me, and The War Room is like asking who’s better: The Beatles, Mozart, John Coltrane, or Zakir Hussain?
There are many films that have shaken and stretched me. Some are beautifully shot, some have riveting narrative arcs, some are cleverly edited, and some achieve amazing intimacy. But when I was first considering taking a leap into the professional abyss of filmmaking, there was one documentary, more than any other, that shouted out, “come on in, the water’s great!”: Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March.
That film completely upended my understanding of what documentaries could be. It broke rules about structure and style. It was funny without jokes. It had technical mistakes, but instead of hiding them, it turned them into winning moments of authenticity. It pulled back the curtain on the filmmaking process and revealed the filmmaker not as a slick magician but as a human being trying to sort through the mess of life. Before that film, I thought the filmmaker had to try to be the voice of God, but in Sherman’s March, the filmmaker is just your brother or your pal. And the ‘McElwee Paradox’ is that sometimes, the softer a filmmaker speaks, the more people lean forward to hear what he has to say. The more humanity the filmmaker shows, the more empathy he elicits. There’s a line I like by the architect/designer/artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh that captures what made me fall in love with Sherman’s March and decide to try making films myself: “There is hope in honest error. None in the icy perfections of the mere stylist.”
Marshall Curry is an award-winning filmmaker who has made a number of documentaries, three of which have been broadcast on POV.
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