Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: On Docs, Distribution and the Cinematic Experience

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Last week, two docs from 2007, What Would Jesus Buy? and Darfur Now were released on DVD. They both disappointed at the box office. I think I know why. I don’t like to knock a doc when it’s down, but when I noticed that they were both hitting DVD shelves, I thought there’s something worth noting here. I’m curious to see if you agree.

In my mind, both films were well made, with strong editing and crisp cinematography. Both covered important subjects —Jesus is about consumer culture and how we’re all too hooked on buying commodity goods while Darfur Now is about the genocide that’s taking place in Sudan. Very important.

But neither of these docs feels organic. Jesus uses the framework of following the Reverend Billy, the street performance persona of a New York City guy who preaches against too much shopping, particularly around Christmas. The film follows his tour across the country. But it rings shallow for two reasons. First, the main character is too difficult to empathize with. He’s in a documentary, right? So he’s a real person. But, wait, he’s not really real, because the Reverend Billy is a persona. The film does make some attempt at showing the person behind the persona, but only superficially. I think the filmmakers contend that the person and the persona are so fused, that it’s difficult to differentiate the two. Well, then, that’s just weird, and it’s not presented effectively on film.

But, really, my main complaint about the film is that its entire structure of “the traveling street performance” feels like it’s happening for the sake of the camera. It’s not like the camera is capturing real life. Real life is happening for the camera. Sure, maybe the Reverend Billy would have gone on that trip without any cameras there, but never for a second did I feel like he and his troupe weren’t conscious of the camera. If a doc isn’t going to be documenting reality (á la Maysles, Pennebaker or Gibney), then it had better have a whole lot of style and cinematic flavor (á la Morris).

I see the same thing not happening in Darfur Now. Lord knows, it’s a noble quest. They’re trying to expose the genocide by hanging the story on the personal tales of six individuals affected by the war. But, unlike the superb War/Dance, which exquisitely tells a story about kids in Uganda in a music contest, Darfur feels like what it is: a cry for help. That’s not the cinematic experience that is going to draw people into theaters.

So I write this in recognition that it’s really damn hard to make a doc about something that is important that is also a compelling narrative and beautifully told. But the doc genre is a victim of its own success. We expect more.

And when we talk about how theaters aren’t willing to show docs and that distributors aren’t willing to support them, we know both are true. But, at times, the films themselves are also to blame.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki