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: Docs as Art or Activism?

by |

On Tuesday night, you’re going to get to see a very compelling doc called The Last Conquistador, about sculptor John Houser‘s building of the largest bronze equestrian statue in El Paso. The good people at POV gave me a DVD screener of the film, so I got to see it and I have a lot to say about it, but I don’t want to influence your experience too much. So I’m going to follow up this entry on Wednesday with a couple of thoughts/questions. But I don’t think I’m going too far now by introducing a question that is relevant to The Last Conquistador, as it is with pretty much all documentaries: when is a doc art and when is it activism? Of course, that’s a trick question, because those descriptions are not necessarily exclusive, as I believe is very evident in The Last Conquistador. In fact, I think the film shines a light directly on the issue.

When I think of my favorite docs, I have to say, I like the ones that lean toward the artistic, or maybe the better word for it is “cinematic” experience, rather than one that is a piece of activism or advocacy. Movies like Grizzly Man, Spellbound, In the Realms of the Unreal, Capturing the Friedmans, or an oldie like Salesman just move me more.

Ah, but then what about a film like Hoop Dreams? It is such a masterpiece in storytelling, and it also happens to be one of the most insightful portraits of the young African-American male experience. It’s one of the best that bridges both the cinematic and issue-related aspects of documentary. Of more recent films, albeit on a lesser level, there have also been Errol MorrisStandard Operating Procedure and The Unforeseen, both of which I’ve already written about here.

In The Last Conquistador, John Houser suggests it’s not the artist’s role to engage in politics, but to create something that transcends them, and creates something that touches the human heart. Well, maybe that’s why documentaries are so great at their best: they manage to achieve both. I really did enjoy The Last Conquistador — it’s very well told, and it exposed me to a subject I knew nothing about. I do have some questions, however, that I’ll bring up on Wednesday.

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
  • Lisa Mayer

    FOREIGNID: 16647
    ‘Documentary Film’ + ‘Cinematic Film’ = ICEAlity
    As more Hollywood celebrity directors and actors get involved in social issues, the aesthetics of the relationship between Humans and their Environment through the Arts (ICEALITY) will manifest itself in more documentaries. Especially as the current economic crunch creates a shift in thinking as cultural institutions adjust funding to the new obligations of culturally diverse societies. On the other hand, artists can share their insights on dealing with intercultural dialogue in an artistic sense while creating doorways of social change between cultures. Google search: “ICEALITY”

  • Joel Connolly

    FOREIGNID: 16648
    I think it only proper that the descendants of the conquered natives of the land should be given the opportunity to complete the sculpture of “the last conquistador” by the placement of sculpted bodies, in scale, of slain victims on the ground around the statue to represent those that the conquistador had cut down or that his horse may have trod upon.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 16649
    I understand the sentiment, Joel, but I kinda doubt that’d happen. How about a sculpture representing the survivors of the massacre? Something that would represent the Native Americans, the conflict, but also serve as an inspiration?