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: Something Rotten in the House of Docs?

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Independent Filmmaker Conference

There’s something rotten in the house of docs, or so it was declared at last week’s Independent Filmmaker Conference panel discussion entitled "Cage Match: Filmmaking or Social Activism?," expertly moderated by POV’s very own Yance Ford.

Ford kicked things off with the question, "Is the medium in an identity crisis?" And panelist Nick Fraser, of BBC Storyville, took the ball and ran with it, replying that the situation is far more dire than that, that it is in fact heading toward the can.

Deborah Zimmerman, Nick Fraser and Yance Ford at the Independent Film Week Conference panel: Cage Match: Filmmaking or Social Activism

Deborah Zimmerman, Nick Fraser and Yance Ford at the Independent Film Week Conference panel: Cage Match: Filmmaking or Social Activism. Photo Credit: Perla de Leon

The culprit, according to Fraser, is the liberal establishment which now finances a vast majority of documentary film and which has absolutely no appreciation for form, aesthetics, storytelling, or, as he put it, anything that is not "butt-clenchingly boring."

Fraser continued; "Doc makers are so desperate that if Goebbels was providing funding, there’d be a queue lined up around the block." Which is to say that Fraser led by example by showing that a panel about documentary film can indeed be entertaining and a hell of a lot of fun.

But how true is it? The audience, which was about 95-percent filmmaker, seemed to be in agreement, as was fellow panelist Deborah Zimmerman. I couldn’t quite make out the opinion of Motto Pictures’ Julie Goldman, the other panelist, but maybe that’s because I think she had been positioned as the one possible defender of social activism. And yet, she didn’t quite articulate that defense when she described The Cove (which I believe she worked on in some capacity), referring to it as initially a 4-hour bore about overfishing the ocean. The fact that The Cove was reedited and turned into an energized, dynamic film about a dolphin slaughter was dismissed as an aberration.

But is The Cove alone? What about Winnebago Man? Waiting for Superman? The Tillman Story? Racing Dreams? Restrepo? Deep Water (a little while ago, I know, but one of my personal favorites)? Someone keeps giving Errol Morris money to make his movies. Alex Gibney is no hack, and he gets funding. Michael Moore, anyone?

Fraser makes the point that there are fewer entertaining documentaries being made now than there were five years ago. He may be right. He certainly knows better than I do. But I wouldn’t say we’re sunk. In fact, there are plenty of brand new revenue streams from all of these cable networks and online platforms hungry for reality-based programming. And there have indeed been some quality docs that have financing from the liberal establishment (The Cove and War/Dance are the first two that come to my mind.)

I am the last person to defend dull, uninspired documentaries that parrot their patron foundation’s mandate, but I was confounded that there wasn’t a little more positivity in the room. Am I wrong? Are things really so grim? Or is it time for Mr. Fraser to release those cheeks?

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
  • Corbor

    FOREIGNID: 30303
    Fraser is completely right when he talks about “absolutely no appreciation for form, aesthetics, storytelling”.
    Ok, maybe not storytelling.
    There are fewer and fewer films that actually seems to have taken some thinking about at the form of the medium.
    I don’t know about entertaining, but clearly there’s a lack of inspiration and aestheticly speaking, documentaries are, these days, pretty much indistinguishable.
    We’re in the Talking Heads era of documentary filmaking, no one seems to do anything else.
    It’s all about chaining interviews and covering it with the apropriate footage, archives, animation, and so on. Whatever the subject of the film, the form, the narration will almost always follow that pattern.

  • JR

    FOREIGNID: 30309
    He needs to unclench his cheeks…a little bit. But he’s right to a large extent. But blame can’t be completely placed on the liberal establishment although they’re smart cookies to jump on doc films as a great way to expound their beliefs on the world.
    However, there’s no denying that doc film is one of the strongest, if not the strongest way of showcasing a cause. Being that it IS reality is such a driver of activism- more so than fiction film.
    Some blame can also be placed on the hungry filmmaker who just wants to make stuff. While that desire is admirable, there’s a lot to be said for having discretion and respect for your craft. Just because they have $2M to throw your way doesn’t mean the topic is entertaining or sellable.
    Docs aren’t going away though. The more creative and entertaining, non-issues driven ones are going to stand out far more. While there is a lot involved, both the filmmaker and film-financier need to really take the time to investigate what a good film looks like; if the filmmaker has the chops and the financier has a good story.