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: Is a Remarkable Story Enough?

by |

Serves me right for giving the BBC’s Nick Fraser a hard time about his criticism of social activist documentaries last week. As soon as I put down my pen, I am led like a cow to water, to drink from the very same liberal industrial complex that Fraser decried.

BudrusI was asked to look at Budrus, a documentary that is opening in theaters this Friday. The film is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it plays out in a small village in the West Bank where the Israeli government is putting up a dividing wall. It’s a remarkable story about how one man unites various factions to effect change. But the real movement doesn’t really happen until a young woman steps to the plate. This is a film for those who are interested in the subject, or who want to see films about how a people can unite and fight peacefully to sway a powerful government. If that inspires you to want to see this documentary, then I encourage you to stop reading this post and to go to see it in the theater . . .

OK, now, for the rest of you: Listen, I lean further to the left than most folks, but there’s something about the spoon-fed, predictable quality of Budrus that just rubs me the wrong way. This is a Cause Documentary with a capital “C.” Some will love it. Fraser, I imagine, is not one of them. Although I appreciate the film’s political aims, it’s not something that moved me. When I watch a documentary, I want it to hit me on all levels — aesthetically, emotionally, and, yes, politically. Sigh, I find myself crawling into Fraser’s camp — whether he wants me there or not.

I can’t fault Budrus director Julia Bacha, who also directed Encounter Point and has Control Room (as writer and editor) under her belt — she’s clearly a very talented filmmaker with a powerful vision — for making Budrus the way she did. But it is what it is, as they say.

Note: The spelling of the director’s name has been corrected.

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
  • s.a.

    FOREIGNID: 30695
    You know what rubs ME the wrong way? When a reviewer’s carelessness is glaring. The director, who is Brazilian, is named Julia BACHA.

  • Nancy Schwartzman

    FOREIGNID: 30707
    Interesting – and yes, it is wise to be aware that we should be aware of propaganda even if it does fit our aims/leanings. You say Budrus inspired you, but … where/how did it not hit you on all these levels? Or can you give an example of films that do move you to action – and hit you on the levels you crave? What does it take to move you?

  • Yance

    FOREIGNID: 30708
    Hey Tom-
    Glad the panel continues to haunt you. Let me see if I can add to that with a bone to pick about the “liberal industrial complex.” I agree that liberal foundations are funding docs to further their own goals for social change. That’s not new just more transparent than in the past. I also think that there is quite a bit of self selection involved in this industry as well.
    Documentary filmmakers are by and large poorly paid/not paid for their work (and all too often the first thing to get cut from budgets by funders is the director’s salary). I don’t see many filmmakers from the right side of the political spectrum clamoring to live a life of multiple jobs and financial insecurity.
    The “liberal industrial complex” doesn’t have a whole lot competition from the “conservative industrial complex.” If the Heritage Foundation, the Adolph Coors Foundation and the Koch Family Foundations (to name a few) funded film production and distribution and the accompanying community engagement campaigns we’d be having a VERY different discussion.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 30710
    s.a.: you are right on. Serves me right.
    Nancy: Thanks for asking. I mentioned in last week’s post that war/dance and The Cove are great examples of good filmmaking despite the money coming with a social activist. But I’d also add to that: An Inconvenient Truth and, well, maybe the mother of them all, Roger & Me. In fact, you’ve inspired me: I’ll try to put together a Top Ten List of the Best Documentary Filmmaking with a Rabidly Dogmatic Angle post—or something to that effect.
    Yance: Actually, check out; it’s a trip! A whole list of conservative docs that’ll make you shiver. I wonder if the director of “Terrorists Among Us: Jihad in America” is living in a $2 million brown stone in Park Slope. Should we host a screening of “Buried in the Sand: The Deception of America”?

  • Yance Ford

    FOREIGNID: 30711
    The font type on makes my eyes hurt- literally- and I can’t read the site let alone find the list of docs. I’m sure if one looked close you’d find Park Slope itself is on the boycott list…
    I’d like to see you include conservative docs on your top rapidly dogmatic films list but they can’t all be about Michael Moore, ok?