With Tiffany Shlain’s personal documentary Connected wrapping up its theatrical run, Doc Soup Man Tom Roston asks why the best known first-person documentarians are men.
There’s an interesting documentary that was released in select theaters this fall called Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology. The film premiered at Sundance in 2011 and is directed by Tiffany Shlain, a public speaker, filmmaker and all-around new-media and social-change powerhouse — She founded the Webby Awards.
(For more information about upcoming screenings of Connected — and how you can host your own — you can visit connectedthefilm.com.)
I was struck by Shlain’s presence in Connected, a first-person essay about our new digital age and what we can do about the sense of alienation that we feel even while we’re so interdependent online.
First-person documentarians are a special breed. I mean, what really motivates them to go on camera in the first place? Michael Moore (Roger & Me) is the most obvious example. He’s a filmmaker who has strong opinions and who uses his on-camera persona to get his message across. You have to figure that there’s some ego involved there as well. The same goes for Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me). I’d put both of those guys in the same group, although I think Spurlock is driven more by an innate class-clown personality. Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer) and Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World) are two more good ones who have tenacious spirits (but who can both credit more than half of their first-person success on charming accents).
There is also the Alan Berliner (Wide Awake, Nobody’s Business, The Sweetest Sound), Doug Block (51 Birch Street) and Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March, Bright Leaves) brand of first-person filmmaker. These are cerebral guys who are trying to work out their personal issues on camera. (If you can make a filmmaking career out of your own neurosis, I say, “go for it!”)
The list of name-brand first-person docmakers so far is suspiciously stacked with men, despite there being so many woman documentary directors. This is not to say that there aren’t women who haven’t broken the mold and made affecting first-person docs — Agnès Varda (The Beaches of Agnès), Judith Helfand (Blue Vinyl, A Healthy Baby Girl), Amy Hardie (The Edge of Dreaming) and Pamela Yates (Granito) — but none has crossed over like one of their male counterparts.
To produce a Michael Moore-like “success,” will it take a woman with a trifecta of screen presence, ego and intelligence? Shlain has taken her shot. Here’s what I’d like to see: Ms. Tina Fey, how about making a doc?