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.

Are Movie Critics and the Documentary Press Too Nice to Documentaries?

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Recently, Christopher Campbell at Film School Rejects criticized Waiting for Lightning by calling it “propaganda of personality.”

A couple weeks back, I lit a small candle under Constance Marks, the director of Being Elmo, by raising a question about how well a documentarian should know his or her subject. More recently, Christopher Campbell at Film School Rejects has taken his own flame and went ahead and pretty much torched Waiting for Lightning. In his post, Campbell basically says the documentary is terrible, likening the doc, which was conceived by one of the subjects of the film, to Triumph of the Will. He eventually calls it “propaganda of personality,” noting that the film was partly funded by a company with a vested interest in its subjects looking awesome.

Campbell points out that many documentaries veer into this territory, but what really caught my eye about his post is his willingness to knock a doc. I really found it refreshing. It’s something I’ve written about before; the documentary press, and the whole movie critic establishment, is just so nice to docs. Maybe, too nice.

I am very much a culprit in this; but who wants to knock the little guy? Or break down a filmmaker’s life work that’ll never make them a dime? Or rip a film that advocates for the plight of children in Africa?

The only time I’ve mustered up a critical take on a doc is when I saw blatant and misleading flaws in the politics of a film, such as 2016: Obama’s America; and what do you know, it was the post that earned me the most bashing I’ve ever received here.

On the other hand, as much as I admired Campbell for taking out his blowtorch, I found The New York Times review of Ethel unreasonably harsh, even though I haven’t seen the film yet. See, I can’t let go of that impulse to defend a doc from criticism even though I haven’t seen it.

But most docs have that all-powerful out: they mean well. And even when a film’s motivations appear to be less than altruistic, like the many vanity projects that keep coming out, what’s the point of knocking it?

I’ll tell you what: just as an exercise, I am going to try at some point this year to call a spade a spade, and give an honestly negative review of a documentary that I don’t like, simply because it’s not well-made, not because of its politics or possible grandstanding. Why? Because being real and truthful is what doc lovers are all about, right?

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
  • Charlie Huette

    I love the question at the heart of this, and it seems important to ask, but I wonder if “knocking a doc” for the sake of knocking a doc is the answer. What’s great about the Campbell review is that, while it knocks the doc, it does so from within a fairly clear (though briefly outlined) ethical framework; so while it’s about that film, it’s also about larger issues that perhaps affect the truth-value of an entire subclass of documentaries. (And a very popular subclass of docs at that.) Just sayin’: that seems different (and maybe of a higher order of importance and necessity) than dinging a film for being carelessly edited or incoherent or any number of the other problems that plague poorly-made films. Or not. I don’t know. Just a thought. Good post: got me thinking.

    • Doc Soup Man

      Thanks, and just to be clear: I’m not planning to pan a film for the sake of panning it. If I truly find a film lacking, I want to be able to feel free to express that. It’s weird and a little creepy (but understandable, considering the reasons discussed above) that I and others have this gag rule: if you don’t like a doc, it’s best just not to mention it.

  • Anonymous

    this would be a refreshing change. most documentaries are awful cinema.

  • Chris Metzler

    Great post and it’s well worth considering, as in general documentaries seem to be reviewed much differently than other forms of cinema. In general it’s not usually film criticism as an art form as usually docs are reviewed/criticized based solely on subject matter and the reviewer’s expectation on how that subject should be explored or a retelling of the film’s plot/story/subject. But to be fair to the marketplace, the subject is often what draws most of the audience to watch a doc (both in the theater and on TV), unfortunately not the storytelling. So perhaps critics who review docs are just assessing it based on how the film’s audience might assess it, which with docs is a film preaching to the converted. But in general this falls into the press being nice to docs and like you said the issue “Who wants to knock the little guy?” has to be a big part of it. Admittedly we’ve found that to be the case sometimes with our documentaries and hey it’s nice when it benefits your struggles as an indie, but in the end anything that continues to push documentary film criticism closer to general film criticism is a beneficial thing to everyone.

    • Doc Soup Man

      Thanks, Chris: I like how @kartemquin calls it a Doc Ghetto….

  • Jacob Harbord

    Hi – I really like this article and think you raise a lot of good points. Perhaps the reluctance to be too harsh on documentaries is somehow related to the film’s being about real people. The ‘best not to mention it’ rule is part of our everyday social interaction and it would seem natural to apply it to the real people we watch in films. Maybe it’s the Kennedy’s special place in the public eye that freed Stanley from normal conventions?