Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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Turning to Documentaries After Tragedy

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So soon after the terrible, beyond-measure, shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, it’s difficult to write about anything else this week.

I turn to thinking about documentaries about gun violence, the most obvious example being Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, but there was also last year’s Gun Fight, directed by Barbara Kopple (American Dream and Harlan County, U.S.A.), about the national debate over gun control; Living for 32, the emotional telling of the Virginia Tech shooting by one of its victims; and Trigger: The Ripple Effects of Gun Violence, about the deep damages wrought by guns.

Michael Moore’s Columbine has had the greatest impact on the national discourse, but it provokes as much discussion about Moore himself and his tactics, which is a shame. The focus becomes our obsession with the cult of personality and the clash of red state versus blue state rather than the far more difficult challenge of facing the issue of guns, education, mental health and the complex forces that spawn such atrocious acts. But the considerations so far, of political ramifications and social commentary, fall flat in the face of this latest tragedy.

Some might turn to religion in such situations. I turn to the arts. Where are the documentaries that speak to healing the soul? I want to call up a documentary that can speak to the spirit of loss, grief and, yes, hope for redemption. I don’t have a hard time coming up with fiction films. I recall Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, about the aftermath of a school bus accident, being a pretty soulful film. There are books that do a pretty good job too. Joan Didion’s recent The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Night, about the deaths of her husband and daughter, were painfully incisive.

Of course, there have been many documentaries that look toward healing from pain. There’s Shoah, about the Holocaust, or the recent spate of docs about survivors of atrocities in Africa, including War/Dance and one I just saw recently, Sweet Dreams, about Rwanda. As affecting as these films are, they tackle tragedy that can be objectified because they are in our past or in far off lands.

I was going to conclude with suggesting that maybe there isn’t a documentary out there that speaks so intimately and deeply to our recent experience of tragedy in our country. But then I thought of Deliver Us From Evil, about a pedophile priest and the survivors of his crimes. That’s one film, I’d say, that manages to dig to the core of a contemporary American tragedy with a soulfulness that is heartbreaking, but somehow cathartic.

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