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.

A Call for Documentary Critics

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Programs from the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, Canada.

It’s not just a coincidence that the decline of the film critic happened at the same time as the rise of the documentary. I bring this up as I prepare for a trip to the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, where I’ll be taking part in a panel on film criticism tomorrow (Tuesday at 1:30; come on down!).

I’ve mulled the issue of documentary criticism and how reviewers are too nice to them before. Frankly, the issue doesn’t get old for me, nor it seems for many of those of us who care about such things. There have been similar panels at True/False and the Tribeca Film Festival this year. I’ll admit, we who write and think about documentaries constantly may be small in number, but we don’t lack for passion.

And this is what’s bothering some of us: if documentaries are such a brilliantly evocative way to tell the truth through cinematic storytelling, then all documentaries should not be treated the same. There should be a hierarchy. Some are better than others. Nor should they be judged on a curve, given a pass, as it were, that fiction narratives don’t get.

But there’s another problem that’s been less considered: I think we’re beginning to suffer from an overload of documentaries. Call it, doc glut. And someone’s got to help separate the wheat from the chaff.

So, let’s loop back to that first proposition: that film criticism has imploded at the same time that documentaries have exploded. Pauline Kael and other such critics no longer rule the day. A film’s life can no longer be determined by the strike of a typewriter key. Of course, this notion has always been exaggerated, but the question is that as more credence is given to a Tweet by a 16-year-old fanboy than a well-considered review by an old guy sitting behind a desk, do the documentaries stand to lose or gain?

Honestly, it’s difficult to say. But it’s clear to me that the rise of the documentary is very much a part of the same technological-cultural phenomenon as the decline of the all-powerful critic. It’s all part of the digital age we live in.

It’s worth mentioning, I think, that no one better personifies these shifting plates than the recently passed Roger Ebert. As a critic, one who held as much power as anyone, spanning from the old world of criticism to the current one, Ebert also just so happened to be one of the great documentary advocates of our time.

He’s the guy who picked Errol Morris out of crowd, showering praise on his oddity, Gates of Heaven. He also helped put Hoop Dreams on the map, pumping it up with praise, and heralding what became the dawn of the current age of great documentaries. He called Hoop Dreams the best film of the 1990s.

Ebert was seeing things that other critics weren’t.

While he called the 1976 Maysles film, Grey Gardens, “haunting,” “fascinating,” and “mysterious,” giving it four stars, Vincent Canby, of The New York Times, called it “impassive. Also a little cruel.”

The film, which many of us now consider one of the greatest documentaries of all time, was a bomb when it was released. Chad Curtis, of Vogue, called it “exploitative, tasteless and frankly reprehensible.”

So much for the heyday of film criticism. I’d contend that many critics, Kael included, didn’t know what they were looking at.

Ebert did, because he had more of a populist (which is not to be confused with stupid or simple) point of view.

What this all suggests to me is that we need more doc literate film critics, who can recognize what’s great in a documentary, and to call them out. For my money, A.O. Scott, of The New York Times, does a pretty good job at that.

But, just as much, we also need more critics to call out the bad ones. It’s not as easy as it sounds, however. I’m no critic, but even I have difficulty. In fact, I recently saw two films that I really didn’t care for but I just can’t put my money where my mouth is: I’m scared to pan them here.

The old reasons come up: who gains from a negative review? Would my little negative critique really help forward the form?

This is my preamble to what may come tomorrow in Toronto: I hope to spill the beans on a couple of documentaries that I’d will criticize. I want to see what it sounds like coming out of my mouth in a public forum.

If you’re there, you can take me to task for it.

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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
  • http://www.facebook.com/FreedomLoverFilms Freedom LvrFilms

    I would love to write about documentaries. How do I sign up?

  • http://twitter.com/TruthtoTellBlog Truth2Tell

    Agreed Tom. I would add that the value-add of a “critic” is in contextualising and analysing a doco, discussing its issues from an educated perspective and using the doco’s subject and treatment of it to broaden that topic. I’ve just launched a blog at crikey.com.au in Australia called Truth to Tell (“Looking for truth and telling you what I found”) which aims to do just that

  • Docunewsroundup

    Your points are well taken, but the
    relationship between film critic and film producer/distributor can also
    veer into the corrupt, for example if they have hidden 501(c)(3) or (c)(4) funding and amplify their message through paid or free media or, as occurred with some Participant Media documentaries, an undisclosed
    longstanding personal relationship with a prominent reviewer. A former Doc Mogul and NY Film
    Critics Circle Pres. allegedly engaged in such conduct for years.

  • NotWaitingforSuperman

    The story alleging possible
    corruption arising from an affair between a documentary company
    executive producer and her film critic lover was posted for a long time
    by a public education blog which believed Davis Guggenheim, Diane Weyermann and Participant had marketed a misleading, anti-teacher’s union film, using $6 million in funding from the Gates Foundation. A version of the story, subsequently removed from the news
    site, but apparently based upon undisputed information and public
    records, can still be located the internet Wayback machine at the url noted above.

  • NotWaitingforSuperman

    (Corrected-cross post) The news story http://web.archive.org/web/20120905214844/http://transparencynewsservice.tumblr.com/ alleging possible
    corruption arising from an affair between a documentary company
    executive producer and her film critic lover was posted for a long time
    by
    a public education blog which believed Davis Guggenheim, Diane
    Weyermann and Participant had marketed a misleading, anti-teacher’s
    union film, using $6 million in funding from the Gates Foundation. A
    version of the story, subsequently removed from the news
    site, but apparently based upon undisputed information and public
    records, can still be located the internet Wayback machine at the url noted above.

  • Mavis Cohen

    As noted in my crosspost on potential mischief involving critics and film distributors, the Participant Media scandal was exposed in 2012 — it involved Participant Exec. Producer
    Diane Weyermann and film critic John Anderson. He hasn’t reviewed any Weyermann produced Participant documentary films for news publication since then, although he did write a general puff piece last year in the NY Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/movies/kim-roberts-kate-amend-and-other-female-film-editors.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  • sundanceobserver

    There does appear to be some sort of link between critic support and box office outcomes. http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/B/
    From looking at the previous comments, it is difficult to assess the
    objectivity of the commentators. But it does look like Producer Diane
    Weyermann and film critic John Anderson did try to game the system, and
    if so, why didn’t anyone notice it — Participant had 4 or 5 films only a
    few years after she ran the documentary fund there. Doesn’t seem like a
    cooincidence. And she had her boyfriend writing super favorable film
    reviews of her films? Come on….

  • SundanceObserver

    Oops, URL isn’t showing up, but readers of Tom’s piece should Google “box office results and critic reviews”–the links show some of the articles about how positive critic reviews can affect box office results. There appears to be some history of attempted manipulation by Hollywood studios, but results aren’t too clear. Tom’s post about how positive critic reviews affect the success of documentaries provides some really interesting new evidence about the correlation between reviews and distributor’s success for documentaries in a crowded field. Pretty odd if companies like Participant and Sundance were involved, but Diane Weyermann had a reputation for sharp elbows as an exec. producer so if she tried to help her films by arranging for initial positive reviews, it would be fairly clever if she was never caught and no rules were broken. Were they?

  • MonicaP27Docs

    Wow. Are you asking whether it was ethical to for film critic John Anderson to write reviews about films that were financed and produced by his former live-in girlfriend Diane Weyermann? Many newspapers and critics organizations have rules that require disclosure of a close personal relationship so the readers can determine for themselves how to factor in the bias. Anderson’s favorable reviews (google them) of documentaries exec. produced by Weyermann & Participant never disclosed his personal relationship to her. It looks like the two of them cut if out after a blogger looked at Anderson’s review of Waiting for Superman in Variety http://variety.com/2010/film/reviews/waiting-for-superman-1117941947/ and finally busted them. The mainstream Hollywood press has avoided saying anything (what a surprise). Her company, which is all about social justice, appears to have no problem with it, which seems weird IMHO. But they get a lot of their film production funds from overseas so maybe the rules are different there.

  • client9

    The documentary film industry is just as bad as the feature film industry and the music industry when it comes to financial razzle dazzle and cute ethics. So the film critic issue is just the tip of an iceberg. People in the industry have heard Diane Weyermann repeatedly belittle her boss, CEO Jim Berk at Participant as a “used lawn furniture salesman.” Apparently, he once ran a vacation ownership company, implying he wasn’t qualified to run a film company. He seems to have done rather well, though.

  • TheGreaterInvisible58

    For-Profit Participant Media and EVP Diane Weyermann Obscure Funding Link of Documentary Films to Qatar Government http://www.tumblr.com/blog/participantwatch

    Documentary film critics like Michael Cieply are rare: many fail to question important funding issues and transparency. The irony that Participant Media and its documentary film head Diane Weyermann (pictured below) are financing a documentary about oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico is obvious (The Great Invisible, Dir. Margaret Brown) but not reported upon by the Hollywood press. The fact is, Participant Media funds its movies through a $100 million credit line with the Qatar government, a petro-gas enriched Middle Eastern state that has supplied arms and money to Syria and Libya and used Participant Media as a way to influence U.S. public opinion and decision-makers. http://www.participantmedia.com/2013/02/participant-media-doha-film-institute-form-fund-finance-feature-film-slate/ Participant Media says little if anything about the link between the financing of its films and its own intrusion into domestic politics and foreign affairs. But the NY Times has reported on Qatar’s dangerous meddling in foreign affairs http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/30/world/middleeast/sending-missiles-to-syrian-rebels-qatar-muscles-in.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  • TheGreaterInvisible58

    Believe this is the link to the Participant Media – Diane Weyermann – Qatar connection documentary film funding story: http://participantwatch.tumblr.com