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

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“Stuck” and Why We Shouldn’t Discount Documentaries Used Primarily as Tools for Change

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Stuck documentary bus

The Stuck documentary tour bus at a stop in New York City. The film is also available to watch on-demand at stuckdocumentary.com.

There’s a world of documentary that most who observe or take part in the documentary industry never see. They’re like two ships in the night passing by. Or, rather, two buses.

I came to this thinking when I was walking down 23rd street in Manhattan and stumbled on a giant tour bus that had been decorated with images of children and the phrase, “More than a movie. It’s a movement,” and “Stuck documentary.”

When was the last time a documentary was promoted by a rock-’n’-roll tour bus? I so often talk with filmmakers who can barely rent a room in Bushwick, so clearly this is a different animal.

And it appears to be. Stuck is a documentary commissioned by Craig Juntunen, an entrepreneur who became a child welfare advocate. He adopted three kids and came up with the idea to make a documentary to spread the word about the appalling neglect of unwanted children and the injustice caused by the breaking down of international adoptions. In the past six years, largely because of bureaucratic red tape and government inertia, adoptions in the United States of foreign children have dropped 60 percent. And so millions of kids are withering away even though there are families who want provide for them desperately.

A totally worthy cause, right? And that’s what strikes me as particularly interesting about it. It’s one screaming for attention, but to make a documentary as a tool is exactly what the likes of Nick Fraser, of the BBC’s Storyville, is always railing against. Documentary should be about storytelling, he says! They should be like cinema! I tend to agree with him.

Here, the documentary is a stepping stone. You won’t see the Stuck guys at Sundance, or hear about them at the next Cinema Eye Honors.

In fact, they almost reveal a disdain for the documentary form in that slogan, “More than a movie. It’s a movement.” Sounds like a dis, right?

And yet, I’m sure that the director of the film, Thaddaeus Scheel, would disagree. “As a filmmaker, my goal was to present Craig’s point of view within a well researched and non-biased film, that hopefully entertained and engaged the audience with the profoundly moving experience of inter-country adoption,” says Scheel, who comes from “the world of short form docs,” and had once been a Hollywood prop master. “The only agenda I had was to make a compelling film that would illustrate the joys and heartbreaks that we had seen over and over in our research.”

Stuck is indeed a well put-together relaying of information with a strong dose of emotion. It shows how governments are crossing their arms while children are suffering. It tells of several couples struggling to adopt, and it visits the children in their dilapidated orphanages in countries like Vietnam and Ethopia.

It’s sometimes painful to watch. But when actor Mariska Hargitay’s somber narration overlaps images of despondent children kicking around in the dirt, the film watching veers toward the experience of seeing those charity informercials you catch on the nether regions of cable. And how can it not? This is what it is.

There’s no sense of brilliant creativity or revealing discovery in the filmmaking, which are the most precious elements of a documentary. There’s never a sense that the filmmaker is creating or discovering the truth. It’s not even a hardscrabble investigative report. It’s more like connecting the dots.

That might matter to some of us, but I bet it didn’t for Stuck audiences, which is fine by me. (I encourage you to watch the film here, and judge for yourself: http://buy.stuckdocumentary.com/)

“Making the film was a bet that new information would collide with common sense and change will occur,” says Juntunen, who took his tour bus and film on a 78-day tour to 60 cities, where he estimates more than 10,000 people (including three U.S. Congressmen) saw it. Stuck has also received plenty of mainstream press attention, on television and newspapers like USA Today.

Am I knocking Stuck? I don’t want to be. I applaud Juntunen and Scheel for doing incredible work to raise awareness about a terrible wrong. What I want to do is to shine a light on the straw man that Mr. Fraser (and others, including myself) sometimes attack. Stuck is the sort of film we keep slinging arrows at.

But when you actually look at the film, it’s a little like comparing apples and oranges. It doesn’t try to be vérité. And how could one compare it with a cinematic investigation like what we see coming from Alex Gibney, or like one of Michael Moore’s satires?

And yet, I’d have to contend that the film is at least a cousin of the very preachy An Inconvenient Truth.

So, maybe Stuck is not so, so different after all. But you’ll rarely see it in the same room with the other docs.

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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
  • Jennifer Tenney Francis

    Stuck is a great movie!

  • s

    Stuck portrays a one-sided viewpoint of international adoptions that is particularly ill-considered in light of recent journalism that shows a much darker side to international adoption such as adopted children dying of abuse and adopted children being traded on the internet (called disrupting an adoption…if you put in the phrase, you will likely find a few of these vile internet boards). It is not obvious that international adoption is for the good of the children. What would be best for the child is if world powers such as America did not interfere with aggressive economic policy and help ruin economies abroad. We should all be putting efforts into promoting the economic welfare of all countries so children can stay with their biological parents whenever possible.