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

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Two Documentaries You Might Never See (Because the Directors Won’t Change Their Titles)

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An image from the documentary Menstrual Man, which premiered at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in April 2013. Will its title prevent it from reaching a mainstream audience?

You might not get to see two of the best documentaries I’ve seen on the film festival circuit so far. Why? For the same reason: Because their titles could inhibit their distribution, but their directors insist on keeping them anyway.

Drum roll please. Here are the titles… F— for Forest and Menstrual Man.

This is ever more maddening to me because, on principle, I totally agree them.

F— for Forest, directed by young Polish filmmaker Michal Marczak, is about an environmental group in Berlin that promotes and finances its eco-friendly beliefs through pornography. The film is a rollicking ride, and the group’s unique methods and mandate are intriguing. Marczak shoots it with a vivid vérité style, but as things get weirder and more epic, it starts feeling like a Werner Herzog film. One of Herzog’s fiction features, that is. The group is indeed called F— for Forest so the title of the film not only makes total sense, it represents the sort of in-your-face ethos of the filmmaking. Marczak told me he had no intention of changing the title.

Menstrual Man is more serious, but it’s not dry (see, I’m already getting into trouble here). The film is a fascinating telling of a seeming shlump of a man in India, Arunachalam Muruganantham, who makes it his life’s mission to develop safe and cheap sanitary pads for poor women in his country. It’s funny and sad and essential. I spoke briefly with its Singaporean director, Amit Virmani, whom I complimented, referencing how the film recalled the brilliant The Corporation in the way it refreshes how we think about our economic models. I questioned the title in person as well as on Twitter and this was Virmani’s Twitter response: “If I ditched it only cos audiences might be turned off… then I had no right to comment on how it’s a needless taboo among indians,” he wrote.

Two films with two perfectly correct titles, right?

And yet, in the U.S. of A. (and I do think it’s relevant that both filmmakers are from foreign shores), there are still plenty of mainstream newspapers and other outlets that do not publish the word “f—,” or even the approximation that my minders at POV prefer. I’m not commenting on the free speech or civility issues here; what I care about is how the market will receive that title. How will theaters? (The film is going to be shown in the dregs of the Gowanus during the Rooftop Films series on August 16, 2013 in New York City.) Does it matter when docs like F— for Forest end up getting most of their play through online streaming? I know I, as a freelance journalist, have felt handicapped in discussing this film with editors, so it’s happening right here and now at my desk.

The last time I checked, neither film had U.S. distribution. Sure, anything with the word “f—” in it will bring in a prurient crowd, and anyone can download the film in the privacy of their own home, but explain that to your wife. And I don’t see it getting played on mainstream TV. Menstrual Man isn’t going anywhere near Walmart shelves, and even the enlightened minds who watch TED videos would be more apt to download a film called, say, The $ilent Wonder of Women.

One person connected to Menstrual Man told me there was an “ick” factor that some people in the marketplace expressed concerns about. Sorry, as a guy, I can’t help having a moment (or half a moment) of pause when I say that title to someone. Is that the intended effect of the title? To break down the inhibition we, as a culture, have of speaking of women’s bodies honestly? Yes! But will that principle make people in power jump at the chance of showing this film at a festival or on a TV channel near you? I doubt it. More likely: The opposite.

So, is it the right thing to do what’s right, even if it means fewer people will see your film? That’s a question for the ethics professors out there, or for anyone who cares to comment below.

For me, I loved both movies so much that I want others to see them. So I have to respectfully disagree with the directors and say this: Change audiences with your films, not with your titles.

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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