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.

Celebrate The New Doc Vague!

by |

oxy_screen_08

A still from the documentary Oxyana.

Last week, I wrote about the film Oxyana and “The New Doc Vague”. In the response, there was a fair amount of attention given to my criticizing the film and what it represents, rather than what I was hoping would be a healthy dose of questioning that could lead to greater understanding.

With that in mind, I want to belatedly give the director of Oxyana, Sean Dunne, the space to address some of the issues raised in the comments of my previous post and in Twitter replies. But first, a few words about this new label, “The New Doc Vague.”

I feel it necessary to break down where the term comes from, based on tweets requesting it. (Skip down two paragraphs if you already get the reference.)

I wanted to give this phenomenon a name, because I really think it’s happening, and to help engage readers with the idea that there’s a new wave of documentary filmmaking that is exciting but with conspicuous weaknesses. (Like anything in its infancy.) The films I am thinking about, including Oxyana, incorporate many of the cinematic elements of what is known as “the French New Wave” –  realism, kids on the streets, and long, unedited shots that don’t necessarily move the story along but are primarily immersive moments that make you feel like you’re there, living in real time. Directors like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Agnès Varda, made their films feel documentary-like. In turn, I see a movement of doc directors who are making documentaries feel French New Wave-like — films such as Only The Young (which played on POV this week, and can be streamed online), TchoupitoulasOxyana, as well as the upcoming These Birds Walk and 12 O’Clock Boys.

In its native language, “The French New Wave” is “La Nouvelle Vague,” which I switched to “New Doc Vague.” I particularly like this linguistic leap because these films can get into trouble when they fudge reality or mislead audiences by showing something that’s true but not actually correct – which is to say, they can be “vague.” Some of that is cool, aesthetically, but there is a risk of manipulating the circumstance of what’s really happening and can be a big downside of this kind of filmmaking.

Now why did I pick on Oxyana if it’s a film that doesn’t aspire to be a vehicle for information? Because, at its core, and thematically, it’s about two serious social issues: poverty and drug addiction. If, say, the two boys in Only the Young, were united by neo-Nazi inclinations and rampant crystal meth use, I think the directors of the film would have had different responsibilities about providing the audience with more perspective on what’s actually being mediated by their cameras.

(To those who have asked for more a complete analysis, I apologize. Score me a book deal on the subject, and I’d be happy to go long.)

Last thing: It’s unfortunate that we tend to have one, reductionist takeaway from any cultural product, be it a film or a blog post, but I ask that you try to balance the positive and negative things I’ve said so far about The New Doc Vague and Oxyana. Of course, the best thing to do is just see the film, and the others I’ve mentioned, and decide for yourself. Documentary is bigger than any of us. It’s certainly bigger than my little blog, or any particular filmmaker or film. We’re all trying to contribute to it in our own way — including the viewer who pays for that $2.99 download — and the doc form will continue to grow.

So I’m going to celebrate The New Doc Vague, and keep watching. And thinking.

Doc Soup Man: Could you elaborate on the idea that your film is (and can be) an immersive experience and shouldn’t be obligated to be informational?

Sean Dunne, director of Oxyana: Oxyana intends on raising more questions than it ever dares to try and answer. One of the main missteps I see a lot of documentaries these days falling victim to is underestimating the audiences intelligence and therefore not challenging them in any way or inviting them to question, decipher and draw their own conclusions about this world they’ve been invited into. I’ve made a conscious effort with Oxyana (and my short films) to avoid those trappings.

Doc Soup Man: During the making of Oxyana, did you ever consider integrating more “facts” and context about the people of Oceana and the problems they are facing?

Sean Dunne: Respecting our subjects was priority number one. They were extremely courageous to even speak with us in the first place. Adding expert testimony/analysis or title cards would only serve to make them look like lab rats. I wanted to level the playing field and have their voices carry as much weight as those not addicted and allow for the viewer to explore and grapple with that themselves. I’ve never thought of Oxyana or any of my films as vehicles for information in the traditional sense.  If this were a social action documentary as opposed to a portrait I could see being tempted to incorporate more of that stuff, but that’s not the type of filmmaker I am and those are not the types of films I’m interested in making. I feel all the context necessary to tell this story is in the film and the hope is that it will stand the test of time and can be looked back on years from now as a valuable document of what this particular time and place felt and looked like.

Doc Soup Man: What films and filmmakers most inspire you?

Sean Dunne: Ross McElwee, Errol Morris, Craig Baldwin, Doug Pray, Chris Marker, PT Anderson, Scorsese, Heartworn HighwaysThe Decline of Western CivilizationDig!, Wonderland (1997), ElectionTerminal Bar (doc short from 2003) and so many others. Photographic Memory by McElwee is the best thing I’ve seen in a really long time.

Doc Soup Man: I was confused about how expensive OxyContin (and other drugs discussed in the film) was costing the people in Oxyana. A) How can they afford (I’m forgetting now so correct this if wrong) $50 a day for a pill? B) Aren’t there much cheaper ways for them to get high?

Sean Dunne: The going rate for a 30mg Oxy was $40-$50 per pill while we were down there. One pill wouldn’t be nearly enough for any of the addicts we spoke to. Many of them would need 3 or 4 of those per day simply to maintain and not slip into withdrawals. There is a difference between maintaining and getting high. One of the teenage girls we spoke to in the film claimed that she would need $600 to $800 worth of Oxy in order to get high… per day. To answer your question, they can’t afford it, so they turn to theft and prostitution. Street drugs don’t exist in Oxyana. One of the first things I asked when I found out how much Oxy cost was why some of the addicts hadn’t turned to heroin, as it is much cheaper. The answer I kept getting was that stuff simply hadn’t made its way into the area and when it had it never lasted long. Part of what Oxyana was trying to depict was how isolated Wyoming County is, and can feel. The lack of street drugs and the flourishing underground economy surrounding prescription drugs is another example of that.

Doc Soup Man: There’s been talk of the Oceana community, and West Virginia, being upset at your depiction their problems, as being exploitative, insensitive or misinformed. A) Do you think the people there feel that way or is this a very vocal minority? B) Do you think you and the film have been characterized unfairly on this point?

Sean Dunne: We didn’t expect for the people of Wyoming County to be excited about us putting a spotlight on the drug abuse in the area and our presence certainly caused a backlash. But this was all before we had even shot a frame. Now that people are seeing it we are getting a drastically different response. A lot of people are watching it and spreading the word about it and the dialogue that it has sparked will hopefully inspire a new way of thinking about drug abuse and addiction in this country.

But no matter what there are always going to be people who don’t like your work and I have a thick skin for that. This film is not for everybody and we understood taking this approach would be polarizing. But what is truly frustrating have been the people, including yourself, who insist on judging this film as something that we never set out for it to be in the first place. As a lifelong follower of his work I’ll defer to Errol Morris who had a great quote in the Times article on The Act of Killing that speaks to these issues…

Documentary is not about form, a set of rules that are either followed or not, it’s an investigation into the nature of the real world, into what people thought and why they thought what they thought…

…The most you can ask from art, really good art, maybe great art, is that it makes you think, it makes you ask questions, makes you wonder about how we know things, how we experience history and know who we are.

Read Tom Roston’s post “Beware The New Doc Vague” on POV’s Doc Soup blog. Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs.

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
  • SFfilm

    “But what is truly frustrating have been the people, including yourself, who insist on judging this film as something that we never set out for it to be in the first place.”

    Wow, someone get this Dunne guy a PR person. You don’t get mad at a journalist in public. You wait till later when you are alone with your friends.

    Tom your stuff is always great – I hope you have a thick skin. Your New Doc Vague argument is really excellent and really got a lot of people thinking.