When people watched Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, they were shocked by footage of the sheriff flaunting his pistol.
Today, it’s hard to imagine a film of similar dramatic impact without a full set of graphic moments. This is the new reality for documentary filmmakers — so much is being filmed. That’s why the new crop of Syria documentaries is so graphic and disturbing. Filmmakers are getting access to material that once was unheard of.
There has never been a shortage of stories. The human experience keeps churning out remarkably unique, fascinating tales that could warrant a 90-minute nonfiction, cinematic yarn. (Mommy Dead and Dearest? Yikes!) And increasingly, there’s video to go along with those yarns.
In the past week, I was stunned by two such stories that, if they’re not already prompting multiple productions, I’d be shocked. First, there was the grim story in The New York Times about two United Nations investigators who idealistically marched into the Democratic Republic Congo with the intent of finding the perpetrators of a massacre there. But, earlier this year, without proper security, training or equipment, the two ended up surrounded by a group of men, shots were fired, and the two ended up dead.
The immediate questions: Who are these two investigators? Who killed them? What was the UN’s role and responsibility in their death? And what is happening in Congo that seems so intractable?
My next thought is: Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara, who made Virunga, a thrilling doc about gorilla poaching in the Congo, should be on this. And if they don’t want to revisit this well, they ought to produce some new filmmakers who are brave enough to take it on.
Two days after reading that clip, the gruesome and bizarre story of Aleksei Makeev broke. This total jerk and sociopath, a Russian living in Mexico, had enraged locals with his constant racist, violent social media and real life taunts and provocations, causing them to assault him in his home. A mob lynching left Makeev in the hospital with brain damage after he killed one of his assailants.
Having just gone through a run of Black Mirror episodes, those creepy fictional tales of the near future based on current society’s warped technological reality, I was agog at this Mexican mishegoss. You can see the lynching as it progresses on hand-held cameras. You can see Makeev’s previous atrocious behavior — because he posted it on social media. If there has ever been a tale of the warped, dark side of social media trolls run amok, it’s this one.
To me, this is a story of mental illness — clearly, Makeev is suffering from something — but also a social, international malaise, and when the two merge on social media, we have the template for what’s ailing humanity in the 21st century.
What both these stories share is that they were both recorded on video — apparently there’s grainy footage of the killing in the Congo incident — which, of course, lends itself to a documentary film retelling.
The incredible, often disturbing, sometimes uplifting seed ideas for documentaries are aplenty. Of course, putting them together is quite another thing. (I sure hope a filmmaker is getting a handle on the persecution of gays in Chechnya.) The work, long hours, sacrifice and access it takes to really get the story is the hard part.