Why I have mixed feelings about Oprah’s “Documentary Film Club”
First, let me say that I admire all that Oprah has accomplished and the contributions she has made to the world, but I am not part of her core audience. Not even close. But my concerns here are for the documentary form and the impacts this “club” might have, and it is at that point where I start.
When I first saw the press release about Oprah’s “Documentary Film Club” a couple days ago, my first reaction was, “Oh, no, not documentary, too.” Part of my reaction comes from not liking her book club for the logo added to the covers of the reissued books and the prices increased in some instances. Elie Wiesel’s Night (amazing, haunting book) did not belong in that club, and I was sad to see it become “chosen.” Further, the fervor that arose over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and the author’s fabricating elements of his memoir after its inclusion in the club raised some interesting questions about veracity in memoirs, but the outrage behind it seemed a little silly and overblown, which can be attributed to its inclusion in the book club. The book later was removed from the club.
So now we have a documentary film club being developed for the Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN, which is in partnership with Discovery Communications, Inc. The documentary film club is not like the book club in that it chooses authors whose books already have been published. Instead, according to IndieWIRE, the OWN (what an abbreviation, eh?) is producing several of its own titles with some notable partners:
- Extraordinary Moms, with Julia Roberts as executive producer
- One Last Shot, with Forest Whitaker as executive producer
- Searching for Happiness, with Goldie Hawn as executive producer
- Tent City, with Gabriel Byrne and Leora Rosenberg as executive producers
- Seven Suicides, “presented by Mariel Hemingway”
The OWN also has acquired titles such as Sons of Perdition, Family Affair, and Life 2.0.
In general several of these documentaries address some pretty hard-hitting social issues such as homelessness with Tent City and prison life with One Last Shot. Just how “hard-hitting” they are will depend on how they approach their subjects, of course. Searching for Happiness definitely is “lighter fare,” referring to the field of “positive psychology” — is there a field of “negative psychology?” Extraordinary Moms, Seven Suicides, and Family Affair are more personal stories and histories.
Let me start with the positive. Documentaries will gain even more potential exposure through this club. They will reach wider audiences, and they might inspire other people to tell other stories through documentary.
And now for the rest of it. First, this club is pretty exclusive, as DocumentaryTech points out. DocumentaryTech also touches on my shared ideas about celebs making documentaries:
We’re not aware that any of these people have ever actually done a documentary. But that seems to follow the trend of celebrities becoming documentarians, be it Johnny Depp, Casey Affleck, William Shatner (doing a doc on himself) or Lindsay Lohan. Look for most of the documentaries on OWN to lean toward celebrity projects that not only get viewers because of that celebrity but conversely build the star’s own “brand.”
While I am not against celebs making documentaries, I do stop and wonder their motivations for making or even for being in them. In documentaries about the making of films or the honoring of another celebrity, the connection might be clearer, but really, what is Lindsay Lohan doing in a documentary about human trafficking? (Lohan’s piece tanked, by the way.)
Second, the range of these documentaries will be limited. Check out this statement Lisa Erspamer, chief creative officer:
“All of these documentaries fundamentally explore human interaction, relationships and emotions. We’re excited to provide viewers with new perspectives and new ways of looking at core themes that shape and affect their lives.”
That quote sets up the OWN to become a contender with HBO’s documentary division. In citing human interaction and feelings, Erspamer suggests these documentaries most likely will focus on personal stories and not necessarily the political issues and social structures informing them. While personal stories can be political, the current trend in mainstream documentary is toward almost a melodrama that follows a narrative arc of emotional build and release. Random examples I can think of are Murderball, Coma, and multiple others. This is not to say that politics should be at the forefront of all documentaries, but what happens to the form when the majority of the mainstream ones don’t?
Third, consider who is a key partner in the OWN: Discovery Communications, Inc. Arguably, Discovery is the global leader in documentary production. Its influence and reach are WIDE. Though it built its early networks on a combination of its own productions and HBO and PBS productions, Discovery now dominates with a specific version of the form. But, do we need more of the same style? Is Discovery’s dominance narrowing the possibilities of the form and squeezing out other viable options?
Overall, then, the exposure for the form is a good thing, but the types of documentaries shown on the OWN might be limited in topic and type. In the end, it might just be more of the same.