With the growth of interest in documentary during the last decade or so, many new books covering documentary in general have appeared. Aside from John Corner’s The Art of Record, Bill Nichols’ Introduction to Documentary (now in its second edition) was arguably the first general introductory text. Since the 2001 release of the first edition, many others have appeared, including Paul Ward’s Documentary from Wallflower, Keith Beattie’s Documentary Screens from Wallflower, Patricia’s Aufderheide’s Documentary: A Very Short Introduction from Oxford, and even Stella Bruzzi’s New Documentary: A Critical Introduction from Routledge.
I recently worked my way through Dave Saunders’ Documentary (Routledge Film Guidebooks). The back cover touts the key films covered in depth: Nanook of the North, The Man with the Movie Camera, Night Mail, Night and Fog, Roger and Me, Tarnation, My Winnipeg, Sicko, Waltz with Bashir, Say My Name, and Anvil: The Story of Anvil. In general, the book offers some coverage of the “must” titles (Nanook, Camera, Night and Fog, Roger), and it gets into some question marks for me (Tarnation, Winnipeg). Waltz, Anvil, and Say My Name I thought were “interesting” choices, and I actually held onto a little hope for their discussions.
That little hope was quickly dashed amid turgid writing, lacking scholarship, and, well, missing points. The writing in this book is an adventure in finding the meaning. Some sentences covered an unwieldy half page, oftentimes coupled with a block quote paragraph. Some sentences’ meanings disappeared within the phrase after phrase that interrupted whatever the intended point. Here is an example from the discussion on Waltz with Bashir:
One event in particular, during IDF’s merciless siege of Beirut, seemed to have had a devastating psychological effect on those soldiers (including the amnesia-troubled Folman) who found themselves on the periphery: the Sabra and the Shatila refugee camp massacre, committed by Israel-allied Christian Phalangists in revenge for the bomb-blast assassination, days before he was due to be sworn in as Lebanon’s new president, of charismatic leader Bashir Gemayel (from whose name cmes Folman’s title) — an atrocity in which around 3,000 civilians were killed (168).
Within that quote appear 86 words, two parenthetical statements, one colon, one dash, five extra phrases, and about six other sentences. Had this quote been representative of just an occasional sentence in the book I would not be bringing this up, but too many sentences in this book read this way.
Saunders does cite an impressive array of scholarship related to documentary, and his bibliography does have some good starting points in it. But there are some notable omissions. A key one related to the discussion of Tarnation is Jim Lane’s The Autobiographical Documentary in America. Another significant omission is more from Waugh. Further, the bibliography includes almost no scholarship from women writers about the form. Though older, Heck-Rabi for example offers an excellent discussion on Esfir Shub.
While the book’s introduction does outline some purposes, I remain overall unsure about what this book is trying to do. Saunders weaves an impressive set of quotes throughout his commentary on the films, but those quotes often feel disconnected from the main ideas. The key ideas about his discussions get buried in the writing and the quotes. Many quotes attribute their authors as opining, averring, remarking, and commenting, instead of the more neutral (and less distracting) “wrote” or “said.” I kept waiting for a new insight that might inspire readers new to documentary, but I never found one.
The biggest problem with this book is that it repeats the same problems from some other books on documentary, most notably overlooking the key contributions from women throughout the history of the form. Say My Name, Nirit Peled’s documentary about women in hip-hop, offered an enormous chance to make a real contribution, but instead the piece got rolled into a discussion on “rockumentary” with Anvil. Of all the titles listed on the back cover, Peled’s is the only woman-directed and woman-focused piece. Occasional mentions of other makers (Kopple, in particular) do appear, but not much by way of sustained discussion.
The next book I am reading is Belinda Smaill’s The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture. It has an entire chapter on Kim Longinotto, so I am looking forward to reading that.