Steve Greene, an assistant editor with IndieWire’s CriticWire, posted an interesting column on July 2 that asked, Do critics favor documentaries? He posed four possible reasons why, including their connection to reality, critics championing them, and the effect of festivals. His fourth reason is my favorite: “They’re just better.” Though not grounded in data like Greene’s claims, I would like to add four reasons of my own as to why critics might favor documentaries.
Independence From The Hollywood Conveyor Belt
Documentaries offer an accessible and hopefully engaging way to learn about something new. While fiction stories often follow the same narrative arcs grouped within the same established genres, documentaries bring forward issues and ideas not found in mainstream fiction films. While some of the blockbusters coming out this week retread the comic-book world, a documentary might tackle an obscure cultural subject (think hairless mole rats in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control) or tackle a global issue (Blue Gold: World Water Wars). Depending on where you read this, the issue might be halfway around the world (The Cove), or it might be right in your backyard (also The Cove). Either way, a documentary often offers the immense potential of informing and maybe even blowing your mind a little, if you let it.
Narrative Fiction vs. Narrative Non-Fiction
Greene asks at one point, “Are documentaries largely better than narrative?” A better word here might be “fiction.” Just as mainstream fiction tells stories, so do documentaries, but about real people. When told well, these documentary stories suck you in, grab your heart, and don’t let go. Half the fun of watching Murderball is the frankness with which the players talk about their lives. Marwencol is fascinating and then gets harrowing as you realize more about the why of what happened to its subject. And if The Interrupters doesn’t have you crying at some point, you left your heart somewhere and probably should go find it.
There’s More Than One Way To Tell A Story
Documentary also offers an immense variety within the form. No two documentaries tell the same stories and address the same issues in the same way. Though both about health care, Michael Moore’s Sicko differs immensely from Roger Weisberg’s Critical Condition (POV 2008) in style. While Moore situates himself as part of the events in Sicko, Weisberg removes himself from the unfolding events. Though both about girls in the juvenile justice system, Girl Trouble differs from Girlhood in many of its messages about the system and its effectiveness. While Girl Trouble offers a more rounded view of the system and its effectiveness and its limitations, Girlhood focuses more on the girls’ stories and their outcomes, with the system more in the background. These pairs of examples just barely skim the possibilities for the forms documentaries take.
For the more politically minded, watching a documentary might offer a sense of altruism through now having the awareness of various issues affecting different people. For some, these documentaries may motivate further action, but for many, just knowing and identifying offers enough reward.