Documentaries are usually—aesthetically speaking—very, very boring. Man on Wire (2008), which holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, put me to sleep at the theater (though a lack of sleep the night before surely didn’t help. It’s the only time I’ve fallen asleep at the theater). (Editor’s note: Actually, he also fell asleep in front of the 2009 Keats biopic Bright Star, but that doesn’t count, because he wasn’t there by choice.) The problem is that, just as a majority of fiction filmmakers think that plot is key and forget the rest (I’m looking at you, Christopher Nolan), and just as a good number of filmmakers of a more literary bent make the same mistake with character (I couldn’t finish Blue Valentine (2010) for this very reason; but at least I finally got to see Ryan Gosling do some real acting), documentaries are often so focused on the truth of their subject matter, and how important it is for it to be spread far and wide, that they prioritize writing an exposé over making a film. Such motivations are noble and worthy, but they are political rather than aesthetic, and as such they can be equally well served using other mediums. In other words, this common kind of documentary doesn’t consider itself first and foremost a film. Not all documentaries are like this, of course. The Act of Becoming (2015), which I bet you’ve never heard of, is a good case in point.
A competent documentary uses its film medium to make its point more effectively. Some things are more efficiently conveyed visually, so the competent documentary will throw in images, historical and otherwise, like in Man on Wire. Sometimes, the fastest route to comprehending a series of events is to reenact it, and reenactments done well can be the highlight of a documentary, such as in 1971 (2014). The competent documentarian will often feel the need to specify and/or elicit viewer emotion with the use of music. And yet, putting these elements together gives you a merely competent documentary. This is because, like the undergrad (or even professor) who uses PowerPoint simply because it’s there, the competent documentary hasn’t found the emotional core of its subject matter.
A good documentary has located its emotional core and tries to draw it out using a higher level of cinematic manipulation: tinkering with narrative structure. The unreliable narrator, now a staple of narrative fiction, can reveal with devastating effect the truth that the documentarian is driving at: (T)error (2015; retitled FBI Undercover for the BBC’s Storyville TV documentary series) presents its subject matter from the point of view of an FBI informant, but its moral framework, which we the viewer have had little reason to doubt before this point, slowly starts to crumble as we begin to realize just how unreliable our narrator really is. (Actually, it makes for a pretty good double billing with 1971, also about FBI informants.)
Another form of toying with structure is to pit an interviewee against him-/herself. This kind of documentary usually involves some kind of moral atrocity, such as the monumental Shoah (1985), or the surreal The Act of Killing (2012). Regarding that last film, some critics, such as Nick Fraser and myself, find it off-putting, even distasteful, in how emotionally distant it feels from the mass killings that are its ostensible subject matter; this, as Richard Brody enlightens us, is because the actual subject matter is not the atrocities but the layers of self-denial one perpetrator is forced to see through as the documentary progresses (or, more accurately, ends). From this perspective, the film’s meandering route to its final destination illustrates quite well the evasions and equivocations that constitute the ego’s defense mechanisms. But it’s also distasteful precisely because it appropriates a moral outrage of such enormity merely to make one person confront his decades-old actions. The US-supported atrocities in Indonesia are not yet common enough knowledge to be subsumed like this.
Of course, creative use of narrative structure can be used for documentaries about other things, too. Cameraperson (2016), the memoir of documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, composed of clips and outtakes from her work on others’ films, seems at first to be nothing more than that: a quilt woven of past achievements. (And what achievements! Her credits on IMDB, including some of the documentaries mentioned in this piece, are jaw-dropping, and she’s still going.) But bit by bit, the film circles back to a few particular documentaries, and it dawns on us that, as the epigraph tells us, these are the images that have stayed with her throughout the years—including footage of her twin children, and of her mother before and after she passes away from Alzheimer’s. In her interweaving of footage of great personal significance with documentaries on precarious birth and unjust death, Johnson in Cameraperson marvels at what this is, this thing called life—a life—her life.
However, notwithstanding the above, an exceptional documentary gets out of its own way. As Fraser notes in the above-linked review, for a documentarian, “anything can be made to work, given a chance. You can mix up fact and fiction, past and present. You can add to cold objectivity a degree of empathy.” But exceptional documentaries are so in tune with their subject matter that they have no need of these bells and whistles. Every documentary film is a work of unavoidable artifice in its framing, editing, and choice of subject matter; for the best documentaries, these are enough. Citizenfour (2014) is incredibly gripping for the simple reason that the events captured on film, unfolding in real time, are incredibly gripping. The filmmakers set up the camera, ask some clarifying questions, edit out the downtime, and deservedly win their Oscar.
But what if the subject matter isn’t so conveniently plotted?—which brings us back to The Act of Becoming. This is a documentary about Stoner, a book hailed as the “perfect novel” that has a story as quiet and subtle as it is powerful. The film isn’t about its composition history, nor is it a literary analysis or primarily a reception history—it’s a celebration. Authors, publishers, translators, and booksellers who played a part in the novel’s revival in popularity forty years after it was first published share how they first discovered the book, read aloud selected passages, and reflect on how it changed their lives, all while looking directly into the lens from the center of the frame. There are no camera movements or interviewer prompts, and even the title cards introducing each person are abandoned halfway through the film. (It has an intermittent musical score, a monotone aiming for wistful but coming across only as annoying, and somewhat loud.) And yet, it’s filled with overwhelming swells of emotion: at the miraculous prose that’s read aloud, and even more so when an interviewee is so affected by the prose that he has to take a ten-second pause to regain control. (The women kept it together better, even though one woman recounts how upon first finishing the book she cried as if bereft of a loved one.) As a shoestring-budget independent production, it’s not too concerned with being “feature-length” either; at a round sixty minutes, it’s a masterful wonder on a wondrous masterpiece.