‘Who Is Dayani Cristal,’ ‘Fallen City,’ And What Makes For An Effective Documentary

Yesterday Joy Moses, one of my colleagues here at the Center for American Progress, wrote about the importance of A Place At The Table, a documentary about food security, that premiered just as the sequester began, cutting hundreds of thousands of recipients from the Women Infants and Children food program. And so I was struck today when AV Club critic Scott Tobias used the movie as a hook to argue that we’re more tolerant of stylistic stagnation in documentaries than we are in feature films, in part because we’re more likely to privilege the information in them over the way they’re presented. He writes:

I’ve often argued that the “movieness” of movies is undervalued—that we accept the indifferent, workmanlike craft of deliberate mediocrities over flashier, more conspicuous failures. But the “movieness” of documentaries rarely becomes an issue, which only encourages the stereotype of the documentary as a hearty gruel of talking heads and archival footage, spooned out as artlessly as the school lunches A Place At The Table criticizes so vociferously.

The thinking that documentaries need merely to seek or present some kind of truth, regardless of how those truths are presented, strikes me as dated at a time when the elasticity of the format is constantly being tested. Why should documentaries be forgiven any more than fiction films for failing to use the medium expressively or dynamically? Why give a pass to bland info-dumps like A Place At The Table?

I was curious to read the piece, in part because since I got back from the Sundance film festival, I’ve been thinking a great deal about what makes an effective documentary. One thing I think Scott may not necessarily be acknowledging about A Place At The Table is that, to a certain extent, it is a deviation from the norm to turn the camera on poor people and to treat them as if they’re experts, even if only on their own experiences. And I think I’m significantly more tolerant than he is of using documentary film to make arguments, something he acknowledges that he’s leaving out “entire categories of documentary unaccounted for, like acts of investigative journalism (the Paradise Lost movies, for example) or essays both personal (like the films of Ross McElwee or Michael Moore) and editorial (like Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job or No End In Sight),” though I’m surprised that he’s comfortable with Kirby Dick’s powerful The Invisible War, a movie I think is as polemic and argumentative, and as designed to provoke action as much as A Place At The Table is. But I want to make a different argument: attention to the craft of filmmaking can strengthen documentary film’s ability to convey facts and to convince audiences. But it can also trade off with getting the facts across in a way that’s not just dishonest: it’s damaging.

I was struck most strongly by this problem watching Zhao Qi’s Fallen City at Sundance. The film is a beautifully-shot exploration of how a number of families are trying to rebuild their lives after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, an 8.0 magnitude event that killed 68,000 people in the region. Its lingering shots of buildings that have literally sunk into the earth, often shot from the hills far above the city where the movie is set, images of ruined structures being taken back by trees and grass, and chronicles of the construction of a replacement city are both gorgeous as photography and give a strong psychological sense of what it must be like to have your entire world disappear in front of you. But for all the time the movie spends on these striking visuals, Zhao literally never once mentions a factor that is critically important to understanding why the devastation is so severe, and why his subjects are responding to the events the way they are: in the earthquake, schoolrooms collapsed at a rate disproportionate to other construction, killing rural children at a high rate, and leading many parents and activists to believe that corruption contributed to shortcuts in school construction.

Many of the storylines in Fallen City center around school. One couple, the Pengs, lost their daughter in a school collapse. “Her mother was sure she heard a voice cry out ‘Mama,'” Mr. Peng says in the documentary. “After the earthquake, I didn’t want another child. It breaks my heart.” Their grief is valid no matter how their daughter died, of course. But it also seems like the possibility that corruption might have contributed to their child’s death could have something to do with why the Pengs are reluctant to have another child, even after they visit a state-run Population Planning Center, or why they react with such agony when soldiers prevent them from visiting the site where their daughters remains lie. “I just want to bring some cherries for her,” Mrs. Peng sobs. Similarly, it’s bizarre that the school collapse allegations never come up during the story of Hong, a boy who’s been sent far from home to a cram school where he lives in a dormitory. His arc follows his anxiety-ridden study for higher-school exams, which he eventually fails, leading him to a technical school rather than an academic college. Even if school collapses aren’t the only reason Hong has trouble concentrating on his studies, surely the experience of losing many classmates and feeling school is an unsafe place is a question that ought to have been raised somewhere in this storyline. Finally, it’s hard to imagine that the corruption allegations about school collapses have something to do with the reaction when Li Guihua, a community director, is discovered trying to get more apartments for her family in new housing units than she should have been allocated.

Especially considering that activists like Liu Shaokun were punished by the Chinese government for speaking out about the school construction allegations, there’s something shameful about the fact that Fallen City essentially buries them, even though discussing that painful debate would have for a much stronger movie. If I have to make a choice between gorgeous and devastating footage of a wrecked city, and a deeper—even if it’s more polemical—discussion of how the city got that way, I’ll take the latter every time.

A better example of innovative structure paired with facts to come out of Sundance is Who Is Dayani Cristal?, a documentary that probably falls more in the category of investigative journalism, as Scott describes it. The movie functions in two halves: in one, law enforcement officials and advocates try to identify a man who was found without identification in the Arizona desert, dead on a treacherous border crossing, who has as his main identification a large tattoo of a name, Dayani Cristal. In the second half, the actor Gael Garcia Bernal tries to follow the path the man might have taken to the United States, fording rivers, jumping trains, staying at waystations run by the Catholic Church, and eventually sprinting across the border himself. The first half of the movie is a way of dramatizing the issues involved in immigration form by zooming in on a small aspect of immigration, the process by which unidentified and undocumented boarder crossers are reunited with their names, and their families are informed of their fate. Bringing the elements of a procedural into a new space is a way of engaging audiences and illustrating the drive to immigrate. The talking heads we see on screen are explaining both elements of the procedural world we don’t really see and making larger points about the issue that’s brought them all together. And while Bernal’s half of the movie is more problematic—it’s sort of hard to believe that we’re getting an unfiltered immigrant experience when a celebrity is being followed by a camera crew—but at least it’s a way to get us through the geography along the way. But riffing on visual and narrative forumla is squarely in the service of the facts, of getting more information into the frame.

Scott argues that “Indifferent filmmaking shouldn’t be tolerated in any form, but documentaries tend to get a pass, perhaps because the information they provide is considered more valuable than the way they provide it. But accepting documentaries made in tired, cut-and-paste formats only encourages more like them, and even undermines the legitimacy of films that try different things.” But I think it’s worth interrogating what we mean by indifferent filmmaking. It’s true that a visually dull movie can be frustrating to watch, and less effective at conveying whatever point that it wants to make. But a documentary that’s indifferent to facts or to the standards of quality reporting can be more than frustrating: it can do actual damage to our understanding of the world, and consequently, to our ability to change it.