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.