Documentary filmmaking possesses a high floor in regards to the consistent quality of even its weakest offerings, largely because the subjects are almost always compelling enough to justify a feature-length examination. And yet, the genre simultaneously suffers from perhaps the most monotonous output as well due to most utilizing the same-old aesthetics.
This thought occurred to me after seeing Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, though the sentiment applies to a majority of documentaries released in theaters every year, the kind that would feel perfectly at home on PBS/CNN/BBC/etc. as impersonal news profiles (which is not the same as objective or unbiased, impossibilities when it comes to human-generated art because all artists inherently bear perspectives that unavoidably bleed into their work). They prioritize educating viewers by presenting information as clearly as possible — usually with a mix of talking-head interviews and archival footage — underscored by driving music to maintain a momentum that never allows attention to wander. Since these documentaries almost always cover universally-significant topics, most viewers will be in the enjoyable palm of the creators’ hands as long as they stick to this tried-and-true script.
Call me naive, but I don’t believe these writers, directors, and editors choose derivative mis-en-scenes out of laziness; rather, the prevalence of this approach is a testament to its effectiveness. If imparting unsullied knowledge with utmost clarity is the goal, these more educational documentaries definitely get the job done. This straightforwardly-informative structure is basically the apex form that’s been developed to perfection, then subsequently beaten into the ground since the inception of the moving image.
In a way, it’s a sort of cinematic lecture, with the story blandly told to the audience through a combination of direct voiceover and/or interviews. Yet as higher education has come to realize, a lecture may focus on WHAT the “teacher” is trying to say, but the nature of the lecture, specifically HOW the information is communicated, is vastly more important, and creative presentations will engage listeners with their dynamic novelty. A textbook may explain information succinctly, cohesively, and expansively, but read someone a textbook — no matter how entertaining the delivery — and their interest will inevitably wane. The same happens to me with these — as I like to call them — “Textbook Documentaries.” Rabid consumers have encountered their artistic formulas ad nauseam, gradually diminishing their potential effect over time.
Even though I was eminently fascinated with the subject of Citizen Jane, my mind periodically checked out while watching because it felt more like a textbook than a personal work of art. In the same way that the strongest lectures are given by professors who inject their personalities into their “performances” of the material, documentaries rooted in palpable perspectives should affect audiences on a deeper level because stories of individuals customarily elicit the most powerful emotions, which tend to impact people greater than stoic education, thus the reason most know more about historical figures from biopics than what they learned in school (despite the widely reported inaccuracies common in the former). The tangible presence of an artist presiding over the proceedings does not inherently entail a lack of widely-desired objectivity; while acknowledging that total objectivity is impossible for edited projects because any choices will reflect the beliefs of the creators (which applies to news stations as well), filmmakers can still quite easily include multiple oppositional perspectives to their own to combat this skewed perception.
More than merely relaying a story, the best documentarians converse with their subjects by substantively yet subtly engaging with and commenting on them through thoughtful construction. Take Risk, Laura Poitras’ recently-released exposé on Julian Assange; instead of just chronicling his life, she instead compiles and presents footage that paints an endlessly interpretable portrait of his person, character, state of mind, and even his consciousness. Most of the best documentaries of the year — Risk, Rat Film, Trophy, All This Panic, and Spettacolo — all feature deliberately-distinct storytelling methods to deepen and enrich their chosen subjects.
In an odd way, the more pervasive Textbook Documentaries remind me of the other most monotonous genre nowadays: superhero movies, particularly those produced by Marvel Studios, who have crafted a consistent model that appeases the masses. They mostly hit similar beats every time, guided by plot and narrative instead of being concerned with developing and exploring nuanced themes and ideas; their “subjects” may change, but the structures remain the same, becoming increasingly more boring and even interchangeably forgettable in their excessive familiarity; and they almost never bear the personal mark of an auteur.
Whereas nobody is really experimenting with the superhero template (if you try to refute this claim by throwing the likes of Logan and Deadpool at me, I’ll throw this and this right back), there are luckily other marvelous documentaries in movie theaters that provide a different way forward for these Marvel-ish ones.