Searching for a Personal Frame

Searching for Mr. Rugoff runs into a dilemma that besets many documentaries:

When a documentary tells the story of a person’s life, or a historical event, to avoid it seeming like nothing more than a filmed Wikipedia overview, the filmmakers will often insert themselves and their own relationship to the subject in an attempt to personalize the proceedings.

The latest example: Searching for Mr. Rugoff. Director Ira Deutschman devotes most of the duration to a biography of Donald Rugoff — a formative player in NYC’s (and America’s) independent film scene — but the documentary keeps returning to Deutschman’s own story, which not only details his history of working with Rugoff as a young lad (and how it inspired his subsequent career in the industry), but also chronicles his trips to Rugoff-touched towns to dig up lost nuggets of forgotten information relevant to Rugoff’s timeline. Besides the aforementioned diversifying element, delving into the relationship between the documentarian and what they’re documenting — which will always color the documentation — stays true to the genre’s commitment to transparency.

The rub: how to make a satellite figure like Deutschman — who we’re only learning about because of the central figure — as compelling as that central figure? Spend a little time on this “subplot,” and it feels unnecessarily tacked-on. Spend a lot of time fleshing it out, and risk not only boring the audience, but also basically guaranteeing that one of their primary takeaways will be “but did we really need that much attention paid to [insert not the central figure here]?”

The solution, as it so often is with art, might just be “do it well”, which in this case can translate to: “make the subplot interesting enough that it becomes so crucial to the main plot, it can’t be considered merely ‘sub’.”

Easier written than executed!

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