A photograph of a Vik Muniz work, entitled Marat/Sebastiao: Pictures of Garbage from the documentary Waste Land. Courtesy of Vik Muniz Studio.
For decades the documentary film has exemplified the American attitude toward do-gooding: speak loudly and carry a small stick. Documentaries have the paradoxical role of advocating for the under-served while wielding a puny amount of influence in the market. It is an accepted fact that documentaries don’t sell: they are among the last films to be picked up at Sundance and have a comparatively small chance of getting distribution, let alone a theatrical release.
It’s taken documentary films a long time to rise above genre restrictions. As the only genre with a claim to big-t Truth, they labor under the burden of proof. But this year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries have more ambitions than telling a good story and getting the facts right. They experiment with narrative in ways usually associated with fictive films and, taken together, they make a powerful argument for the documentary film as a work of art with its own rhetorical concerns. As such, many of them seemed to belong more to the Best Picture category.
The new crop of docs are good: they’re brash and entertaining while still providing that shot of do-gooder truth. They employ Didion-esque literary journalist techniques of storytelling, character development and a clear narrative arc. The result is that the films could be accused of getting too cozy with fiction. Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland, for example, is a quest narrative—near kin to 12th grade reading list regulars The Odysseyand Huckleberry Finn.
In Gasland Fox documents his own journey from banjo-playing denizen of Northeastern Pennsylvania to environmental detective. One day he receives a generous offer from a natural gas company that wants to lease the gas rights to his land. Following the trail of natural gas leases upriver, he discovers what “fracking” (natural gas drilling) really entails, uncovering the environmental crimes hidden in plain sight.
It’s a fairly simple story, with all the hallmarks of a great do-gooder film. Fox could have easily taken a Michael Moore approach, ramming his camera through chinks in closing doors, but instead this film walks a step behind its subjects, letting them tell their story. Fox allows his subjects room to maneuver, putting them in the mid-range against the backdrop of their ruined lands. Gasland is, at its heart, an issue movie (Fox recently joined Best Actor nominee Josh Brolin in Washington to lobby against fracking in NY and PA) but its naive—perhaps faux-naive—director-protagonist and the landscape’s tattered grandeur have much in common with other tales told by firelight.
Restrepo still by Tim Hetherington.
War documentary Restrepo is also a deceptively simple film, shot from a limited perspective (usually one camera). But it was made by media professionals, so its elision of narrative feels more self-conscious. Directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, a journalist and documentary photographer, put the film together out of raw footage shot while they were embedded in Afghanistan. Ultimately, Restrepo is both an eloquent argument against the manipulation of “raw footage” and a testament to its power.
Rather than amp up the drama in post-production the directors used a light touch, and viewers accustomed to Apocalypse Now-style war films will notice the near-absence of music. I filled this vacuum with my own complicated response to the political issues at play. Restrepo avoids being an issue film by putting the biggest issue in the background, focusing instead on the surprising monotony of the soldiers’ lives.
As Roger Ebert once said of Fargo, the term “based on a true story” earns a film credibility whether true or not. As members of the press, Junger and Hetherington come out against this. Though “embedded,” as modern journalists, the film argues for a more traditional kind of news in which the authors efface themselves in the service of the story rather than imposing a narrative themselves.
Magna Portrait by Vik Muniz in Waste Land. Courtesy of Vik Muniz Studio.
Wasteland, an unapologetic issue film, would seem to have nothing in common with these far more subtle documentaries. But the creation of narrative is also its central theme, explored through its subject, multi-media artist Vic Muniz.
Muniz is known for making art out of unusual materials—chocolate, blood, and even prosaic peanut butter in his paintings. To her credit, Director Lucy Walker does not try to mask the merely casual curiosity that leads the artist to travel back to his home country of Brazil after decades abroad. While Muniz might be interested in his subjects—the garbage pickers who work on (and in) the world’s largest landfill, in Rio De Janeiro—he’s not using trash for a social purpose. He wants to make art out of a material that has an unexpected appeal.
When he arrives at the landfill, Muniz hires several of the garbage pickers as assistants. He takes their photographs and enlists them to help collect trash and use it to build giant copies of these photos that he re-shoots as works of multi-media art. In one telling scene Muniz gives his assistants a lesson in art appreciation by reenacting how people approach his art, coming up close to it to look at the materials and then moving away to see the whole.
As a director, Walker takes her visual cues from Muniz, echoing his approach-retreat technique. Walker shows the pickers struggling through piles of trash to find valuable recycleable materials, then zooms out and the garbage pickers melt into a multi-colored landscape of garbage scraps. The whole thing comes together like an enormous Monet. (If only Monet had been able to play with a digital camera!) In a wonderfully tricky switcheroo, Walker pauses at this great height then quickly zooms back in, revealing that we are now looking at a Vic Muniz painting. Life transformed into art.
These new documentaries have not merely turned up the volume on their own opinions. Instead, they’ve brought depth to the field. By moving inward to create an internal logic, they free the audience from feeling manipulated by cinematic technique. It may be many years before we see the back of the Sally Struthers documentary, but new trends in documentary filmmaking make it clear that shaming people into action is as outmoded as it is ineffectual.