The Difference Between a Good Documentary and a Great One

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When I was watching The Punk Singer a couple of days ago for this blog, I kept thinking about how rich a story they are just glossing over. Kathleen Hanna is a fascinating persona that was indicative of a strong woman type that emerged in the nineties. Her voice, her ideas, and her causes all lend themselves to her becoming an idol for future generations of kick ass women. But if you weren’t familiar with her before you watched the documentary, you would have just gotten people telling you over and over why she was so important to the riot grrrl scene in the nineties. There was no showing (other than long concert sequences where she sung and showed her butt) because they tried to fit her whole life story in an hour and a half movie which was too big a task to accomplish. The life of a forty something activist rocker has too many ups and downs to fit neatly into a traditional documentary structure. You end up just getting bullet points and talking heads. The Punk Singer is far from the first documentary to take this boring approach to their subjects, and it won’t be the last. This strategy leads to a huge swath of really interesting and unique subjects being mashed into an uninteresting movie.

So how can documentarian avoid boring their audience members? I think the best way that a documentary can avoid being boring is to focus on one event or one time period in the subject’s life. The best example of this is the documentary Crumb directed by Terry Zwigoff. In this movie, Zwigoff follows around R. Crumb (famous cartoonist) as he is getting ready to defect from America and into the south of France. We watch him say goodbye to his crazy brothers, draw with his kids, and speak at art galleries and colleges. But as we are watching him in the present day, things like his origin story creep into the narrative. Through watching him draw the same street scene that he has been drawing for years, we get an explanation of his fascination with old-timey Americana and the development of his artistic style. We live everyday as a summation of where we have come from and where we are going, so things are going to come up. If you are a good documentarian you should be training your eye to be on the lookout for these moments and tease them out with your subject just like Zwigoff did. I think if you narrow your scope and your time frame then you get a more complete picture of your subject matter. You are able to let the picture breath and us to truly understand how this subject thinks and care.

Of course there are complications to this approach. Zwigoff had an enormous amount of access to his subject and R. Crumb was unafraid to divulgeĀ his personal life because he had so much practice doing it in his own artwork. If your subject is more closed off or if you are dealing with multiple subjects than this is a hard thing to accomplish. The director of The Act of Killing had to deal with these issues directly. Joshua Oppenheimer had a couple of subjects that were in denial about their involvement in a horrific time period in their country. Having been praised as folk heroes instead of prosecuted for their crimes, these men were delusional about their actual terrible deeds. To get them to realize exactly what they have done and to get a more complete picture of this time in their country, he gave his subjects the right to act in their own movie about their lives. Through complicated scenes where the main subject must pretend to be tortured like he tortured faceless Communists in the past, Oppenheimer got his subjects to understand the impact of their deeds thus leading to a difficult to watch but satisfying ending.

Documentaries are deceptive in how hard they can actually be. It looks like on-screen that you are just following a person or a group of people who lead fascinating lives, but it is much harder than that. Getting your subject to show why they are important and why they deserve a feature-length documentary is very difficult. I think this is why so many documentarians take the easy way out and employ talking heads and a traditional life arc story line. But if you want to make a documentary that is truly great and not just okay to good, you have to push your subjects and yourself.

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