We ARE Living in a Golden Age of Documentaries, but the Reality Is Hard to See


This piece is a rebuttal to a Film.com article by Vadim Rizov called "Reality Bites: The Fiction of Documentary Filmmaking's New Golden Age."

Everyone is excited about documentaries. David Edelstein went to Miami and fell in love with Twenty Feet from Stardom. Tom Shone was blown away by some huge buys at Sundance, including Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks and Sarah Polley’s revelatory Stories We Tell. Shone even framed these films against superhero blockbusters, making the argument that “reality” is making a comeback. Edelstein went so far as to call them “sexy.”

But are they? It’s a tough question. Edelstein and Shone have some blind spots, including their assumptions regarding what documentaries actually are. It’s also very easy to get carried away when it comes to heralding the arrival of a new “boom” in cinema. Film.com’s own Vadim Rizov took this euphoria to task in a piece entitled “Reality Bites: The Fiction of Documentary Filmmaking’s New Golden Age,” arguing that non-fiction films still make too little money for there to be any sort of renaissance. It’s a valuable critique of the rough patches in Edelstein and Shone’s optimism, but I’d like to respectfully reframe the entire discussion.

Addressing a supposed documentary boom with box office data misses the point entirely. There is absolutely no doubt that docs continue to be almost entirely excluded from the domestic gross Top 100, and I would be shocked if they penetrated it any time soon. Very few of them get a wide release, and most of them end up playing in just a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles. When Shone positioned docs against the unrealistic “superhero steroids” of the multiple-million-dollar gross, he introduced a red herring to the discussion. Rizov’s mathematical rebuttal is completely solid, but it also tries to answer the wrong question.

We are living through a major upswing in documentary cinema, but it isn’t happening in our multiplexes (and probably never will). Where and how do people watch documentaries? There may only be one doc on last year’s box office 100, but there are nine currently in iTunes’s top 100 rentals list. It’s near-impossible to get good data on Netflix and VOD, but the little evidence we have points to a much better reception for docs via streaming at home than in the theater.

Then there’s television. PBS, HBO and ESPN have put a great deal of time and money into documentary cinema over the last decade, and it’s paid off. ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has become quite the success, and the network has now produced well over the original target-number. The point could be made that these sports pieces are a different kind of doc than those bound for movie theaters, that TV non-fiction cinema has a different quality. Yet HBO Documentary Films and Independent Lens and POV over at PBS show how blurry that line really is. HBO’s newly-announced summer program includes Sundance hit Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, while PBS is bringing Detropia, The Invisible War, Last Train Home and even Only the Young. The public may not yet know how to react to “hyper-formalist” flicks like that last one, but a whole bunch of people will get the chance to figure it out on the evening of July 15th on PBS.

But wait, there’s more! Tugg.com has begun to bring smaller films to cities across the country with their Groupon-esque business model. They’ve already arranged sold-out screenings of docs like Free Angela and All Political Prisoners and The United States of Autism. There are also a whole lot more film festivals dedicated exclusively to documentary cinema than there used to be. SilverDocs, True/False, Big Sky, DocNyc and CPH:DOX all got their start within the last ten years. As far as I’m aware neither Tugg nor film festivals are factored into a film’s box office report, but they help documentaries get to audiences nonetheless.

(Correction: Tugg screenings are factored into a film's box office report.  The filmmaker or distributor just has to report it, which several of them do.)

So, does this make it a Golden Age of Documentary? Not yet, but I think it’s become obvious that we’re on the way. It’s easier to make them than it used to be, thanks to the proliferation of digital technology. There are more companies willing to fund them, TV-based or otherwise. The sheer number has gone up: Box Office Mojo has 132 of them on record for 2012, quite a jump from 28 in 2002. There’s even a doc “Oscars” of sorts in the Cinema Eye Honors, which kicked off in 2008.

Frankly, the biggest obstacle to declaring any sort of “Golden Age” has nothing to do with the often thrilling quality of the films themselves. It isn’t audiences either – people are watching documentaries, probably more than they ever have before (we could prove it if VOD providers would release data, but that’s another conversation entirely). The issue is one of perspective, coming from many critics’ odd approach to documentary cinema. First of all, another one of Rizov’s points is absolutely crucial: many of the best movies of the last few years should probably be called “non-fiction” rather than “documentary.” The D-word does seem to imply boredom and “learning,” as opposed to art. We need to get out of that trap.

Even if Edelstein’s taxonomy of documentary is a bit haphazard, the impulse to recognize that non-fiction cinema is a form, rather than a genre, is a huge deal. If the biggest obstacle really is that critics and the public think of all docs as dull and educational, the best way to break through it is to stop talking about them as a unified whole. We need better doc criticism. Scott Tobias is dead on when he says that “for critics, form should matter in documentaries just as it does in features.” Is he also right to complain that we are giving too much credit to bad films with important messages? Probably. But the great films Tobias wants to write about are already out there. We just need to start writing about them as they are, rather than matching them up against a pre-conceived notion of what a documentary should be.

The Golden Age is happening under the rug, and we won’t pull it out with financial analysis. And if we can just go back to talking about the films, rather than the criticism, everyone will be better off.