The shape of documentary to come

With devices to document the world now in the pockets of so many, can we finally recognise what makes documentary filmmaking an art – that it is a creative collaboration?

15 May 2020

By Robert Greene

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020)
Sight and Sound

These days something radical happens when people gather to make a documentary, and this was true even before gathering itself became forbidden. Showing up to film now means agreeing to be a part of something, to actively disrupt the everyday, to make. When the camera gets turned on, the expectation is no longer that we capture the world as it plays; these days filmmakers and subjects alike actively understand that we are transforming life into art. John Grierson long ago coined the term as a “creative treatment of actuality”, but now documentary might best be defined as an agreement among actual people to be creative.

This new age of hyper self-awareness is also the reason we documentary filmmakers may no longer be necessary. Video documentation and distribution is possible for anyone with a smartphone and an app. As a virus forces us indoors, the basic skills we filmmakers offer may no longer seem required to a generation of documenters. Who needs probing questions when we’re all over-sharers?

To overcome this irrelevance we first need to kill the idea that we are watchers and fully embrace our roles as creators. We must truly accept the collaborative aspects of nonfiction filmmaking and actively claim the dual roles of witness and manufacturer. Subjects must be partners, our cameras must dedicatedly capture phenomenal reality and our structures must embody the contradictions of this messy form.

And the old debates must die.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020)

There was much hubbub at Sundance 2020 over the way my friends Bill and Turner Ross made their stellar Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, including some pearl clutching over the fact that it was even programmed in the US Documentary competition at all. The brothers have long-embraced the elasticity of the form; the ‘realness’ of their second film Tchoupitoulas was questioned in various corners, and their third documentary Western was a genre film with all the constructed-ness that implies. They carefully cast their new film, which observes a ragtag group of regulars on the last day of their favourite bar, faked the location and worked closely with their subjects/stars to create bracingly real emotion within a partially constructed scenario.

The brothers made Bloody Nose this way for many reasons, including ethical considerations (getting folks drunk while filming requires a certain level of control and familiarity, for example). During a session at the Based on a True Story (BOATS) conference that I co-programme at the University of Missouri that runs concurrent with the True/False Film Festival in March, Ross brother Turner talked about searching for the perfect bar on the perfect night, a desire to conjure a deeply true feeling that couldn’t be ‘found’ like a news story. The love and pain shown in Bloody Nose is heartbreakingly real; the insights into human experience alive with value. The brothers evoked Lionel Rogosin’s seminal classic On the Bowery (1956), embraced the collaborative, broke any made up rules they needed to and used cinema to salvage nonfiction. “You can manufacture an experience,” Turner said at BOATS, “but it doesn’t have to be a manufactured experience.”

The debates over truthiness that swallowed Bloody Nose at Sundance felt irrelevant and backwards. What counts as ‘documentary’ is always expanding, but if we want to make linear nonfiction films that are relevant, we need to move past these old debates. There is, emphatically, no boundary between fiction and documentary, but truth matters more than ever. This, of course, is the great paradox of documentary: authenticity must be manufactured and reality must guide our fabrications. The long, quixotic quest for truth in documentary is at once over and just beginning. Contradiction is our lingua franca.

RaMell Ross is another filmmaker actively testing these combustible materials. When asked if he’d ever considered his poetic treatise on representative image-making Hale County This Morning, This Evening as ‘fiction’, Ross answered, “I think the only reason why Hale County is a documentary is that we always wanted it to be that way” [emphasis mine].

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

This rings as the only honest answer, one that recognises the so-called thin line between documentary and fiction as meaningless. We choose the nonfiction mode and it chooses us. Documentary is no less fictive, no less structured, no less driven by inspired partnerships, no less ‘fake’. The word ‘documentary’ only survives because it describes methodology and filmmaker preoccupation. We want to make nonfiction, we want to work with real people, so we do.

Ross later adds:

If you used the camera as an extension of your consciousness. If you shot with and not at – that’s when you can truly merge together worlds that don’t exist in the world of media production, which is one of industry, of consumption, of looking for meaning as opposed to letting meaning come to you.

Ross’s vision in Hale County of a camera that “doesn’t shoot at its subjects but with them” celebrates at once the subjective viewpoint of the artist and a decentralised, collaborative methodology that empowers the folks in front of the camera. Agency is distributed while authorship remains; the subject is both filmmaker and the filmed, and maybe even the viewer. When Ross writes that “status quo imagery handholds our acceptance of the governing structures of power,” he may as well be talking about the dead debates that have long throttled the form.

Crestone (2020)

A similarly free spirit of the collaborative flowed through Marnie Ellen Hertzler’s frisky Crestone and David Osit’s more traditional Mayor, both of which premiered at True/False 2020.

Hertzler crafted a series of pseudo fictions from the very real fantasies of her stars, adding special effects and music video subjectivities when necessary, turning Crestone into an entertaining embodiment of the ideal of simultaneous authorship. A future for documentary might lie in the ease with which a film like Crestone celebrates its boundarylessness.

Meanwhile in Mayor, one scene in particular shows the deep level of shared agency in a movie full of vitalising, delicate observations. Musa Hadid, the titular mayor of Ramallah, is looking out his office window over his beloved conflict-torn city. “David,” he asks director Osit, in a tone that communicates a deep familiarity and mutual respect, “do you think people in America know or hear about what’s happening here?”

“I’m not sure,” responds Osit, in the only time we hear his actual voice in the film.

It’s a moment of subtly electrifying recognition in a film that otherwise fully entrusts its audience to read through Osit’s straightforward, deeply affecting images. It’s too much to say this scene ‘saves’ the film – it’s not a movie with many flaws, after all, but it’s the kind of moment that reminds me of why documentary itself should be saved, how showing our hand without overstatement can open pathways to seeing, how dramatising our methodology gives the work value and dignity.

Mayor (2020)

Mayor is a film which feels a bit like a throwback in its focused attention to observed behaviour. In her bracing call-to-arms The Reality-Based Community, written in 2017 as the severity of our current ‘alternative facts’ era was becoming clear, critic and documentary theorist Erika Balsom insisted on a return to foregrounding observation in the form, and more broadly, a resuscitation of the very concept of the real. In her piece, Balsom wrote:

To examine the vanguard of documentary theory and practice over the last thirty years, for instance, is to encounter a deep and pervasive suspicion of its relationship to the real and, more particularly, a robust rejection of its observational mode, a strain that minimizes the intervention of the filmmaker, eschews commentary, and accords primacy to lens-based capture.

She goes on to ask, “How might a film take up a reparative relation to an embattled real? It might involve assembling rather than dismantling, fortifying belief rather than debunking false consciousness, love rather than skepticism.”

In some ways, Balsom’s interest in ‘phenomenal reality’ can be read as a rejection of the still-in-vogue ‘hybrid’ film, with its assumed dismissal of traditional observation. If documentary does indeed need to be saved, it might be this asinine, dog-tired marketing term (which I’ve personally rejected, although it has been understandably tagged to my past few films) from which the saving must occur. The implied fiction/nonfiction relationship in ‘hybrids’ is a false dichotomy that undercuts what we do. Simply put, all movies are hybrids. The Ross brothers don’t belabour their construction as they ask us to find meaning in their semi-staged phenomenal moments. RaMell Ross’s “reparative relation to an embattled real” is built on notions of performed identities, challenged and reconfigured by his direct, unadorned observational images.

Time (2020)

There is a new modern style, one in which self-awareness, collaboration and observation are all melded and reinforced, in which filmmakers accept the contradictions and resist the old paradigms that limit our relationship to the real. This new cinematic nonfiction might best be exemplified by Garrett Bradley’s Time, which won the directing award at Sundance. Bradley’s revelatory film chronicles the 20-plus year struggle of a family (led by their powerful and charismatic matriarch Sibil Fox Richardson, aka ‘Fox Rich’) to overcome the personal devastation of American incarceration. Bradley uses her camera, with its subtle, thriller-like zooms and timeless black and white imagery, to at once interrogate and give presence to moments of everyday tension and passion.

The film is musical and self-aware in its construction, rewarding our collective awareness of how stories of Black people dealing with these issues might typically be handled in other movies. It’s a film of in-betweens and aching pauses; ‘time’ itself becomes the subject, the excruciating wait for justice – the fight for dignity – is uniquely palpable. Bradley’s touch is unmistakable, her interests and focus crystal clear, yet the film remarkably gives much of its running time to Rich’s own footage. Bradley doesn’t ‘use’ the material Rich filmed of her family, she gives up her screen to it, an act of collaborative faith and inclusion that makes the film at once a representation and self-portrait. Time is a testament to the value of observation, collaboration, self-reflexivity and the pursuit of noble truths. Documentary is dead, long live documentary.

Bradley’s lithe cinema has rescued the form, as has Wang Bing’s lingering on the ghosts of Dead Souls, Yance Ford’s use of his own face and body in Strong Island, Zia Anger’s deconstruction of the very notion of authorship and failure in My First Film, Rosine Mbakam’s attention to behaviour and circumstance in Chez Jolie Coiffure. These and other filmmakers are fighting for their own “reparative relationship” with the delicate real world we inhabit. Humans are collections of fantasy, compassion, resilience and vanity: we see this every day in our feeds. It seems to be getting harder to understand each other; our ubiquitous images are obscuring us. The best filmmakers ask us to show up, to convene, to make visible the things beyond images.