Tuesday, June 02, 2009


I watched and enjoyed Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary last night. The documentarians interviewed formed a serious A-list, and the material covered was just great.

You know, of course, I do have a few contrarian gripes.

1. There's a huge mismatch between the title and the content. Why use the word "Reality" in a doc about docs, in which much of the first section of the film is centered on filmmakers who use re-creations? Why use a word that's slid in meaning into "Reality TV"? Why confuse us that we're "capturing reality" when so many thoughtful books on documentary theory start with the assertion that it's a silly notion and that documentary practice is more complex than that?

2. Stop saying "It's good for you." I think the documentary field will be mature when it escapes the "boring-but-good-for-you" model of production. For one, while there are plenty of specific examples of docs "doing good" I personally would not stand by the field's record of "saving the world." (I'd choose the invention of birth control pills over documentaries on women's rights for example -- since one has had real effect and the other still can't get equal-pay-for-equal-work legislation passed.)

I think Dave Hickey's take on the art world -- that it needs to portray itself as like rock and roll or cocaine, rather than castor oil or wheat germ -- applies doubly to the doc world. So why, when interviewing so many documentarians -- with a wide range of work -- use mainly questions that emphasize the effect of serious social issue docs?

The director's statement: "I think of documentary as a highly undervalued tool at humanity's disposal — by shining light on a subject that isn’t well understood, by addressing an injustice, or by simply revealing the better part of who we are or who we can be." If we apply that thinking to painting and we imagine someone telling artists "paint! it's a tool to benefit humanity" we can imagine most artists quickly walking out of the room. Whether or not humanity can use what's produced, great artists always always always work for themselves. Don't believe any press release that says otherwise -- it's just impossible to obsess for someone else. Research Picasso's "Guernica" and you'll find it makes sense once you get past the gloss that's been put on top -- that it's "a tool to benefit humanity" -- as fueled by Picasso's usual energies, desire to prove himself a genius, obsessions, depth of visual understanding and above all else ego. The result may be universal, but the path to the production of the work is exactly the opposite.

Personally, I like works of art that complicate a subject that is well understood, or that reveal the worst part of who we can be as well. So leave off the sugar water, and let the docs be art rather than social programs.

3. Hooray, production methods? I found myself confused in the last third of the doc when the emphasis shifted to the technical production of films. I'm a perfect audience for great documentarians talking about editing, working with sound, and cinematography. But I wasn't sure how this followed from the first part of the film, or how it moved us to the ending.

As the film was wrapping up, I wondered: what if you had a set of interviews about gathering visuals, gathering sounds, and editing it all together and from that there emerged a discussion on what it means to "capture reality"? In other words, you could invert the structure of this film and make something that really would be an investigation into the subject, rather than imposing a conclusion from the beginning....

In any case, go and see the film if you are at all interested in documentary production. It's a fast and informative 90-plus minutes.

Remember, though, that in music the idea of musique concrete -- that somehow real recorded sounds were a different category than just "sounds" -- became problematic when technology brought sampling to anyone with a computer. In the age of computers and inexpensive camcorders, do we really think the essence of doc production is that we "capture reality"?

1 comment:

Wherespaul said...

Thanks for posting the link to this movie. I really enjoyed it. Also liked reading about what you thought of the film. You can also see the film online here: