Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week’s focus is the theatrically necessity, appeal and accessibility of documentaries.
Last week, two of the most essential blogs for documentary fans coincidentally ran similar think pieces. Each was focused on the recent crop of critical and audience favorites that are unfortunately not getting wider theatrical attention. At the POV blog Doc Soup, Tom Roston proposes that titles like Searching for Sugar Man, The Imposter and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, “could have made a good chunk of change with a similar marketing campaign that Disney put behind Chimpanzee.” Meanwhile, highlighting the same films and others, Anthony Kaufman writes at his Docutopia blog for Sundance Now that, “it’s time for audiences to wise up” by opening up their movie-going interests to include nonfiction films.
In response to Roston, I respectfully disagree that these and other acclaimed docs would do so well with more ad money and an immediate wide release. There really isn’t much to sell them on to general moviegoers other than the fact that critics and juries and festival audiences loved them. Sadly, most people don’t care about such praise. Or, if they do, it’s not enough to get them to the multiplex, particularly when Netflix, Sundance Now and other sites are much better deals for doc watching, and frankly the majority of docs are perfectly suited for watching at home and/or on the computer.
Here’s where I’ll agree more with Kaufman: audiences do need to stop considering documentary as second-class cinema. That is to say, they need to actually consider documentary as cinema and not just as educational programming fit for the small screen. Of course, someone needs to let the people know that there are actually docs that are, as I call them, “theatrically necessary.” And there actually aren’t that many each year. To be honest, while Chimpanzee is a nuisance on your ears due to the Tim Allen narration, it’s genuinely the most cinematic and therefore most theatrically appropriate doc of the year so far.
Actually, although I haven’t seen it yet, I can safely say that Samsara, the latest from Baraka director and Koyaanisqatsi cinematographer Ron Fricke, is the doc most essentially viewed in a theater this year, even if you don't have the chance to see it in 70 mm, as is intended. I’m pretty glad Oscilloscope, the film’s distributor, won’t send me a screener to review ahead of its initial opening on August 24, so I’ll definitely need to hit the cinema two weeks later when it’s released in Atlanta. So what if I won’t be able to spotlight it as a pick in one of these columns? At least I’ll see it as it should be seen.
As for the titles Roston and Kaufman mention in their columns, some of them are also worthy of theatrical viewing, particularly the two polished by Man on Wire producer Simon Chinn: Searching for Sugar Man and The Imposter. Partly because they look great on the big screen but also because they’re each best enjoyed with a large audience, sharing in the astonishment of stories that make you feel good and boggle your mind, respectively. The collective cheers for the one and gasps for the other are part of the show and experience.
While both of those films are also great conversation starters, they’re also more appealing for the average moviegoer in that they aren’t issue docs. They aren’t primarily concerned with teaching, arguing or selling anything, which is a factor that I think turns people off. Why pay $10 for a feature-length commercial for a cause or political agenda or NGO's website? However, there is something to be said for buying a ticket for a film as support or as protest of something. Seeing critical favorite This Is Not a Film in a cinema was to take a stand against censorship, for instance.
Meanwhile, it’s great to go out to see very well done issue films, such as The Invisible War, The Island President, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and the upcoming releases Girl Model and The Waiting Room, if there’s a chance for discussion among a crowd, whether through a Q&A (if not involving the filmmakers than some local authority on the topic) or simply an organized get together after the screening. I encourage documentary fans in smaller markets to find like-minded souls and start doc clubs like people have book clubs. With new crowd-booking distribution platforms like TUGG, you can bring some of those critically acclaimed docs, whether cinematic or not, to a venue near you.
A friend and I are beginning that very idea in our area, since it’s not a city that gets a whole lot of nonfiction films (we’re calling our “club” Doclanta and starting with the cinematic issue film Last Call at the Oasis). Maybe we’ll find out that audiences really aren’t interested. Or, maybe they’re just not informed enough. Maybe the fact that so many documentaries are so positively reviewed keeps any manageable number of truly exceptional titles from standing out. I can imagine it’s difficult for some people to comprehend what The Queen of Versailles has that certain reality shows don’t, or why some titles are worthy of the cinema as opposed to their immediate or near-immediate HBO, PBS or On Demand airings.
The truth is, most are not, and hopefully if Michael Moore’s goal for the Oscar category for feature documentary is achieved as planned, maybe we will see more distinction made with documentaries that are theatrically necessary. Thanks to their availability, particularly through Netflix streaming, documentaries are more popular than ever, yet many of the essential films found there can be seen anytime and in any way. Other than a desire for their makers to break even if not also a profit, there’s really no reason to wish they receive better theatrical distribution.
That said, the great docs do get around. Every week I pay notice to what docs are opening and expanding where, and tons of them reach far beyond the major U.S. cities. I don’t know how successful they are at each location, but there’s obviously good reason that, by my count, there are more than 40 nonfiction titles playing at least one day this week somewhere around the country. Sony will have put Searching for Sugar Man on almost 70 screens by the end of the month. Sundance Selects will do even better for Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Indomina Releasing will put The Imposter on more than 25.
You just have to go out and see them when they arrive.
After all that I’ve written above, I don’t have an actual theatrical pick for you this week. That’s not to say none of the films opening this or next Friday aren’t worthwhile. I haven’t seen them all, and actually I think Meet the Fokkens, which is a Dutch film about elderly twin sister prostitutes, looks completely deserving of a communal viewing, and I wish I had the opportunity to see it this way. Chris Kenneally and Keanu Reeves’ surprisingly noteworthy digital film history Side by Side hits theaters next Friday, but I think it’s fine to wait for the VOD release the following week. Then there’s the DocuWeeks showcase, if you’re in NYC and L.A. I haven’t come across anything of imperative note yet, though I do recommend Love Free or Die when it comes to video or PBS. Check my ongoing DocuWeeks previews for other thoughts and potential future recs.
What I should do is lay out the cinematic and entertaining docs that are most theatrically necessary this year so far: Samsara (out August 24 but expanding much wider September 7); Chimpanzee; The Imposter; China Heavyweight; Searching for Sugar Man (I don’t love it, but it’s better in a theater); Shut Up and Play the Hits; Last Call at the Oasis; Planet of Snail; First Position; Dreams of a Life and Jiro Dreams of Sushi. And here are the great issue films and provocative docs that are best seen with a group for post-screening discussion: The Invisible War; Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry; The Island President; Girl Model (opens September 5); Kumare and The Queen of Versailles. I’m sure I’m forgetting some in each group.
This week’s DVD pick is an easy one: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the Oscar-nominated finale of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinosky’s trilogy on the case of the West Memphis Three. Of course it ends on a very high note -- sorry to spoil what was huge news last summer if you missed it -- but what I find most fascinating with this installment is where it totally switches gears since the second film in terms of the story’s “villain.” It’d be like if Return of the Jedi began with Darth Vader all of a sudden a member of the rebels while Jabba the Hutt was the main antagonist of the film as well as of the whole trilogy. Except since it’s real life and real lives, I shouldn’t really joke about the way these films sell presumptions of guilt. The film makes me angry in that regard, but that’s also part of why I recommend it. It's certainly great for a conversation on ethics. You can find the doc on DVD beginning Tuesday, August 14.
I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog.