Do you respond more to hope or to fear?
That may sound like a political question, but it’s not. And I don’t wish to get into the obvious political associations we now have with each word. Even if you could argue that documentaries are generally becoming more optimistic in tone, I don’t think we can necessarily draw a link to the guy who iconicized the word “hope” four years ago. As for the word “fear” being linked to the two terms prior, well, I don’t see why mostly liberal-minded filmmakers (as documentarians tend to be) would want to approach issues in a way that aligns them with that administration.
Anyway, documentaries dealing in fear continue to flourish in this new era of intended positivity. Scaring us is still the easiest way of getting our attention, particularly with things that could affect our freedom or safety. It also may be the most realistic angle. When I interviewed director Mathieu Roy about his gloomy new doc, Surviving Progress, he addressed the question of its doomsayer pessimism by saying, “It’s the world we live in that’s depressing, not the film...As a filmmaker I don’t want to cheat the reality so that it’s not too depressing. I’d rather trigger that outrage that pushes us to do something about it afterwards.”
But does this kind of movie really push us to be more active? Both Surviving Progress and Jennifer Baichwal’s somewhat related new Margaret Atwood adaptation, Payback, mostly just encourage my high level of cynicism about humanity and the world’s problems. Films that depress don’t provoke, they debilitate. At best we are made aware. At worst we’re made weak. Politicized or not, fear tactics tend to keep us down even if we’re inspired to support the cause. It’s likely that we’ll just let others act on our behalf.
For example, An Inconvenient Truth certainly got people thinking more about climate change, yet for the average person this thinking primarily translates to backing the government’s thinking (or, slightly better, some other organization’s thinking) more about climate change. It’s inactive activism combined with hysteria-based trust in a higher authority to save us. I recommend anyone frightened and/or inspired by that Oscar-winning film to also watch Ondi Timoner’s Cool It for a tempered response to the issue.
And check out Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine, or either the short adaptation by Alfonso Cuaron and his brother Jonas or the feature adaptation by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross for a theory on the oppressive power of terror that I think can be applied to these doom and gloom films. Ironically, though, the longer Shock Doctrine documentary could easily be labeled a pessimistic film itself.
There’s also a dystopian aspect to many of these fear-dealing docs, and some of them are even “set” in the future a la Peter Watkins classic 1965 Oscar winner, The War Game, and more recently Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid. Payback includes Atwood’s reworking of Dickens as a story of Scrooge 2.0 and the Ghost of Earth Day Future. A Christmas Carol may be a timeless moral play, but it’s also kind of old fashioned in that method of showing us the worst case scenario in order to scare us straight and make us change course for the better today.
Rather than worrying about the future, I’m preferring new documentaries that look to the past for ways of inspiring change and action today. Usually historically minded issue films depress me as well, because they tend to show the traditions of war, genocide, persecution and other horribly common staples of mankind. But there are many that can provide hope by focusing on positive moments in history. Civil Rights docs often display this better approach. And the more appreciable food docs are now those that involve the restoration farming movement rather than those that concentrate on the evils of corporate agriculture and the frightening future of food.
This year I’ve been uplifted by Mark Kitchell’s A Fierce Green Fire, which chronicles the accomplishments of the environmentalism movement over the past 50 years, showing us that change can and does happen on a regular basis. That’s positively inspiring, and to make it even better Kitchell has told me he’s still working on adding some more contemporary achievements and efforts to the film’s final act. Fellow Sundance 2012 premiere How to Survive a Plague is similarly hopeful by centering on the great leaps made by ACT UP and TAG in the otherwise daunting story of AIDS.
Coming out this Friday, Jessica Yu’s Last Call at the Oasis also fits into the hope category. There is a touch of doom and gloom -- well, in the reality -- of the present and future of all things related to water, but it’s a more artfully and respectfully put together issue doc than we’re used to, even from its producers, Participant Media (An Inconvenient Truth) and ends on a hilarious and then optimistic note. Also, it stars Erin Brockovich-Ellis, whose past and continuing achievements with water contamination cases relates it to other films looking back in order to look forward.
In my interview with Yu from last fall, she addressed the avoidance of too much fearmongering: "I think what I wanted to avoid is laying out a problem that is so all-encompassing and so intricate and so dire and then saying, “Hey, we can fix this if you just do these three things.” Or, to make it feel like there’s just nothing we can do...I want people to have comfort in knowing rather than being freaked out about having knowledge. A little freak out is good, but I don’t want people to feel sorry they learn this stuff. There is value and strength in knowing what’s going on."
Uplifting movies are always more accessible and more engaging to audiences, especially for documentaries. And humorous issue films are popular and do actually work, as evidenced by Super Size Me. I’m sure it helped that even An Inconvenient Truth had some lighter, more playful moments than it could have. However, darker brands of humor aren’t always successful, and while Michael Moore is influential he has been more depressing than optimistic at times even while joking.
Hopeful issue documentaries can also exist without seeming like actual issue documentaries. Another new release this week, Bess Kargman’s First Position looks at a youth ballet competition and follows a number of kids, including a West African adoptee who watched her parents killed by rebels. Through her devastating backstory the viewer becomes aware of the problem and perhaps is inspired by both her ability to overcome and the need to save more children like her.
Upcoming festival favorite Brooklyn Castle is easily the most enjoyable of the recent films covering education system issues like extracurricular funding and school placement, focusing on the problems as they relate to a positive story about competitive chess players. Competition docs already deal in hope by being about events involving general challenges of skill and talent. To slip in personal struggles that relate to world issues s a bonus for the genre and a positive setting for the causes themselves.
I would like to see more documentarians take positive and optimistic approaches to their subject matter, whether issue films or not. I think audiences respond more to these sorts of docs, and in healthier and more productive fashion than they do with fear mongers. Plus, even if they want to remain inactive or cynical or uncaring about the problems afterward, they should still get a satisfying narrative. I leave you with hope that documentary films of all kinds will just keep getting better.
I’ve already recommended the two films that tie for my pick of the week. Mentioned above, Last Call at the Oasis and First Position are among my favorite films of 2012 so far. Having celebrated their positivity, there’s not a whole lot more I can say to press the issue that you must see them both. But I would like to point out one additional draw for each: Oasis has one of the funniest appearances by Jack Black I’ve seen in a while, this coming from someone who has been tired of him a long time; and Position features a phenomenal modern ballet performance set to Ween’s “So Many People in the Neighborhood,” which is something I’d never have thought I’d witness. And regardless of whether you like Ween, it’s a brilliant dance. Both films open in limited release Friday. here.
I can dig curmudgeonliness and negativity if it’s from someone as brilliant as Norman Mailer, a man whose life entwined with the zeitgeist of the 20th century and all its madness. And so is Joseph Mantegna's biographical doc Norman Mailer: The American, which is my new DVD of the week. It’s not a great film, but I think it’s a decent introduction to the outspoken Pulitzer Prize winner. I also defended its quality in a review of the film last year:
The picture and sound, especially during interviews, would look terrible on TV let alone the giant screen... It’s ugliness works for the crude man and language, though. A doc like this should look rather rough and unpolished and sound so distorted. Plus, it doesn’t matter given how otherwise well-crafted it is. The sequence in which interviewees, including [first wife] Adele, recount the events of the night Mailer stabbed her, is complemented by archive bullfight footage, quickly cut, and it is intense and emotional and mostly just awesome.
A recommended rent for that sequence alone, the doc hits DVD next Tuesday, May 8.
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.