Doc Talk: The Problem with Competition Documentaries (or, Why 'The Hunger Games' Would Be Terrible as Nonfiction)

Doc Talk: The Problem with Competition Documentaries (or, Why 'The Hunger Games' Would Be Terrible as Nonfiction)

Mar 21, 2012


Imagine a documentary version of The Hunger Games. Real children are released into a contained wildlife environment and forced to kill each other until only one is alive and victorious. Never mind the current legal and moral issues for a moment. If the film were consistent with today’s typical competition docs, it wouldn’t be a wide-focused view on the battleground and its players, the way the fictional telecast seems to be to the fictional people of Pandem. Like Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel and Lions Gate’s new film adaptation, a documentary take would likely concentrate on only one or at most a few contestants with the hope that one of the kids being followed would win in the end.

Of course it’s easier to get such a favorable outcome from fiction since Collins writes it the way she wants, and it’s very rare that an author of this kind of work has readers follow a protagonist who doesn’t wind up either champion or otherwise a success in relation to her goal. The best a documentarian can do is pick and highlight those contenders who are most likely to do well, whether they’re consistently the top-ranking go-kart racer in the country (Racing Dreams), some obviously promising ballet prodigies (First Position) or the junior high team who’ve been called “the Yankees of chess” (Brooklyn Castle).

That last doc just had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, where it received an audience award and numerous rave reviews (see my initial thoughts in a SXSW doc dispatch here). Of the nonfiction titles that debuted at the fest, Brooklyn Castle is probably the most commercially viable and could very well be as big a hit as The Hunger Games, proportionately speaking, that is. And like the sci-fi blockbuster, this chess competition documentary had me curiously concerned for the losers that we don’t get to know through the film. I guess I’m just sensitively considerate like that.


Narratively it’s not a big deal to root for one person over another, especially if you’re set up with a character’s backstory, an intimate look at her daily life and familial support system (or lack thereof) and an understanding of any personal obstacles she must overcome in addition to the competition or sport at hand. In Brooklyn Castle, one of the main subjects is a teenage girl struggling with the usual problems of a low-income high school Freshman on top of her expectation to win enough matches to become the first female African American chess master. There’s definitely a good reason to hope she defeats the anonymous opponents that we see her playing against on screen.

Yet outside of her special circumstances for recognition, isn’t it weird that we become so supportive of an individual chess player, feel suspense watching her in action, get upset when she loses and cheer when she wins, all because a movie gets us to care about her? During Brooklyn Castle I couldn’t help wondering what it’d be like to be a parent of one of those anonymous opponents viewing this film in a theater and having a crowd of strangers -- who really are also strangers to all the kids on screen, including the followed subjects -- basically root against your kid. It’s one thing when a film outright exaggerates a real person and portrays him as a villain, a la The King of Kong, but in a film like this, real kids wind up represented as villains by a default.

I don’t mean to knock Katie Dellamaggiore, who has done an excellent job with her directorial debut as far as the accepted standards go for this genre of documentary. In fact, she’s gone above the normal conventions and delivered a film that’s much more than a competition doc. Brooklyn Castle also tackles current issues pertaining to the U.S. economy as a whole and the New York City school budget specifically. And like the best of its kind, it’s more of a character study than a doc focused primarily on the competition itself and who wins or loses. The audience is compelled to root for certain individuals, but I think we’re supposed to cheer more for individual achievements rather than trophies.

Wide audiences, however, can be superficial, and while they may be expected to primarily celebrate a young boy’s accomplishment of marginally improving his game and appreciating chess as a therapeutic means to deal with an attention disorder, it’s not a surprise to hear a majority cheer loudest when that boy simply wins a singular prize or gets to be a part of a larger conquest by his entire team. Some people will be similarly more satisfied if Katniss wins the central battle in The Hunger Games than if she also overcomes personal conflicts and/or successfully challenges greater thematic and political dilemmas.

It doesn’t really matter how people see fiction, though. The anonymous losers (here murdered kids) are just narrative pawns and filler. The larger issues, thematic and political, are just hypothetical in nature. But as is often the case with real life, some genres translate to documentary with a greater need for consideration. Disaster, violence, some forms of comedy and even competition and sport, especially when kids are involved, (should) affect us differently in the real world than in the fictional. Ultimately it is true that documentaries aren’t actually that different than narrative films when it comes to the understanding that they’re both just forms of cinematic storytelling. That’s an equality I try to get behind, anyway.

I can’t help it, though, if nonfiction films like Brooklyn Castle and the “comp-doc” genre in general make me ponder bigger questions about film form and its relation to reality, as well as about life itself and the real people who inhabit our world. For instance, I accept the competitive nature of humanity along with the benefit it has to our social and biological progress, but I do wonder if it's proper to put individuals' winnings and losings on display as entertainment. To a degree, the chess players we see lose in Brooklyn Castles are analogous to the kids we see slain in The Hunger Games, and that's a little disturbing to me.   



Picking a single theatrical release to recommend this week was tough. I do actually like Lee Hirsch’s Bully in spite of what I last wrote on the film’s R-rating controversy, and I think it’s worth seeing, though more so for parents and educators than kids, who surely already understand the issue if it’s going on around them.

However, I find Jon Shenk’s The Island President the more urgent film on a wide scale, even without its recent relevance regarding the political state of the Maldives. This doc focuses on then-President Mohamed Nasheed (he was forced out in a coup d’etat last month) and deals with his historical attempt to bring democracy to his South Asian island nation as well as his subsequent efforts in the worldwide climate change debate, addressing the likelihood that the Maldives will be entirely submerged if global warming continues. It’s an imperative issue film inside of a phenomenally appealing human interest piece that is equal parts individually intimate and internationally substantial.


My DVD pick is a political film of no crucial contemporary significance, but D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ The War Room is a classic documentary that today provides an incredible historical look at what a U.S. presidential campaign looked like 20 years ago (at the time very differently from in the past), by way of a verite ride-along with Bill Clinton’s 1992 bid for the White House. It’s an interesting film in the context of Pennebaker’s career, as he worked on the classic JFK campaign doc Primary thirty years beforehand.

The War Room is also partly responsible for turning strategist James Carville into a star (of course his own personality, cause for his being nicknamed the “Ragin’ Cajun,” is mostly responsible) by concentrating on the work he and George Stephanopoulos were doing behind the scenes. The 1993 doc has just been re-released on home video (including Blu-ray) as part of the Criterion Collection, and I’m dying to revisit it as well as finally check out the 2008 sequel Return of the War Room, which is included in this special edition set.

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

Categories: Documentary
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