Doc Talk: How to Review a Documentary

Doc Talk: How to Review a Documentary

Sep 21, 2011

Last week, Michael Cieply of the New York Times posted a response to a panel at the Toronto International Film Festival called “How Films Can Change the World,” in which he argued against the apparent expectations for journalists to assist in promoting film’s activist causes. “It was a little unnerving to see the press described, in effect, as an arm of the advocacy business,” he wrote.

I agree, but I’m not surprised by the expectation anymore than I’m surprised when film critics review documentaries for their subject matter rather than how they’re made. Roger Ebert’s recurring statement that “it’s not what a movie is about, but how it’s about,” always stuck with me. Particularly for nonfiction movies. I’m not sure he actually applies the rule to docs, though, unfortunately.

Direct responses to films are one thing. As much as it annoyed me, the critics who snickered or booed at George W. Bush footage in countless docs released throughout his presidency were fine to make their opinion of the man known to the crowd. Public audiences do the same. But is it okay to be so politically transparent in film criticism?

Well, there are outlets for biased takes on, say, a Sarah Palin documentary, whether the panegyrical type seen with The Undefeated or the more open yet suspect investigation produced for Sarah Palin, You Betcha! And just as either kind of subjective approach to nonfiction is permissible, so shall any kind of subjective criticism.

Not all film critics are journalists, and vice versa. If I were to obey the standard of objectivity adhered to by a true journalist I wouldn’t really be able to offer an opinion of a film. Still, when it comes to an issue-based documentary, my support or disagreement with the cause should not dictate my support or disagreement with the film.

This isn’t to say we can’t slip in comments here and there. If we disapprove of dolphin slaughter, sure we can make it known while praising or panning The Cove. I think it’s obligatory to preface any appreciation for Triumph of the Will with assurance that you despise Hitler and the Nazis.

On the lighter side, by all means critics have a right to state their thoughts on comic book nerds, basketball or The Rolling Stones when writing about, respectively, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, Hoop Dreams or any of the billion docs featuring The Rolling Stones.

Beyond that it can get tricky, especially if we are passionate about anything in the world outside of movies. You strongly think everyone in the world should see An Inconvenient Truth or How to Die in Oregon or any feature with a Take Part page, and you want to use your clout or at least your exposure to champion the cause? Film reviews aren’t exactly the place for this.

Fortunately these days you can Tweet, ‘Like,’ and communicate your beliefs and support through numerous other wide-reaching channels. Of course, you can lose social media followers by stating something disagreeable or controversial. It's all up to you.

As far as I know, there are no professional film critics who only review fiction, even if some bloggers out there claim to dislike docs in general. And none of them should be really separating the two forms of cinema when approaching one or the other. Documentaries should be reviewed just as narrative works are reviewed, whether the goal of the piece is consumer advocacy or a simple grade of quality or an unquantifying discussion of what the film means to achieve and how it goes about doing so. 

Please don't detail too much on how the doc is about and achieves its ideas, because nonfiction film can have spoilers too. It's one of my biggest pet peeves that many critics have no problem revealing a conclusion or a doc's most significant points or real-life plot developments. Just because it's fact doesn't mean the story is well known. Telling us a subject dies at the end when the film obviously makes an effort to keep this until the end, for emotional narrative purpose, is really not cool.

Reviews of fiction films do often go into opinions of content, such as themes or messages or likability of characters, but this can never be the primary focus of a critic and so neither should be the opinions of content in a documentary. In fact, opinion of real-life characters is more problematic, as we see with subjects like Little Edie Beale (of Grey Gardens) and Joyce McKinney (of Tabloid), who have been personally offended by reviews of themselves within reviews of the films in which they appear. 

So activist documentarians should not expect film critics anymore than journalists to function as arms of their action, but neither should any other nonfiction filmmaker hope to receive positive marks for simply following a popular music act or hiring a famous voice to narrate or being against a certain political leader or getting some significant, celebrated personalities to participate in talking head interviews. Doc-makers still need to aim for producing a great work of cinema and critics need to set their sights on determining if the result is great cinema or not.

New Releases

There are a lot of docs coming out in the next two weeks, including the public school issue film American Teacher, the anti-Homeland Security film You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantanamo and the anti-death penalty film Incendiary: The Willingham Case. But the most divisive and, not coincidentally, the one that will also be garnering the most attention is Nick Broomfield’s Sarah Palin, You Betcha!, which opens in NYC and LA on September 30.

Broomfield’s return to his old first-person, faux-naïve brand of investigative documentary is the only new theatrical release I’ve seen at press time (partly because I was in Toronto, and SPYB! was in Toronto), as well. And no, I definitely don’t judge it based on my personal opinion of Palin. I do judge it based on my opinion of Broomfield, who I find deceptively amusing.

However, I can’t really recommend the film to anyone who doesn’t already like the filmmaker and onscreen character of Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney; Biggie and Tupac). Even then he’s obviously pursuing the impossible here, though I believe he has a better chance getting the cooperation of Palin than he did Courtney Love. Ultimately it’s a decent look at the price of talking, in more ways than one, but it doesn’t have an ending let alone any final point.


As for new home video releases, I highly recommend Mads Brugger’s Sundance-winning comedy The Red Chapel. In the film, Brugger travels to North Korea with a pair of performers of Korean descent on a “goodwill” cultural exchange. But the trio is actually out to make fun of the communist nation and its people through direct yet unrecognized mischief while filming, as well as through contemptuous voiceover commentary applied once the footage was safe from censorship back home in Denmark.

It’s a film I’ve had ethical issues with, regardless of course of my opinion of North Korea, but it’s also a film that must be seen and discussed for that very reason. Falling somewhere in line with the stunt docs of Sacha Baron Cohen and The Yes Men, it’s a bit too much of a one-sided prank. But then there lies some of its ingenious irony. Rent it immediately. 

Finally, while I haven’t yet seen Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty, it is garnering great reviews, hopefully not just from people with favorable opinion of the band and their music. It also was a runner-up for the Cadillac People’s Choice Award. Theatrically, you’re now out of luck, as the rock doc played cinemas for one night only, last night. However, it does hit VOD this Saturday, which is a month ahead of its DVD release.

I'll be back with another Doc Talk in two weeks. Until then you can potentially find my more outspoken opinions on the subject matter of films (as well as how they're about, still) on Twitter. Follow me @thefilmcynic

Categories: Documentary, Features
Tags: Doc Talk
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