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 we look at the newly released Oscar-nominated film The Gatekeepers and the stigma against talking heads in documentaries.
One of the many stigmas attached to documentaries is the “talking head” convention. They’re part of the reason nonfiction cinema has long been associated with informational subject matter, the idea that these films are made to either tell us something or to argue a point with support from credible "experts." But not only is it wrong for people to think interviews are a necessary staple of documentary, it’s also wrong to think that all such “talking head” material is the same.
When I first began reviewing documentaries, which was before I went back to school and studied them, I constantly referred to films as being of the generic “talking head variety” in a pejorative manner. And to a degree, many of them deserved the dismissive criticism. Meanwhile, I developed a preference for verite works that show more than tell. Some have talking heads, yet these tend to primarily be of those same people we see followed as subjects of the films, and they’re typically commenting on the action, offering personal dramatic testimony rather than academic. Unfortunately, that style has become co-opted as the norm for reality television.
It wasn’t until Man on Wire came along that I found a kind of talking-head-based doc that opened my eyes to the possibilities. Rather than “experts,” the heads in James Marsh’s film are witness storytellers, main subjects and supporting players speaking of something they were or are a part of. While the witness interviewee was hardly a new concept, this and other similar films since (Marsh’s Project Nim; The Imposter) are still more focused on narrative over commentary, which has made for more engaging works.
The thing with the insider storyteller model is, though, they’re not always any more dependable than the outsider expert. As opposed to the witness commenting on something we can watch on-screen, the one who tells us about events of the past -- say a crime or any unfilmed step in life -- may have an undependable memory. Or they might be a liar. As we can see from “Rashomon”-esque multi-side documentaries like The Thin Blue Line and The Imposter, there’s often the issue of unreliable witnesses and narrators. And with the current festival favorite Stories We Tell, even those with no reason to be unreliable still might not tell a story exactly as it happened due to mistaken memory, hearsay, perspective, etc.
As much as I enjoy the game of multi-perspective documentaries, the talking heads that now have my utmost attention and favor are those that are legitimate interviewees. They’re on-screen answering hardball questions -- most of which we don’t hear -- involving controversial matters and incidents and difficult ethical decisions. One such film is nominated for an Oscar this year: The Gatekeepers. Director Dror Moreh lines up the six surviving former heads of Israel’s internal security organization, Shin Bet, and a lot of the upfront, hindsight statements he gets out of them are astonishing. Apparently some of the discussions only opened up over time due to Moreh’s prodding, something that impatient filmmakers or subjects are incapable of.
The reluctant and tight-lipped but ultimately cooperative talking head is becoming more and more common, and it’s worth noting that a lot of the filmmakers doing these interviews are foreigners, though I don’t know what that means necessarily. Recent examples of films with lengthy confessional sorts of interviews with morally questionable persons include Enemies of the People, which focuses on Khmer Rouge deputy Nuon Chea; Camp 14, which features North Korean prison guards talking rather nonchalantly about torturing and killing prisoners, even pregnant women; and The Law in These Parts, which is similar to The Gatekeepers only with Israeli judges opening up about the court system set up for the Palestinian occupation.
It’s certainly fascinating to see and hear someone speak, either comfortably or not, about self-incriminating or simply sticky material. But documentary interviews such as these are especially exciting because a lot of films of the past 20 years have followed a more muckraking approach where potential interviewees are ambushed or, if formally invited and initially agreeable, kill the conversation when hit with an unappealing line of questioning. And that can be powerful, particularly in the case of someone like Glenn Hubbard getting upset and declining to answer certain questions before wholly terminating his interview in Inside Job. But not always.
The talking head who pleads the fifth does, like the on-screen title that tells us so-and-so refused to be interviewed or failed to return phone calls, have a beneficial effect for some investigative films. Even though it is a bit unfair, silence does say a lot, often translating to audiences as a presumption of guilt. Who wouldn’t rather get the answers, though? Who wouldn’t rather hear a defense, of which you could better judge the validity, or some kind of explanation-heavy admission of wrongdoing, even if filled with finger-pointing in other directions? Don’t you just admire and respect a filmmaker able to keep an interview going long enough to get that kind of content?
At least one American documentarian is consistently able to not only earn the trust of damnable subjects but also to sell his films to a relatively wide audience: Errol Morris. He’s actually a king of all sorts of talking-head docs, giving us some of the most exemplary witness storyteller works ever made (such as the very influential Thin Blue Line). And his Oscar-winning feature The Fog of War, which revolves around an interview with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, is cited as an inspiration for The Gatekeepers and has likely been a strong influence on other titles I’ve mentioned.
Soon Morris will be releasing a similar doc based on an interview with Donald Rumsfeld titled The Unknown Known, and while I expect it to be one of the best films of the year, I’m especially hopeful that it will continue to be an influence on other documentary filmmakers. Other filmmakers who will maintain this new level for talking-head docs, which has surely eliminated the stigma for me and could continue to do so for others.