Two recent documentary subjects have been in the news a lot this week. In one case, the new developments may help provide a new happier ending, while in the other, the news may boister the film's contentions or wreck the audiences' sympathy with the protagonist.
In the latter, U.S. Capitol Police are seeking an arrest warrant for controversial U.S. Representative Cynthia McKinney, the subject of Sundance selection American Blackout, after an encounter with Capitol Police last week.
What neither side seems to dispute is that McKinney did not stop when police asked when she entered a House office building. Both sides also seem to agree that McKinney struck the officer when he tried to stop her physically. The issue seems to rest on whether the officer used appropriate means when touching or restraining her. The police say yes, McKinney says no - and points to the matter (and the fact that the guards didn't recognize her) as racial profiling.
On her website, the outspoken McKinney links to a scene from American Blackout in which McKinney walks through security on her way to the Capitol and a guard calls out for her to stop. The guard walks several feet and then recognizes her and quickly smiles, saying, "Oh, I'm sorry". McKinney is heard off-camera saying, "that's just the typical kind of treatment that I receive. It's typical, so I'm not surprised and I'm not offended." The guard keeps apologizing and she says, "OK, thank you." Cut to later in her walk to the Capitol - "Some things never change. That's what Tupac said."
The problem with the video, as any documentary filmmaker (or anyone with a DV camera in the days after 9/11) can tell you is that McKinney was more likely approached because there is a guy with a camera walking with her - and the camera is focused on the guard house as they approach it (a sure red-flag in these days of heightened security paranoia).
A second link on McKinney's site takes surfers to a August 2003 article about black Capitol police officers threatening to sue the government over a pattern of alleged retalliation and "unfounded disciplinary charges".
McKinney's entire congressional career has been marked by controversies. There was her receiving 40% of write-in votes for a Georgia state House race, despite the fact that she was a resident of Jamaica. There were disputes over the drawing of congressional lines for her newly-created district, including a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that it was unconstitutional. There's her opposition to both Iraq wars. There was the question of whether she did or did not say that Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance and do nothing - which may have led to a congressional primary defeat in 2002 (she was re-elected in 2004).
Questions of race were also front and center in Marshall Curry's most excellent documentary Street Fight, nominated this year for Best Documentary Feature. Exploring a political contest between longtime Newark Mayor Sharpe James and upstart candidate Cory Booker, the film showed a side of black political relations that was more revealing than what most viewers had ever seen before. By the end of the film, most audience members came to the conclusion that James was a charismatic but vaguely evil guy while Booker was a smart, politically naive idealist. In the end, the bad guy wins.
But now, almost four years after the election profiled in Street Fight, Sharpe James has announced that he will not run for another term. Polls immediately annoited Booker as the prohibitive front runner.
Both cases point out some of the limits of documentary feature filmmaking. Unless you wish to continue to constantly update your story through ongoing DVD releases or sequels, you're subjects may, at some point, make your film "old news". This is not to say that the films lose their value, just that the points you raise may be enhanced or deflated by events beyond your control.
An example from the first film of Devil and Daniel Johnston filmmaker Jeff Fueurzeig - Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King. One of the interview subjects was Matador Records co-founder Gerard Cosloy. Cosloy is a fiery talking head - attacking major labels for their lack of vision, lack of creativity, lack of all that is good in the music business. The problem? By the time the film hit theaters, Cosloy had signed a deal with Atlantic Records (he'd later do another deal with Capitol Records). It was hard not to hear his words, meant as a ringing defense of Jad Fair's musicianship, as rampant hypocrisy.
With the recent film Why We Fight, the delay between completion and ultimate distribution made some of the Iraq war revelations in the film seem dated, while other points were cancelled out by more recent developments.
By the time Gigantic hit theaters in May of 2003, They Might Be Giants was well on it's way to writing a brand new fourth act for themselves, as highly successful purveyors of kiddie rock. Their recent album for Disney, 2005's Here Comes the ABCs, is now their second most successful album of all time, behind their much loved Flood album from 1990.
The question that arises for documentary filmmakers (as their films continue to grow in popularity and as digital technologies make the journey from home computer to movie screen ever shorter) is how much can they be expected to be almost as current as the evening news or the latest blog headline. How long will audiences forgive the delays between completion and distribution as simply a matter of course. And will documentary filmmakers have to adjust strategies in certain cases to make their films ever more relevant.