In my commentary two weeks ago about the Oscar Shortlist debacle, I wrote that the responsibility for elevating craft over content fell not only to juries, screening committees and the like. It also required a new commitment by film journalists and critics:
"(W)e need film critics to dig down deep within themselves and write about films from the perspective of the filmmaking, not on whether or not a subject is worthy or important. You need to learn to write about the art of making nonfiction as much or more than you write a summary of the events that transpire in the documentary."
This past week at IDFA, the annual international doc festival in Amsterdam, film critic John Anderson - who drew scorn earlier this year with a questionable hit piece on Jennifer Venditti's BILLY THE KID - led a two-day seminar on Documentary Criticism, and according to a report in IDFA's Daily, issues debated in that panel demonstrate that at least some critics are still in the dark when it comes to reviewing nonfiction films.
From the Daily of this past Tuesday:
"During a two-day seminar, John Anderson, film critic for Variety and The New York Times, among other publications, investigates the ways in which it is possible to look at documentaries as a critic. The first session of the seminar, attended yesterday by some twenty international film critics, revealed that everyone pretty much has his or her own idea of what to look out for when writing a review. A number of specific themes were then examined on the basis of film fragments. For example: How can a badly made film also be an audience favourite? Perhaps the audience falls for a certain character, or a crafty mise-en-scene. But as a critic, you should be able to spot these from a mile away. Is Michael Moore (for example) justified in creating such mise-en-scenes for "a good cause"? Is it your duty, as a critic, to blow the whistle if you find out that someone is pulling the wool over audiences' eyes, even at the risk of damaging the worthy message you agree with?
Anderson gave a pertinent example of such a dilemma during the Talkshow on freedom of speech last Sunday: "If there were a documentary that cured cancer, would you as a critic turn round and say, "Well, it may cure cancer, but I don't like the cinematography, it's too long, and it has no theatrical potential? Are you then doing a good job?""
Where to begin? This is a pertinent example? It's pure nonsense. Obviously, Anderson is trying to take things to the illogical extreme in setting up the paradigm that a.) the secret to curing cancer - or, Lord almighty, the cure itself - is contained within a documentary film and b.) the only hope for millions of cancer patients is whether a film critic gives the documentary his or her approval. Otherwise, this important cure will just, what exactly? Disappear into the ether?
In Anderson's scenario, it falls to the critic to decide whether millions live or die. And if that critic were to point out that the film is, well, shite, what then? And I quote - "Are you then doing a good job?"
So here is the clearcut evidence that film critics actively consider tempering their criticism for a good cause.
And this my friends is the fundamental problem that exists in documentary today. No matter the importance of the topic, a film will ultimately live and die on whether it is well-made. And no amount of critical fear or obfuscation will change that.
Yet, as the article points out, issues of "right and wrong" loom large when critics think about nonfiction:
"In addition to scrutinizing aspects such as editing, use of music and the filmmaker's relationship with his subject(s), the first of the two critics' seminars raised predominately moral issues. Michael Moore was a frequently cited example, dividing opinion among those present between those who consider him essentially a documentary maker, and those who would describe him as a pamphleteer, who does not make pure documentaries. Further discussion of moral issues took place taking the example of the documentary THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK, looking at the question of genocide in Darfur. The makers did not shoot the footage themselves, but this was sourced from the BBC. How important is it to know this? Do we need to know - and more importantly, as a critic, do we need to tell?"
Aside from the nearly constant fascination - or fixation - on Michael Moore and his tactics, note that the critics are still dealing in issues that largely emerge from a singular, false premise: Nonfiction = Journalism. How can film critics respond adequately to the stylistic and storytelling advances within the current new wave of nonfiction if they remain focused on this long debunked paradigm.
But look at Anderson's piece on BILLY THE KID and the same strict notions of what qualifies as documentary come leaping out:
"The major fallacy about "Billy the Kid" is its masquerade as verite filmmaking. On the contrary: Almost every scene is a set-up, with sequences involving Billy and his would-be girlfriend, Heather, shot from multiple angles, but not, it seems, multiple cameras."
The argument pushes the notion that BILLY THE KID is "masquerading" as verite. Put aside the oft-confused distinction - as Anderson seems to do here - between verite (where the filmmaker's involvement/instigation is apparent, indeed often the causational factor for the action) with direct cinema (where the filmmaker tries to completely remove him or herself from having any presence), BILLY doesn't try to masquerade as anything. It's construction is completely worn on its sleeve, not solely when Billy breaks the fourth wall by acknowledging the camera, but in the very cafe scenes that Anderson mentions. The problem for Anderson seems to be that this - setting up a scene or knowing that characters are going to be in a certain place and preparing for it - is somehow breaking the rules. That's a journalistic distinction that has no place in film criticism.
But back to IDFA, where, as the piece in IDFA Today notes, "(f)urther discussion of moral issues took place taking the example of the documentary THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK."
"The makers did not shoot the footage themselves, but this was sourced from the BBC. How important is it to know this?"
I have no qualm with film critics discussing a film's use of archival material - in fact, it actually borders on talking about filmmaking craft! - but I'm disturbed that the panel apparently saw such a discussion as a moral issue, rather than a stylistic one.
But perhaps, the critics wondered if it were they who were wrestling with the moral dilemma. Perhaps they felt that the use of licensed footage somehow dilutes the power of DEVIL (it doesn't) or somehow cuts into it's righteous message (no) and that the issue for them is whether they should point out something that they consider to be a flaw even if it might stop people from seeing this VERY IMPORTANT FILM.
And such is where we find ourselves in the documentary community in early December, 2007. We have film critics admitting that they will look the other way, maybe give an extra star or a higher letter grade if the film deals with the right issue, the right topic. And why shouldn't they? No one within the documentary community has given any indication that craft is the thing we hold most dear. If they look to the prestigious Full Frame Film Festival, they see that awards are handed out to the film "that best portrays women in leadership", to the film "that best exemplifies the values and relevance of world religions and spirituality", and to filmmakers who "lay bare the seeds and mechanisms that create war". Nothing for editing, composing, cinematography or directing.
On Friday, the IDA will present its annual award for "best use of television news footage". No annual award for creating your own, however.
And so it goes. The uproar over the Oscar Shortlist two weeks ago was really just the beginning of a realization that a revolution is necessary.
We need a movement of filmmakers, producers, commissioners, film critics/writers and others from within the documentary community to take a stand for craft, to launch a campaign for craft. It isn't about television vs. theatrical or social justice vs. everything else, it's about respecting the fact that you and your colleagues are artists. And you expect to be treated as such, critiqued as such, honored as such.
Nothing less will suffice.