A fascinating and well thought piece yesterday at Pop Matters by Shaun Huston that uses the DVD release of Lynn Hershman Leeson's STRANGE CULTURE - the narrative/nonfiction hybrid that dealt with the arrest of professor and artist Steve Kurtz (whose case was recently dismissed) - to revisit the discussions that we had here late 2007 over the relationship of art, journalism and craft in nonfiction filmmaking. Much of that discussion led to our eventual creation of the Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking.
The entire piece is worth reading, even if one hasn't seen STRANGE CULTURE. Huston spends a significant portion of the article recalling the dispute between us and film critic John Anderson, who found much to like in STRANGE CULTURE despite his statements here:
"(I)f you want to create fiction, create fiction, If you want to co-opt the immediacy and urgency implied by the word ‘documentary’ it behooves you to follow some rules. Don’t mislead your audience and don’t use the cutting room to fabricate what you couldn’t capture in your camera."
As Huston notes, Anderson praises STRANGE CULTURE for its important subject (he calls it "urgently topical") although he also accepts the stylistic detours (primarily the use of actors) the film takes:
"It is the opening line of Anderson’s review that puts the most interesting spin on the craft/subject discussion: "Lynn Hershman Leeson’s work exists within the cinema of ideas, a lonely outpost at best and one likely to remain that way". This is an interesting claim, and one that raises the question of what kind of license is opened up to a documentarian who traffics in “the cinema of ideas” as opposed to, say, “the cinema of daily life” (perhaps where Billy the Kid resides)? The ways of documenting an “idea” seem limitless, but maybe the ways of documenting “life” are necessarily bracketed by “actualities”.
Or are they? How one answers that question would seem to shape one’s view of the meaning and significance of documentary film. Schnack wants a world where there are no limits on the ways that a filmmaker can seek to document the world. Anderson, while maybe not quite as closed-minded as Schnack suggests, clearly thinks there should be limits on what counts as “documentary”."
Huston goes on to say that the value of STRANGE CULTURE as an entry point to the debate is that the film has value both in breaking stylistic norms as well as importance of subject matter. I'd argue that a similar case could be made for TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, LAKE OF FIRE or any number of well made or stylistically innovative films that tackle socially relevant or politically challenging subject matter. The debate is not that so-called "important" films can't be well made but that one shouldn't have knee-jerk approval of shoddily made films just because the subject matter has external value.
Huston may be right to summarize that much of the benefit of this debate is in having the discussion in the first place, rather than searching for definitive answers. But if pressed, I'd say that the true worth of a hybrid film like STRANGE CULTURE is not in whether Steve Kurtz' story is worth telling (or whether audiences "need to know" about his plight) but in the artistic choices made by Hershman Leeson. Kurtz' story may be good, valuable or even important, but without an artist behind the lens, the worth of Kurtz' tale may be lost on all but the most like-minded and agreeable viewers.