A blog post by Tom Roston, aka POV Blog's Doc Soup Man, has been making the rounds this morning (h/t Basil Tsiokos) - it's a recap of a discussion at last week's Independent Film Week entitled "Cage Match: Filmmaking or Social Activism". Moderated by POV's Yance Ford and peopled with opinionated industry leaders (including the BBC's Nick Fraser and Women Make Movies' Debra Zimmerman), the panel kicked off - as Roston summarizes - with the question "is the medium at an identity crisis?".
What followed harkened back to a debate at last year's Sheffield Doc/Fest between Fraser and BritDoc leader Jess Search that had doc folks chattering for months. The fierce (yet friendly) back-and-forth seemed to lay bare some of the things that documentary filmmakers talk about often but which rarely get played out on such a large canvas - can documentary filmmaking break free of the socially-important strangelehold imposed by a predominantly liberal financial-and-critical-support structure.
Guardian's David Cox wrote about that exchange in an article headed "Is this the end of the line for the impartial documentary?":
"This year, the normally clubby atmosphere of Sheffield's documentarists' convention has been shaken by a genuine row. The intensity of the debate at the Campaigning Documentaries: The Thin Line Between Passion and Propaganda session reflects the seriousness of what's at stake. It's not just the future of the genre that hangs in the balance, but its very identity.
One side maintains that documentary-making must be open-minded, impartial and journalistic. Its purpose should be to help people understand, not to encourage them to emote. The other side insists that the whole point of documentary-making is to effect desirable change. Campaigning is to be relished, not shunned...
The appearance of independence makes documentaries ideal vehicles for promoting corporate interests. Nowadays, NGOs, charities, single-issue lobby groups and the like sometimes have lots of money. Co-opting documentarists can prove an effective way of spending it. Plenty of film-makers are only too willing to play ball. After all, they want to make films. As Nick Fraser, the editor of the BBC's Storyville strand, said at the heated Doc/Fest session: "If Dr Goebbels appeared with a huge sack of money, there would be documentary film-makers queueing around the block to take it."
One of Fraser's key points in Sheffield was that the search for money - and the availabilty of funding by agenda-driven companies and organizations - meant that lots of films were being made with no (or little) aesthetic or cinematic ambitions. In short - topic was trumping craft.
It's a debate that we've been talking about here on the blog (sometimes with more frequency than others) for years. Our general frustration (and sometimes righteous anger) on the topic led to the launch of the Cinema Eye Honors, which will celebrate its fourth event this January.
As we wrote in the summer of 2008:
"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."
We delved further into this topic (and stirred up a real hornet's nest of anger against us) by writing about the knee jerk liberal/leftist reaction to the controversy surrounding the film BANANAS!*:
"In the documentary community, we are, it becomes increasingly apparent, occasionally enslaved by some who have pledged an unquestioning loyalty to a certain kind of social justice perspective."
Even Errol Morris, whose early, character-driven films were both celebrated and shunned (for their creative innovations) within the documentary community, asked a similar question via Twitter (which he reportedly later deleted, but which we had retweeted):
"Are all documentaries about worthy causes worthy documentaries? (Can't there be a bad movie about something good?)"
"The culprit, according to Fraser, is the liberal establishment which now finances a vast majority of documentary film and which has absolutely no appreciation for form, aesthetics, storytelling, or, as he put it, anything that is not 'butt-clenchingly boring.'"
Roston goes on to wonder why there was so much negativity in the room, particularly when there are numerous examples of cinematic (even hilarious) documentaries that don't spring from such leftist waters:
"Fraser makes the point that there are fewer entertaining documentaries being made now than there were five years ago. He may be right. He certainly knows better than I do. But I wouldn't say we're sunk. In fact, there are plenty of brand new revenue streams from all of these cable networks and online platforms hungry for reality-based programming. And there have indeed been some quality docs that have financing from the liberal establishment."
Roston also notes, with some surprise, that the audience seems to agree with the panelists. Perhaps its because the audience was filled with filmmakers who know that a character-driven documentary is at a huge disadvantage when seeking funding from traditional sources than is an issue-spurred film. Note that earlier this year, Chicken and Egg (one of our favorite granting orgs) handed out money to not one, not two, but three different films that were tackling the in-progress Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Exhibit B: the waves of "it's about freaking time" that greeted the announcement of Tribeca's TFI Documentary Film Fund, which will give money to character-driven documentaries, no need of social import required.
For working documentarians (including yours truly) who work in the character-driven vein, the levels of frustration over the continued inequities in documentary funding vary from simmering to boiling to resigned. We know that many of the breakthrough films - including this year's MARWENCOL and last year's 45365 struggled to be made (usually funded by the filmmakers themselves) over years and constant rejections from the raft of granting organizations.
For those of us who are more and more resigned (if occasionally spurred to simmering/boiling), part of the problem is the people who run many of the funds. We like them, they truly want to do good work (as well as Good Works) and they often support projects that have real value and need to be seen, even if these are for more topical reasons rather than artistic. Often these funders will try to help filmmakers find a way to position their character-driven films to meet their liberal-minded mandates. But this is rarely a workable (and certainly not a long-term) solution.
And so we continue this discussion, one that's perhaps as old as the medium itself. It spurred the anger against the Academy when character-driven films like ROGER & ME, THE THIN BLUE LINE and CRUMB were ignored in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It's informed our perspective on field in which we work, and it continues to make us all ask hard questions about what we want for the future of nonfiction.
[Note - This post has been slightly revised from an earlier version for clarity and grammar.]