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?)"