Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Should All Documentaries Be Objective?

The NYTimes looks at the documentary films making the Oscars shortlist this year and raises up an issue: is the Michael moore style of filmmaking dangerous and bad? Foolishly, pioneer Albert Maysles thinks all documentaries should be dispassionate and not betray a point of view whenever possible. Of course, that's a perfectly valid way to make a documentary film -- indeed perhaps most documentary films should be objective. But surely it's not the ONLY type of documentary that should be made. Just like a newspaper needs objective articles, news analysis, commentary, editorials, opinion columns and letters to the editor, the documentary world needs dispassionate films, angry films, personal films, cries from the heart, muckraking and furious denunciations. Michael Moore is annoying if you disagree with him (or if his blustering gets in the way of a good film). So is Bill O'Reilly. Both have their place and when either distorts the FACTS they can and will be called on it.


Anonymous said...

If your argument is to be taken seriously, then "Documentary" like Moore's should be called "Propagamentary".

You can not document that which you are too close to, for you lose perspective.

Michael in New York said...

It's not an argument; it's a fact. Nonfiction films, casually referred to as documentaries, have taken all different shapes and sizes over the years, from the resolutely fly on the wall films by Wiseman to cinematically bold films with reenactments and aggressive points of view like Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line. Michael Moore is a muckraker. So was Upton Sinclair. They have their place and what Moore makes are in fact documentaries. Obviously, every documentary has a point of view and the most objective of films -- like say The Civil War by Ken Burns -- reveals it every step of the way from the title (which would annoy most unreconstructed Southerners) to the people chosen to be interviewed and the amount of time they're given. "Jazz" would have been very different if the main talking head was, say, Sun Ra, instead of Wynton Marsalis. Not every documentary intends to take a dispassionate, non-partisan look at a particular topic. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and the NY Post are all newspapers, even if they all take radically different approaches to what they cover and how. The same is true for documentaries.