Essays

What Is a Documentary These Days?

As the landscape for cultural production shifts, it’s worth asking what does or does not constitute a documentary now. Here are some thoughts.

A scene from Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018), directed by RaMell Ross
From Hale County This Morning, This Evening (courtesy IDIOM Film)

Last year, when I was mulling over my favorite documentaries I had seen for various critics polls, I kept coming back to one thought: “Why not add parasocial hell to the list?” Released in August, this was the second installment in Fake Friends, YouTuber Shannon Strucci‘s ongoing video essay series on parasocial relationships (that is, a one-sided relationship where one party does not even know the other) in contemporary culture. The video runs an epic two hours, more than long enough to qualify it as a feature film. And it earns every minute, exhaustively presenting different examples to help the viewer understand the topic, from followers of video game Twitch streamers to music fans to a penguin who fell in love with a cardboard cutout of an anime character. It’s one of the best works I’ve seen about the ways technology is shaping how we relate to one another.

Fake Friends doesn’t stand alone as an exceptional online video work, either. Other favorites of mine include Franklin, another YouTube series in which a city-building simulation game is used to explain the history of urban development. The fascinating channel Syrmor is a modern human interest interview series which happens to take place entirely within an online VR chat game. My favorite work of film criticism in 2018 was Pure Flix and Chill: The David A.R. White Story, which dissects the works of the popular Christian film studio Pure Flix solely through video clips from their movies and sound clips from interviews with the title subject. Going through sources like this Sight & Sound poll of 2018’s best video essays, I see multiple pieces that I preferred to a good deal of traditional documentaries which came out that year.

From the feature-length video essay / YouTube documentary FAKE FRIENDS EPISODE TWO: parasocial hell

These videos come from creators mostly working outside any traditional institutional support (some work with universities), who vary from the professionally trained to the self-taught. With the streaming age, the internet obliterated for good the old distinctions between what “counts” as a film or a TV show. Historically, the whole idea of a medium was tied to the vector through which a work of art reached us. But now we consume movies, television, news, art, personal diaries, sports, and everything else through the same sources. The persistence of the old definitions in our collective consciousness is the sole reason we don’t generally think of video essays in the same spaces as regular documentaries.

Since April 2019, I’ve been Hyperallergic’s associate editor for documentary. But in this capacity, I’m not interested in concentrating solely on nonfiction works made for theaters, VOD, or television. For many years, the definition I used for a documentary was “reality, creatively rearranged.” But all art does that in some manner, reflecting and invoking reality in various ways. Now, when considering nonfiction, I think in terms of medium — not the distinctions between art forms, but in the sense of the materials used to create a work. If real-world phenomena or data or experience are in some way a factor in its creation, even if only intangibly, then that is part of my discussion of “documentary.” To that end, I will field (and approve) pitches not just about movies and TV shows, but about anything that can be fit beneath this purposefully expansive definition.

From the exhibition hapa.me (courtesy Japanese American National Museum)

Consider the Japanese American National Museum’s exhibition hapa.me. Artist Kip Fulbeck constructed this show not just out of his own photography of mixed-race people, but also their responses to a simple question about their identities. The raw material of their life experiences is inseparable from the work. For more examples, look at any of the myriad artists who work in data visualization, turning objective but sometimes hard to fully comprehend statistics into tangible pictures, sculptures, or other things a gallery visitor can better understand. The ongoing project dripping, creaking, flowing is a conceptually intriguing work on the artificial reconstruction of natural phenomena.

And then there is the rich tradition of memoir in graphic novels, from Representative John Lewis’ series March to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home to Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning masterpiece MausThat genre now extends into people sharing short autobiographical comics on sites like Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and DeviantArt. And artists don’t merely mine their personal lives for their work. In 2006, Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón turned the 9/11 Commission Report into a graphic novel, seeking to get more people to read the report by making its findings more visceral and easier to digest. Just last year, artist Ali Fitzgerald documented her experiences teaching refugees in Germany in Drawn to BerlinAnyone with any drawing talent has new ways to reach people thanks to the internet.

From the graphic novel Drawn to Berlin (courtesy Fantagraphics)

Even video games can operate in this territory. The independent browser-based game You Are Jeff Bezos tasks a player with spending all of Jeff Bezos’ hundreds of billions of dollars, using a simple click-an-option interface to drive home just how many problems could be fixed with all that money. Choice: Texas has a similar setup and is also rooted in real-world statistics, although in this case framed through the more personal experience of seeking help with an abortion. The “universe simulator” Space Engine is a reconstruction of known space that captures the sheer scale of the cosmos to a harrowingly accurate degree. What is that if not a scientific documentary you can walk through? In general, interactivity seems to be the focal point of new media development. The sophistication of virtual reality experiences, for example, is evolving at an almost alarming rate. (I still can’t stop thinking about Terminal 3, which turns you into an obtrusive Homeland Security official.) I don’t subscribe to the idea that VR will be a transformative “empathy machine,” but the implications of being able to stand in the midst of an event rather than merely seeing a video of it are intriguing.

From You Are Jeff Bezos

Think not just about nonfiction art, but the aesthetic dimensions of how we process and interact with the world around us. Social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, the sadly departed Vine, and the newer TikTok facilitate the use of videos, photos, artwork, audio, and almost anything else as a mode of communication, a language of signifiers that’s changing daily. Canny critics have already identified fascinating trends here. There’s the homogeneity of Instagram travel photos. There are the vagaries of how meme pages operate. There’s the new fad of big attention-grabbing (and often highly misleading) Twitter threads “educating” people on obscure topics. There are the aesthetic underpinnings of “strangely satisfying” or ASMR videos featuring pimple popping, of all things.

All this is not to say that innovation is dead within traditional documentary filmmaking, far from it. Look no further than the harrowing observational cinema of Wang Bing. Or how veteran cinematographer Kirsten Johnson made a whole new movie out of unused shots she took for other documentaries. Or Blake Williams’s 3D film about the Great Galveston Hurricane, which utilizes period stereoscope cards. Or RaMell Ross’s incredibly tender non-narrative overview of Black life in a small town. Or Sam Green and Joe Bini’s  “live documentary” about Kronos Quartet which plays with musical accompaniment from the quartet. Filmmakers are subverting expectations and finding new methods of expression everywhere, as long as you know where to look.

From the YouTube series Franklin (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

We live in exciting times for reshaping what we see in the world around us into some form of artistic statement. The proliferation and advancement of creative tools continually reduces the barrier to entry for anyone wanting to create essentially any thing, and it can then be shared without any of the traditional media gatekeepers. This has resulted in a sea of content which can be intimidating to navigate. I want to find what’s great and/or noteworthy in this landscape and bring it to people’s attention. If you want to do the same, reach out to me via [email protected] No concept is too out-there, no idea unworthy of consideration. This is the age of the documentary. Let’s explore it.

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