Film

How the Decade’s Best Documentaries Chart Radical Changes in Filmmaking

The 2010s were a seismic time for nonfiction filmmaking. Director Robert Greene considers how the craft has evolved, and continues to evolve.

From Darkon (courtesy SeeThink Films)

In 2006, Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel premiered their film Darkon, a character-driven account of a live-action role-playing community, at South by Southwest. Mixing straightforward observation, in-the-moment interviews, and self-reflexive depictions of fantasy play, the film constructs a multilevel metaphor for the American dream. Meyer and Neel mine their subjects’ melodramatic role-playing for the more therapeutic aspects of performance. The film won an audience award at SXSW and was a critical success.

Ten years later, at an anniversary screening of Darkon at the IFC Center in New York, Meyer and Neel talked openly about how they had shuffled the timeline of events, shot extra takes of a climactic battle, and worked closely with their subjects to construct the narrative. Like all of us documentary filmmakers, they manipulated situations and cajoled their material to create meaningful moments. It was a frank discussion which Meyer later told me he and his co-director shied away from back when they were making the film. “When Darkon was first released, we downplayed the collaborative process we shared with the players in the game … Documentary culture was still self-searching … Although there are always exceptions to the rule, the documentary form had up until that point primarily been a literalist one. It trafficked hard under the name of the form — films were documents — and what you saw was more or less what you were intended to get.”

In 2004, while making the film, Meyer said he had perceived a sort of “innocence” in the way documentary was commonly seen, a sense “that the filmmakers were not interloping somehow in the story,” and “that the people on camera were somehow unaware of what it meant to be recorded or in a movie.” This general perception, which could be boiled down to the oft-presumed idea that documentaries should be guided by the tenets of journalism, convinced the pair to keep much of their actual process and intentions hidden. By 2016, however, that innocence was gone. “The cultural consciousness and literacy around images have changed a lot in the decade since we made Darkon,” Meyer said. “The current language of nonfiction includes constructed scenes, clear collaboration with the people on camera, and a stronger reliance on metaphor. We have an implicit understanding that we live in a world assembled by stories, where the power of narrative is the ruling factor, not some ideal of truth. And we have learned to doubt better.”

From Bisbee ’17 (courtesy Grasshopper Film)

His words ring true for me because my own work has benefited from a shift in attitudes. In Eric Kohn’s Indiewire review of my second film, Kati With An I (2010), he wrote that our heroine “delivers a heartfelt screen presence that ranks among the best performances of the year.” At the time, describing a documentary subject as a “performer” was somewhat surprising, considering any hint of “acting” in nonfiction was often seen as delegitimizing. (See, for example, the harsh responses to Nanette Burstein’s American Teen, released two years prior to Kati.) In 2014, my film Actress, which makes documentary performance its central formal theme, was nominated for a Gotham Award for Best Documentary. My next two documentaries, Kate Plays Christine (2016) and Bisbee ’17 (2018), were performance-based as well. Both premiered in competition at the traditionally risk-averse Sundance Film Festival.

This decade has seen American documentarians fight for our right to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable, while we’ve also struggled more openly with the inbuilt ethical dilemmas of the form. During a panel at the 2013 True/False Film Festival aptly called “Every Cut is a Lie,” editor Nels Bangerter described the standard practice of cutting down interviews for intelligibility and meaning. He was then challenged by an audience member, who asked if his films “really deserve the name of documentary.”

“I think it’s a matter of education,” Bangerter responded, adding:

Every now and then an audience member or even a friend will be surprised, and a little saddened, to find out what we as documentary editors sometimes slip by them … People just don’t want to feel duped. I think it’s tempting to blame the audience a little bit — maybe they shouldn’t be so naive. But it’s also the fault of the whole documentary endeavor for allowing and even taking advantage of the perception that we would never do such a thing. 

One way to interpret how documentary filmmaking has changed over this decade is as a collective response to Bangerter’s speculation that it’s “perhaps the fault of documentary filmmakers that it’s not openly and widely enough known that we’re not adhering to strict journalistic guidelines.” If we wanted better documentary viewers, we needed to make better films, as critic Scott Tobias implied in one of the many thinkpieces on the “golden age” of documentary written this decade.

The 2010s were full of answers to the challenge. There were radical shifts in economics (driven by entities like Kickstarter and Netflix), advances in technology, and evolving questions around who gets to make nonfiction and for whom it is made. Documentarians felt liberated to make more artful movies, while the very notion of the “documentary subject” was altered forever. The lingua franca of nonfiction is supposed to be truth, of course, but what happens when “truth” collapses?

From Citizenfour (courtesy Praxis Films)

A Return to Cinematic Nonfiction

Nonfiction films can immerse us in a story as it is happening, remix the incidental, reanimate images from the past, and speak truth to power. They can be expressively poetic, matter-of-fact, personal, polemical, or all of these at once. They can deliberately blur the lines between the staged and the observed. But the best work revels in the fundamental conflicts built into the form. This era of documentary filmmaking has been partly defined by the emergence of playful chimeras, but in many ways, such works are throwbacks. After all, long before John Grierson coined the term “documentary” in 1926, the Lumière brothers had made single-reel nonfiction films. Charlie Chaplin debuted “The Tramp” in 1914’s Kid Auto Races at Venice, which featured the comedian interacting with actual spectators at a real car race. Cinema has had fiction/nonfiction “hybrids” from the beginning.

Since 1998, when Bennett Miller’s humbly made The Cruise became the first movie shot on digital video to be released in theaters, adventurous documentary filmmaking has exploded in America. “Methodologically, nonfiction filmmaking is wide open, much more so than fiction filmmaking,” explained Joshua Oppenheimer to Amir Soltani of the Film Experience. “The economics and the basic structure of a script, casting, staging, pre-production and editing is much harder to get away from and revolutionize, because of the very nature of the beast … But nonfiction has no methodological rules at all. Certainly, the proliferation of digital filmmaking is part of it. Experimenting is much easier.”

Empowered by technology and inspired by frisky works of the past, a generation has turned away from journalistic orthodoxy toward emphasizing beauty and ambiguity. Many documentarians may use journalistic standards as a guide, and many indeed want to inform the public, bear witness, or even change the world, but the most audacious and arresting nonfiction cinema has little in common with reporting. As Laura Poitras, the Oscar-winning director of films like The Oath (2010) and Citizenfour (2014), told me, “A film about an important topic is not a film if it’s not cinematic. It’s not what cinema is for.”

From Cameraperson (2017) (courtesy Kirsten Johnson)

Cameras as Characters

Longtime Poitras collaborator Kirsten Johnson has used virtually every kind of camera over her more than 25 years as a cinematographer. She shot Jacques Derrida on S-VHS, Osama bin Laden’s onetime bodyguard on MiniDV, and Julian Assange in HD. In 2016, she made one of the best films of the decade, the essay/memoir Cameraperson, a testament to the complex relationships filmmakers develop with the people we record and the devices we use to record them. Cameraperson and films like RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018) advance an old documentary truism that the person holding the camera is always a character in the film. As Johnson points out, however, the cameras we use aren’t simply extensions of our physical selves. The peculiarities of each device affect how we make our work and what it means. “The constraints of each camera allowed a different part of myself to develop,” as she explained to me.

This has always been true, and was especially apparent in the Direct Cinema movement of the 1960s, when filmmakers like Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, the Maysles brothers, D.A. Pennebaker, and Charlotte Zwerin used new sync sound cameras to capture intimate moments like never before. They were in, effect, creating a new way of seeing. But rapid changes in camera technology in the 2010s brought this relationship between an image’s production and its meaning to the forefront, and allowed for some radical innovations in form. “The technology impacted my behavior and, in some ways, enabled me to behave in ways I never imagined,” said Johnson. “I think each time you work with a new camera you are able to imagine new ways of filming.”

Over this past decade, standard definition MiniDV cameras, like the distinctive DVX100 (a staple of documentaries, used for James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments, Laura Poitras’s My Country, My Country, and Bill and Turner Ross’s 45365) were replaced by affordable high-definition cameras. Soon, delivering on HD was a requirement for broadcasters and other distribution platforms. In 2008, Canon introduced an updated version of its EOS 5D, which could shoot HD video at a cheaper price than even the most affordable camcorders. DSLR cameras became increasingly popular amongst independent filmmakers, especially after cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes used an EOS 7D (the 5D’s professional cousin) to shoot Lena Dunham’s breakout film Tiny Furniture in 2010.

As with all status-quo-shaking technology, the DSLR mini-revolution came with its own set of aesthetic orthodoxies. Films such as Danfung Dennis’s Hell and Back Again (2011) and Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq’s These Birds Walk (2013) were shot on DSLRs using lenses originally designed for still photography, producing images with extremely shallow depths of field, vibrant colors, and an almost hyper-real surface quality. Combined with an occasionally extreme jitteriness, this aesthetic raised the audience’s awareness of the cameraperson’s presence, which magnified the sense of impressionistic subjectivity in the work. However, some of the most distinctive properties associated with DSLRs, such as that shallow depth of field, quickly became trendy and overused, resulting in too many films looking the same.

From Leviathan (courtesy Dogwoof)

In 2012, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, stewards of Harvard’s highly influential Sensory Ethnography Lab, brought professional Sony EX1 and EX3 cameras aboard a fishing ship off the coast of Maine to make Leviathan. But these expensive cameras were swept away by the waves, forcing the filmmakers to rely on GoPros attached to poles, tethers, fishermen, helmets, cranes, chains, ropes — anything and everything. Built on moments of astonishing immediacy, Leviathan is an uncompromisingly immersive, disorienting experience, a series of rigorously constructed impressions and wildly free camera movements that could only have been achieved with those semi-disposable GoPros. What Castaing-Taylor and Paravel accidentally discovered was a kind of “extreme” Direct Cinema, and it was a game-changer.

By this point, documentarians had many relatively affordable options at their disposal, and screens were filled with varying looks, such as the Ross brothers continuing to use the DVX100 with Tchoupitoulas (2012) and Western (2015), Alma Har’el using a $600 consumer camera to shoot Bombay Beach (2012), and Lotfy Nathan mixing cellphone footage and the ultra-high-quality Phantom slow motion camera for 12 O’Clock Boys (2013). Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez even shot on 16mm for Manakamana (2013). Many filmmakers now simply get the highest resolution camera they can afford, and once-unheard-of 4K images have become standard. But camera choice remains a deeply charged decision, and image resolution can sometimes convey unexpected tensions. In Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos’s Rich Hill (2014), about impoverished teenagers in small-town Missouri, there’s a disparity between its “expensive” images (shot beautifully by Palermo) and the economic prospects of the subjects. As the decade went on and higher resolution cameras became more and more accessible, this aestheticization of lives became a starker issue.

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

The Fall and Rise of the Documentary Economy

The pressures of changing economic models of development, production, and distribution have always had a major impact on documentary, but what we’ve experienced in the 2010s has been seismic. There was a boom around the time of Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound (both in 2003), Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (both in 2004), but with the economic crash of 2008, independent filmmaking started this decade in a hole. That hole was filled, in part, by crowdfunding companies like Kickstarter, which began as democratizing tools for getting movies made without traditional support, but eventually came to be synonymous with a kind of bland, homogenized style that some filmmakers have since rebelled against.

As theatrical and television opportunities for documentaries dried up in the middle of the decade, film festivals like SXSW, True/False, CPH:DOX, Hot Docs, and Tribeca gave more creative work a platform, becoming a system of shadow distribution. Then streaming giants like Netflix stepped in and changed the economic realities even more. Suddenly, real markets for nonfiction films were emerging for the first time. Documentary series like Making a Murderer (2015) and Wild Wild Country (2018) began to dominate the conversation, and what could be called the “Netflix effect” hit market festivals, where the whims and changing internal strategies of the website (driven by its infamous algorithm) could distort the market. 2017 was a boom year for documentary sales at Sundance, with films like Step, Icarus, and Chasing Coral selling for millions. Then Netflix switched strategies, producing more films internally, and nothing sold at comparative levels in 2018. But then at Sundance 2019, Knock Down the House sold to Netflix for $10 million, a record.

The power of the streaming giants to shape the market has had a predictably homogenizing influence. With never-before-seen distribution opportunities available, it’s perhaps unsurprising that documentaries are being made to fit narrowing standards of a few companies. But hope remains; 2018 was down for documentary sales, but it was a boom year for the old model of theatrical distribution, with films like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Three Identical Strangers overperforming. Hale County and Bing Liu’s humanist (if ethically complex) Minding the Gap were both lovely films unexpectedly nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. Despite the tumultuous economic landscape, the art of nonfiction remains vital.

From The Act of Killing (courtesy Drafthouse Films)

Truth and Its Discontents

The history of documentary is one long quest to define truth onscreen. Every movement and iteration of the form has shared this quixotic pursuit, from one-reelers to ethnography, through John Grierson and Robert Flaherty, to the Direct Cinema of Robert Drew and friends, the cinéma verité of Jean Rouch and friends, Werner Herzog’s “ecstatic truth,” on through Joshua Oppenheimer’s “all documentaries are a performance” and Laura Poitras’s “cinema plus journalism” ethos of today. It is a breathless hunt for authenticity in a medium that, like all modes of filmmaking, is inherently synthetic. The best films of this decade stirred passionate debates about how best to answer to this fictionizing nature.

One of the most important was The Act of Killing (made by Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous co-directer), which brought ideas about performance, collaboration and intervention into the broader discussion. Many hailed the film, and it was nominated for an Oscar, but it also had its fervent detractors. Nick Fraser of the BBC called it “a high-minded snuff movie,” and filmmaker Jill Godmilow said the film’s collaboration with self-professed murderers was “non-productive, uncomfortable, even unclean.”

A battle over formulations of truth also manifested around Yance Ford’s Strong Island (2017), incidentally a “Netflix Original.” Ford uses a highly formal style and searing self-performance to tell the story of the unindicted murder of his brother by a white man. Through interviews, rigorous compositions, and even performance art, Ford investigates how being Black in America is itself a kind of narrative construction. Such a daring gambit left the film open to criticism, including Owen Gleiberman writing in Variety that its structure “leaves a hole in one’s outrage.” Many viewers seek easy answers, and Strong Island not only resists the “pat yourself on the back” vibe many documentary viewers often crave, but also doubles down on making us aware of our own complicity in its subject matter. “Black America is fully aware of the narratives that have been written about it, and is fully capable of deconstructing those narratives,” Ford told me. He continued:

But it is the deconstruction of those narratives, that, I think, people, are scared of. And it’s because they’re scared of it that they say they’re not real, and it can’t possibly be this true, it’s gotta be fake. There’s something about this that’s unreliable. And it’s just like, no, it’s not that it’s unreliable, it’s just that you refuse to see it. Simply because I stage an interview setup, simply because I determine what the light will be, simply because I determine what the gaze will be, simply because it’s constructed. You fucking refuse to accept it.

Strong Island uses changing perceptions of performance in nonfiction to get at deeper issues about how we construct and view the world. It’s a sterling example of a wave of documentaries about the constructed nature of truth, which include my own work. “Authenticity” is manufactured in nonfiction, much like laughs in comedies and scares in horror films. This decade, more films have embraced what might be called “post-truth” filmmaking.

The problem, as Erika Balsom points out, is that we live in a world where the cynical embrace of this conception of “post-truth” has deeply corrupted our politics and threatens to undermine the very bases of democracy. In her brilliant essay “The Reality-Based Community,” Balsom appeals for a return to documentary practice that doesn’t begin with the idea that “truth” is dead:

Have you heard that reality has collapsed?

In asserting the indiscernibility of fact and fiction, the panicked statement that reality has collapsed at times accomplishes little but furthering the collapse of reality. Proclaiming the unreality of the present lifts the heavy burdens of gravity, belief, and action, effecting a great leveling whereby all statements float by, cloaked in doubt … Against this rhetoric, a different proclamation: I want to live in the reality-based community. 

From Strong Island (courtesy Netflix)

Balsom is right. But for what truths do we now fight? With Strong Island, Ford became the first openly transgender man to be nominated for an Oscar. That’s worth fighting for. In March 2019, the Brown Girls Doc Mafia interrupted the post-screening Q&A of the film The Commons at True/False and instigated a complex and necessary conversation about representation and the modes of power that still dominate the production and distribution of documentaries. That’s a bunch of truth right there.

Reality itself is indeed shifting, and documentary filmmakers must respond. The commodification of the overshare — on social media platforms that appear to be democratic but are corporately controlled playpens — have and will continue to transform the very nature of nonfiction images. What is art, and what is merely consumerism disguised as self-expression? Instagram and other platforms can yield great nonfiction (see Zia Anger’s phenomenal work), but what happens if the mere idea of “documentary” is reduced to its most basic form?

Documentaries offer an incomparably effective way to observe human behavior, can help us understand social structures that dominate or empower, and can compel empathy. But this is no goody-two-shoes art. Ethical dilemmas teem at the crux of every filmmaking choice, and there are potentially ugly consequences awaiting each decision which can continue to affect subject, documentarian, and viewer alike long after the credits roll. We filmmakers must restlessly strive to be honest with the material we capture, even as reality itself becomes more unstable and we as a culture embrace radical social media performance. Where is truth if we’re all acting all the time? The struggle to find a meaningful signal in the unending noise continues.

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