How Documentaries Could Rule The World


I.  Non-fiction rules!

Starting as far back as 50 years ago, non-fiction set out to crush fiction in the book world. In the 1920s, fiction outsold non-fiction four to one; by the 1960s, non-fiction had flipped the script, outselling fiction four-to-one.  Fast forward to the 21st century, when the sale of memoirs increased 400% between 2004 and 2008, and non-fiction still clobbers fiction on the commercial front. Where once the novel was king, books of truth now strode the land like giants.  What happened?

The party line went something like this: non-fiction got better, fiction got worse, the marketplace grew more crowded and competitive, and other media started kicking the snot out of novels on the escapist front.  Plus, the media machine liked non-fiction better than fiction.  You could write a book on autism or circus clowns or how saffron changed the course of history forever and get the autism, freak, and foodie crowds excited.  A novel.  What was that?  Made up people doing made up things.  Wasn’t that for children who didn’t know or care about the difference between real and not?  (Fiction still outperforms non-fiction in the kids market.)  If made up stuff was what you wanted, there were movies and television.  Men in particular stopped reading novels; maybe they’d done it before mainly to learn facts and get laid?  Whatever the reason, now they could read non-fiction to learn facts in a fact-intensive and competitive world, where they could get laid talking about music, movies, television and all those new facts.  Or they could read non-fiction about how to get laid.  Women kept reading novels, although they found that they could get some of the same stuff and great characters from eating praying loving memoirs or bios of Cleopatra: and that shit was true!

Deep down, all of us might know that the true beauty of the true artist is the most authentic and spectacular thing there is—but who had time for enough deep down anymore?  Genius might find its way to the top anyway, but there are not many geniuses and many, maybe too many, true artists.  How to decide what to read, what to watch, what to see, with so much choice, so much possibility, so little time, and so much to learn about the world?

Increasingly, people in general started wondering why they should spend their time with the untrue unless they were laughing hysterically or saying “holy crap!”  Sure, some freaks have a good time reading depressing, well-observed stories about nothing much, but it was getting increasingly harder to figure out which ones of those to read, and even then, chances were that the depressing and beautiful book you’d read wasn’t the same depressing and beautiful one that other people read, so now you couldn’t even talk about it.  Movies and television you could.  Your chance of finding someone who’d seen The Ice Storm or The Sweet Hereafter was a lot better than finding someone who’d read them.  And non-fiction you could talk about even if you hadn’t read it, because it was about something, and everyone had ideas and opinions about Rainman or Bozo or Paella.  Yum.

Plus, non-fiction did get better.  The lessons of The Bell Jar (1963), In Cold Blood (1966), Hell’s Angels (1966), The Armies of the Night (1968) and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test (1968) sank in fast.  Readers liked the author telling her own story; they liked dialogue; they liked scenes; they liked attitude; they liked supercharged language for supercharged reality.  At the same time, a new understanding of book marketing and niche audiences catapulted non-fiction to the top.  Once upon a time, novels had won the battle of both spectacle and authenticity—the best writers, the most amazing sentences, but also the looseness of form to deliver things that felt more real than reality.  Now the non-fiction writers loosened their form, too.  Non-fiction started reading like fiction used to.  And suddenly: well, who was more authentic, the lone dreamer or the dramatic truthteller unafraid of facts but lyrical enough to make them sing?

And here came the The Perfect Storm, which combined manly data about storm jumpers with speculative live scenes about Captain’s last moments as the ship went down!  And here was Guns, Germs and Steel, torching off a one-book-that-explains-everything craze through the lens of geography (or whales, or beer, or porn, etc.)  And don’t forget David Sedaris!  And Eggers!  Besides, something larger was happening: reality TV and the internet were showing us that if we were interested in amazing stories, the real thing was definitely out there.  No need to make stuff up.  Where once Balzac, Faulkner, Wolfe and even John Kennedy Toole were the ones to give us the insider’s guide to Paris slums, incestuous hillbillies, bond traders, and dysfunctional crazies—because they were the ones who were 1) literate and 2) brave/cool/hardworking enough to crawl around inside such matters—now the slumdwellers, hillbillies, bond traders and Augustin Burroughs could write their own stories, could get book deals and a website and speak for themselves.  And they did.  And hell, even if some of the books were not well written, some of them were, and plenty were strange in a new way—a way that felt more, um, real.

Where did that leave fiction?  Well, clearly fiction had to do something spectacular, something more like magic, dreams and poetry.  And it did, as magical realism exploded Stateside and a return to modernist experimentation swole (stories told backwards, sideways, by teddy bears and dead people, time shifted to the max, in made up languages, etc.)  When that didn’t work, you could still scrape some authenticity out of fiction through the roman-a-clef (based on her real life!) or unique authorial backstory (Raised by Russian wolves!  Written while living in a hospital dumpster!).  Indeed, the new route for writers was to write a memoir and then a novel—to stand out through identity and hopefully voice, at least until they’d built a reputation as genius, crowd-pleaser, something to talk about.

II.  Fiction rules!

The weird thing was, a reverse trend started happening in film.  Fiction started stealing from non-fiction.  And this also had to do with authenticity and spectacle.  See, now that film could deliver such amazing visuals, we stopped believing things.  That was not a big problem most of the time.  We were amused, entertained, we liked seeing George Clooney and Kate Winslett acting and stuff, and we were thrilled by what The Matrix and Lord of the Rings and Crouching Tiger had to show us, but the problem was that now The Ice Storms of the world left us cold.  That shit was not real!  Those were actors, good ones, but totally famous actors!  And if it wasn’t real, then how could you expect people to watch anything that didn’t have bullet time or exploding gnomes or hot half-naked flying people?  No, the main thing the “real” stories had left to get us in the seats were celebrities, the very people who were messing up this authenticity thing, which was all that they had left, so what to do?

Blair Witch didn’t invent the shaky camera, but we bought it, big time.  Here was a film that had almost no on-screen spectacle—although plenty off-screen—but had something authentic about it.  And there were other things docs had: the interview feel, the edit style, an unpolished awkwardness, long takes and bad camera angles, inconsistent sound and lighting, stripped out music, ugly people.  By the time we get to The Borne Supremacy and District 9 and Avatar—and The Office, for that matter—blockbuster directors figured out the power of stealing some of the authenticity tricks from documentary film and combining them with the spectacle of stunts, explosions and CGI wow.  Homerun!  Because isn’t that what we really want: spectacle first, sure, but real too?


III.  Why not docs?  Or did Orson Wells mess that up for everyone?

People aren’t going to buy those tricks forever.  No one believes much anymore, not for long, which means that authenticity is getting ever more precious and hard to find.  But documentary filmmakers still have it.  These insane people spend five years, their savings, credit, and as much of other people’s money as they can get their hands on—not usually much—making something just because it’s true and deep and beautiful and because they are totally obsessed.  But the thing is, authenticity alone doesn’t put people in the seats.  You need spectacle.  So how does documentary film get that?

For the past decade or so, the most obvious thing to do is to turn authenticity itself into spectacle.  That’s what reality television did: conflict, winners, losers, freaks.  But that’s also what Michael Moore does, that’s what Supersize Me does, as well as a whole host of lesser known films that you may or may not have heard of: King Corn, No Impact Man, Beyond Beats and Rhymes, The Yes Men Save the World, Religulous, Good Hair.  In the biz, some call this a “hybrid” which means it’s basically a personal essay, where the filmmaker is a major character or instigator in the exploration of an idea or problem or mystery.  This works, by they way.  It works on screen because of the excruciatingly real conflict (Borat being the most outrageous example).  And for docs, it “works” even when no one watches the film, because the hybrid doc is a magnet for the press: some white guy who wouldn’t use toilet paper for a year?  Two city punks growing corn in rural Iowa?  A big black dude running around calling out rap thugs for hating on women?  Let’s get ‘em on the show!

(In fact, it works well enough that I don’t understand why the social issue filmmakers don’t do it more, and why those who do it are so white—where’s the Latina Michael Moore, the Native American Morgan Spurlock, the Asian-American No Impact Man, the Arab-American Yes Men, the LGBT Bill Maher, the disabled Chris Rock?  Maybe it’s starting–Soul Food, More than A Month, One in a Billionbut that’s for another day.)

IV.  James Cameron is a documentary filmmaker

However, there is another kind of spectacle that documentaries must achieve to rule the world: good old fashioned visual holy crap.

At first glance, they don’t stand a chance.  Holy crap costs money.  Big money.  Look at the top twenty grossing docs of all time, and you’ll see plenty of holy crap: IMAX journeys into space and underwater, like Ghosts of the Abyss, directed by James Cameron.  Turns out that’s what he was doing between Titanic and Avatar, making underwater docs, six of them.  Experimenting.  Honing his skills.  Special effecting people onto real sunken ships.  And of course having the green light and F-U money to do whatever he wanted.

Documentary filmmakers don’t have the money.  But little by little, those “expensive” technological advantages of the studios are starting to trickle down.  Even Inconvenient Truth had some spectacle, after all, but not the full force of CGI.  No doc does yet, but what about animation?  Two years ago, the completely animated documentary Waltz with Bashir became the highest grossing foreign language doc in U.S. history, won a Golden Globe, and was the first doc ever nominated for best foreign picture at the Oscars.  Docs like Chicago 10 and Wings of Defeat, Eyes of Me, Into the Realms of the Unreal and many, many more are using animation—and/or graphics, in the case of I.O.U.S.A and Freakonomicsto fill in the blanks of historical reenactment, to interpret the experience of blindness, or to try to capture the process of artistic creation.  And they looked cool.  Because what spectacle really means is someone shows you a preview and you think: I want to see more of that.  Waltz did that.

Animation, though, should be just the beginning.  CGI and effects technology are moving into reach.  And camera innovation keeps going.  Whatever James Cameron was doing under water, other documentary filmmakers are starting to do up here.  Think more motion capture animation and effects.  Think small cheap P.O.V. cameras combined with aftereffects that yield quality footage no one thought you could get.  Think historical recreations that no longer look animated or acted—real Joan of Arc, real Hitler, real some guy no one’s heard of but should have.  And what about 3-D?  Cameron came up with a new camera rig for his docs that he used on Avatar, and as the technology gets better, the 3-D verite docs shouldn’t be too far off, should it?  (Turns out Herzog and Wenders and lord knows who else are on it.)  Because you only have to look at a few totally commercially unsuccessful docs like Unmistaken Child, Manda Bala, The Good Fight, War/Dance  to see the cinematography chops doc filmmakers have.  If they get the technology?  And get over themselves a bit about how to use it?      

One day docs will win the battles their non-fiction counterparts have won—the based-on-a-true story.  Hell, as long as there’s spectacle, why not the true story!  If you want movie stars you’ve got the rest of Hollywood—comedy, adventure, drama, action, thriller.  Of course, fiction film will keep moving farther and faster in the direction of spectacle, but at some point, the dividends are going to slow down, and the authenticity of the doc will allow them to catch up.  At some point, there’s going to be a smaller gap between what an indie can do with his laptop and a studio can do with gajillions, if only because the consumer side of things can’t and won’t change quickly enough.  And the doc maker will be able to flash a few scenes at us and drive us into theaters or wherever to see what they’ve got.

V.  Do you really believe that?

Not quite.  After all what’s more authentic and spectacular than war?  People might have flocked to see Obama’s War or Restrepo to feel what it’s like to be on a real battlefield getting shot at, but they didn’t; war docs like The War Tapes and Gunner Palace kinda bombed; doc-style Generation Kill didn’t do much better.  Critics love that shit, but people don’t want to see it.

Maybe the authenticity of docs can be too real?  That might explain why the nonfiction books about the Iraq war sold like crazy but the string of docs and movies about it basically tanked.  In the film and video realm, we still need some distance to face the brutal truth of violence.  Fiction can do that, which is why The Hurt Locker or Saving Private Ryan beats war docs all day and night.  For all their intensity, we need to have the permission of knowing what’s on screen isn’t real in order to “enjoy” the thrilling verisilimitude of warIt’s a lot harder to enjoy violence—and we do, as a species, enjoy it—if we have to see real individuals suffer and die.

On the other hand, look at what reality TV and non-fiction have done on television: not just on the networks, but cable too.  Non-fiction format shows on the History Channel and all those other something-or-other channels find their mark.  Some public media minded documentary filmmakers have already gone that route in series like Carrier and CircusMaybe they take it a step further.  With the combination of more technology, a mini-series structure, some competitive elements, and hybrid action, some funny MCs—like Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days except, well, with an exploding helicopter or two.

VI.  The post-modern wake-up call.

In the meanwhile, what documentary filmmakers can do is take a tip from their fiction counterparts.  Remember that long shot scene in Children of Men when the fake blood got on the camera?  Remember how real that seemed?  And yet here we have documentary filmmakers trying to shoot perfect shots, stay out the picture, don’t break the frame, all that vérité bullshit from back in the good old days.

The good old days are old for a reason.  If you’re doing vérité, you better make sure people know it.  Make sure they know how hard that shot was to get.  You didn’t set it up with Banksy or Sasha or Clive.  You got a freaking camera in there and captured that moment that should have been impossible to capture, except you did it, because you’d been trailing that guy around for 3 years waiting for some shit like that to happen.  Doc makers already do this in the movie extras on the DVD or on the talk shows, so why not work that post-modern awareness into the film itself?

Process is exciting.  It has to be, because process is part of what sets documentaries apart, and the process is what shows us how Hell and Back Again  is really real, and The Hurt Locker is faking it.  It is a crime that documentaries are losing on the authenticity front.  Doc makers: You people are smarter than I am and more visual.  Get over your documentary purists selves and figure this shit out.  Let’s see the frame.  Let’s hear something we were not meant to hear.  Let’s see the filmmaker and the subject bitch each other out.  Save the seamlessness for the non-authentic elements: jump through time;  recreate truth without telling anyone; CGI and animate.

What documentary filmmakers face is that they are competing in the marketplace not with other documentaries but with everything.  Grand Theft Auto.  Porn.  Jay-Z.  Inception.  And the competition is about a person standing in a room of many doors, wondering which to open.  Documentary filmmaking has to promise the most authentically real experience of those doors or else few people are going to open its door.

VII.  Why do you care if documentary filmmakers succeed in the marketplace?  Leave us alone!  We’re struggling artists!

No I won’t leave you alone.  And I’ll tell you why.  Because the dilemma facing documentary filmmakers is the dilemma that faces all artists in our culture—except that unlike novelists (like me) or painters, documentary filmmakers actually might be in a good position to be true to their art and win in the marketplace.  Yet their problem is the same as any artist.  These filmmakers want four things.  They want recognition.  They want to make art telling a story.  They want to change the world.  And they want to make some money.  But in what order?

The order matters.  Because the majority of documentaries aren’t really doing any of these things very well—and I think it’s because artists have a hard time asking and honestly answering that question about what they want.  Obviously they want it all!  And they can see people just like them who got it!  But success is the exception.  Failure is the rule.  Connections, luck, zeitgeist, all play a part.

If you want to change the world, then you’re going for maximum impact.  That means subjugating your art as much as you can to your goals.  It might mean forgoing recognition of your peers—who think HBO is sexier than PBS or Bravo, The New Yorker is cooler than USA Today—in order to reach more people.  Or it might mean giving up viewers for more high-culture publicity and discourse via the HBO and New Yorker route, and perhaps a better chance at reaching important people with power, which might be a better route for impact.  It might mean taking less money in exchange for broader distribution.  How many documentary filmmakers go the arty movie, HBO, New Yorker, slightly more money route when they could have impacted way more people on the more populist storytelling, PBS, USA Today, low profit route?  Not that one is better than the other.  Just that you have choices, and you should make them knowingly instead of pretending all things are equal when they’re not.

Because on the other hand, if you’re going the arty, HBO, New Yorker route, then make it as strange and beautiful as possible and don’t worry too much about the impact or the audience.  Just go for it!  Make it sing!  Or shock!  Get weird, people!

The fact is that far too many films—and novels, and paintings, and everything—end up in the middle ground, sort of trying to appeal to the masses, sort of trying to make art, sort of trying to make some money, sort of trying to get recognition, and falling short on all fronts.  If a filmmaker can raise the money to make their film and throw all thoughts of profits, recognition and audiences out the window, they stand a much better chance at making something that might sneak its way into the back door for all of those things (Waltz with Bashir is a good example—plus you can always relent in the edit room if you think you’ve got a genuine shot at something more).

On the other hand, you might decide that impact is the most important thing and backdoor your way into something strange and beautiful.  Fahrenheit 9.11 had some surprising cinematic moments, and so did Supersize Me.  But their goals were never in doubt, and beauty, while possible, was always less likely.

And we can’t not talk about the festivals: the place where independent filmmakers are truly sustained through a sense of community, live love, and respect of one’s peers.  The fact is, in a world where one’s art form is marginalized, what’s more important and sustaining than a sense of community and the respect of one’s peers, and where can a filmmaker get that if not at festivals?  If festivals are going to insulate filmmakers from the marketplace, shouldn’t they also push filmmakers to make up their minds to make films that are either more creatively daring or more ambitious for impact?

VIII.  The moral of the story is?

“You have to be a very stubborn person to remain an artist in this culture,” writes the father of improvisational theater, Keith Johnstone.  “To create something means going against one’s education.”  What I would add to that is that it doesn’t only go against your education.  It often goes against many of your own true desires—to be recognized, to make a difference, to live a comfortable life.  The moral of the story is that there are compromises to be made, and they must be made with our eyes wide open—or else with the understanding that sometimes we must simply plunge ahead with our eyes knowingly shut.


Eric B. Martin is a novelist who lives in Durham, North Carolina. His novels include Luck, Winners, and Donald, co-written with Stephen Elliott. More from this author →