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The cinematic worth of documentaries

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AdamH
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The cinematic worth of documentaries

#1

Post by AdamH » July 19th, 2020, 9:12 pm

St. Gloede and I were having a discussion about documentaries and I thought it would be worth posting on the forum.

Do you value documentaries in the same way as feature films? Of course, there are far more feature films made than documentaries but do you watch many documentaries or do you generally avoid them? Do you have to be very interested in the topic of the documentary or can they work regardless of the subject in the same way that a feature film can?

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#2

Post by St. Gloede » July 19th, 2020, 9:34 pm

Great to see this carried our to the foum, Adam, as it was an interesting one.

It started with Adam telling me of some of the great or interesting documentaries he was watching, and how he had generally picked documentaries because of their topics.

Which was a pretty interesting difference because I almost never do - or to rephrase that, I rarely pick documentaries just because of the topic.

As with regular films what I care about with docs is how they make me feel, how they engage with the medium, what kind of world/atmosphere/vision they create, etc. Hands on Hard Body is a brilliant example of this, as it is a genuinly gruelling dark comedy about the human psyche - or - to bring it to the next episode of talking images, where we talk about our Top films of 2019, , Honeyland, ehich will be in my top 5 (unless something kicks it out) which tells a very cinematic story simply oserving this woman's life, and her relationship with her mother and neighbours (who cause trouble to her life) and you get a sense of all of these characters without a single interview, in classic fly on the wall storytelling.

And then of course you can have beautiful poetry and essays, ala Mekas, Vardaor Marker - or cinema verité ala Chronicles of a Summer. Varda contemplating "Gleaners" or the tense, exciting narrative of David vs. Goliath in King of Kong is what usually interests me - not "x is about this". That's not to say a traditional info first doc can't be incredibly rewarding, but I don't have any among my favourites I believe.

So to answer Adam's question here, I do view them as I view feature films, to the extent that you can view any film, genre or type in the same way, which is to say that I view and judge them first and foremost for the experience they create for me through the tools the medium has available.

I also think documentaries have so many different forms and genres that are not attributed properly, including genres, like essay films, that transcends both documentaries and features.

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#3

Post by blocho » July 20th, 2020, 12:03 am

AdamH wrote:
July 19th, 2020, 9:12 pm
Do you value documentaries in the same way as feature films? Of course, there are far more feature films made than documentaries but do you watch many documentaries or do you generally avoid them? Do you have to be very interested in the topic of the documentary or can they work regardless of the subject in the same way that a feature film can?
I value them differently, though that doesn't mean that I give one greater value than the other. Rather, I have different expectations and concerns when I watch one or the other. The main difference, of course, is that documentary has an ostensible dedication to the truth and to what is real in a way that other movies do not. But no one should expect documentary to actually achieve truth (if such a thing is achievable), nor be unaware of the many ways in which film can be manipulated. Furthermore, the fact that documentarians adopt such varied methods to arrive at truth provides a clue that cinematic truth is ephemeral, abstruse. Like quicksilver, you can't quite grab ahold of it. Indeed, I find those documentaries that interrogate this difficulty to be among the most satisfying I have seen.

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#4

Post by sebby » July 20th, 2020, 12:37 am

I generally prefer docs. Style over topic for me 9 times out of 10. Benning and Wiseman the most perfect examples.

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#5

Post by mightysparks » July 20th, 2020, 1:18 am

I am mostly drawn to documentaries that have topics that I’m interested in. I agree mostly with what’s been said already. I value them equally as films, but I have different expectations. I tend not to like documentaries where I don’t trust the filmmaker’s version of the truth, if they’re being too biased or sentimental (like that awful Zachary one). I had a class on ‘screen actualities’ in my undergrad which I found really interesting as we were mostly looking at ‘truth’ and it made me appreciate documentaries a little more. I have found that I prefer more recent documentaries over 20th century ones, and I’m more likely to enjoy them even if I’m not interested much in the topic. As with feature films I’m more interested in flow and how the idea is told, but an interesting topic will be what brings me to a film initially.
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#6

Post by Fergenaprido » July 20th, 2020, 6:34 pm

AdamH wrote:
July 19th, 2020, 9:12 pm
Do you value documentaries in the same way as feature films? Of course, there are far more feature films made than documentaries but do you watch many documentaries or do you generally avoid them? Do you have to be very interested in the topic of the documentary or can they work regardless of the subject in the same way that a feature film can?
I value them in the same way, but I evaluate them differently, similar to what blocho mentioned. I'm more partial to narrative features, but I've been watching more documentaries in the past few years, even those that are not about topics that are necessarily interesting to me.

I also don't think there are "far more feature films made than documentaries", given that docs are generally cheaper to produce and thus get funded. I think the general film culture puts much more emphasis on narrative fiction films than documentaries, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are actually more docs out there than narratives. In cinemas, docs are rarely screened outside the major cities, but streaming services are becoming the great equalizer, and, anecdotally, I know several casual film watchers who've been seeing primarily docs on Netflix for years.

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#7

Post by blocho » July 20th, 2020, 7:04 pm

Yeah, I also think docs have proliferated over the past 20-30 years as production costs have gone down. Video and digital video have made things a lot easier. People can shoot movies on their phone now.

Even my mother made a documentary: https://www.icheckmovies.com/movies/afterward/

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#8

Post by Onderhond » July 20th, 2020, 9:57 pm

Not a big fan of documentaries myself. Streaming services have indeed made it easier to watch them, but overall I find the quality low.

On the one hand there are the more topical documentaries, which rarely come off as truthful and/or honest. They're either 90% propaganda, or really dry and uninviting. And rarely do I walk away with the feeling I've learned/watched anything significant, which is at least part of the expectation when seeing a doc.
The more artistic ones don't really do it for me either, as they're rarely in a style I like.

So far there's only 1 documentary in my list of favorites, which means I really just seem to prefer fiction.

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#9

Post by St. Gloede » July 21st, 2020, 12:32 pm

Onderhond wrote:
July 20th, 2020, 9:57 pm
Not a big fan of documentaries myself. Streaming services have indeed made it easier to watch them, but overall I find the quality low.

On the one hand there are the more topical documentaries, which rarely come off as truthful and/or honest. They're either 90% propaganda, or really dry and uninviting. And rarely do I walk away with the feeling I've learned/watched anything significant, which is at least part of the expectation when seeing a doc.
The more artistic ones don't really do it for me either, as they're rarely in a style I like.

So far there's only 1 documentary in my list of favorites, which means I really just seem to prefer fiction.
Which one?

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#10

Post by mjf314 » July 21st, 2020, 12:50 pm

My favorite documentaries are Close-Up and My Winnipeg. Both are a mixture of documentary and fiction. I guess that says something about my taste in documentaries.

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#11

Post by Onderhond » July 21st, 2020, 1:02 pm

St. Gloede wrote:
July 21st, 2020, 12:32 pm
Which one?
Antarctica: A Year on Ice. Don't be fooled by the penguins on the poster, it's not really a nature doc, though Powell is more than happy to use nature's abstract beauty to liven up his film.

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#12

Post by St. Gloede » July 21st, 2020, 2:08 pm

Onderhond wrote:
July 21st, 2020, 1:02 pm
St. Gloede wrote:
July 21st, 2020, 12:32 pm
Which one?
Antarctica: A Year on Ice. Don't be fooled by the penguins on the poster, it's not really a nature doc, though Powell is more than happy to use nature's abstract beauty to liven up his film.
That sounds interesting for sure, thanks for the write up. Is it a little similar to Leviathan? (Which I did not love, but was very interesting in movement, visual poetry, etc.).

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#13

Post by cinewest » July 21st, 2020, 3:31 pm

1) Do you value documentaries in the same way as feature films?
2) Of course, there are far more feature films made than documentaries but do you watch many documentaries or do you generally avoid them?
3) Do you have to be very interested in the topic of the documentary or can they work regardless of the subject in the same way that a feature film can?

Three good questions, Adam, so I'll try to provide 3 thoughtful answers:

1) On the first question, I would say that this didn't used to be the case for me except for rare exceptions like Resnais' Night & Fog, Sans Soleil, etc., but that this started to change in the last 20+ years, largely because I think there are more interesting, creative documentary filmmakers out there than ever before, even some that mix documentary and fiction. Documentarians more and more employ the full range of techniques and skills that feature filmmakers have, inclusive of more interesting narrative approaches, as well as more creative lensing and sound tracks.

2) The number of feature length documentaries I see has definitely increased in the past 20 years because of what I said in my answer above

3) I used to be more topic oriented when it came to films in general, but that has changed completely because I think that an interesting filmmaker can make an interesting film about anything, whereas an uninteresting one can underwhelm even when it comes to the most interesting of subjects.

I was going to include a bunch of examples to illustrate what I said above, but I can't find my list of favorite docs. at the moment
Last edited by cinewest on July 22nd, 2020, 2:36 am, edited 2 times in total.

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#14

Post by Onderhond » July 21st, 2020, 4:16 pm

St. Gloede wrote:
July 21st, 2020, 2:08 pm
Onderhond wrote:
July 21st, 2020, 1:02 pm
St. Gloede wrote:
July 21st, 2020, 12:32 pm
Which one?
Antarctica: A Year on Ice. Don't be fooled by the penguins on the poster, it's not really a nature doc, though Powell is more than happy to use nature's abstract beauty to liven up his film.
That sounds interesting for sure, thanks for the write up. Is it a little similar to Leviathan? (Which I did not love, but was very interesting in movement, visual poetry, etc.).
Hmm, not quite. Leviathan was one of the worst I've seen, though the potential was there. I just wasn't very impressed by a simple sound + visual filter.

A Year on I've is a bit more content-driven and is calmer, but there's definitely room for visual poetry.

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#15

Post by OldAle1 » July 21st, 2020, 4:33 pm

Do you value documentaries in the same way as feature films?

I guess so overall, yes - I think about the same elements when considering their worth certainly, although documentaries are often more deliberately limited - no "acting" usually, often no music, minimal editing, etc. Documentaries certainly can be as "cinematic" as features, but quite often that's not their purpose. I try to evaluate any film based on what I think it was trying to accomplish and what kind of film it is, at least to a certain extent, so a documentary can certainly achieve it's goals without having the cinematic grandeur of say Lawrence of Arabia, and be just as great a film in it's own way.

do you watch many documentaries or do you generally avoid them?

I wouldn't say I avoid them but I've never really focused on them either. Without looking I'd guess I've seen 25x as many features, maybe more. I've never looked very closely at any of the documentary official lists or tried all that hard to see the Oscar nominees every year for example, whereas I do try to see all the feature and foreign film nominees.

Do you have to be very interested in the topic of the documentary or can they work regardless of the subject in the same way that a feature film can?

Generally speaking, I have to be interested in the subject, or the director. While I don't focus particularly on docs, quite a few of my favorite directors have made a few, or many documentaries, though of my top favorites only Agnès Varda and Werner Herzog have paid as much attention to the documentary as to fiction films. But Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Alain Resnais and many other great filmmakers who interest me enough to work through their filmographies have spent their time in the documentary world for sure. And there are a few directors focused mostly on the form - Frederick Wiseman, Jean Rouch, Chris Marker - who interest me a lot.

And given my love for Iranian cinema it goes without saying that I'm interested in their documentary tradition, which intersects more in their film culture with features than in most national cinemas. You can't really appreciate Iran's films without seeing The House is Black or many of Kiarostami's meta-fiction-docs or Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence.

But overall, I'm in the camp of mostly focusing on docs that have subjects that interest me, which for the most part means film and the arts. It's no coincidence that Los Angeles Plays Itself is the only documentary from this century (and one of very few overall) that I've seen at least three times. And I have around 30-40 specifically film-related docs in my backlog, and plenty of docs about music, literature or architecture too.

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#16

Post by maxwelldeux » July 22nd, 2020, 12:29 am

Do you value documentaries in the same way as feature films?

Mostly, yes. What I love in a great documentary is telling a good story and making me feel something. I want my docs to have a point of view, stick to non-fiction and the interpretation thereof, and tell me a story. Build that tension. Make me care. If I'm interested in the topic, it's a relatively low bar. If I'm not, the bar is higher, but regardless tell me the story. Facts are fine, but if all you're doing is reciting facts and presenting evidence, I'd rather sit through a lecture than watch the doc. But when you can combine visually interesting stuff with a good story, you have the potential for a great documentary.

Do you watch many documentaries or do you generally avoid them?

I love them. I've always loved them. I actually had to learn how to like narrative films as I've had a preference for docs most of my adult life. Left to my own devices, I would probably watch little more than docs. I love learning new things, so docs are an easy way to indulge this obsession. Docs are also the only genre I can binge obsessively over a long time without tiring (too much). And I try and sprinkle them into non-documentary-focused challenges when I can. I'd guesstimate that ~20% of my favorites list documentaries.

Do you have to be very interested in the topic of the documentary or can they work regardless of the subject in the same way that a feature film can?

Yes.

There are different pathways to make me love a documentary, one of which is me being very interested in the topic. But a good documentary can work and draw me in just as much as a good film. I don't give a flying fuck about Winnipeg any more than any other city, but I LOVE My Winnipeg. Chicago-based youth basketball is, at best, something I tolerate on the rare occasions it comes up on ESPN, but Hoop Dreams is AMAZING. On the flip side, a sizable portion of my top docs list is made up of films that I find absolutely fascinating because of their subject material rather than the construction of the film, per se.

But beyond the good/great ones, are the ones I would call "fair" or "fine" that are objectively mediocre and fill a particular need. I watched the two Fyre Festival documentaries, not because I was interested in the festival, but because it was a pretty significant cultural phenomenon that I didn't know much about and wanted to learn more. They met that need, I learned some stuff, and enjoyed them well enough. I like watching docs on things I know about to hear different perspectives. I like watching docs on things I don't know about to learn new points of view.

But I might say that I can't be very uninterested in a topic. I don't like music and don't care about learning about it, so (with official check exceptions) I avoid those docs.

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