Wed, Mar 25, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Documentaries, on the rise, wrestle to tell stories and truths

By Richard Sandomir  /  NY Times News Service

The final interview was over. The set, a room inside a New York hotel, had gone dark. The subject, Robert Durst, headed for the bathroom, apparently unaware that his microphone was still on.

“There it is. You’re caught,” he is heard saying. “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

It made for a chilling conclusion to an absorbing six or so hours of television. However, once HBO’s The Jinx released watchers from its grip, questions emerged.

Why had the filmmakers, Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, withheld this seemingly vital utterance until the very last scene of the very last episode? For that matter, why had they not gone back to Durst to ask him about this possible confession? When had they alerted the police?

These questions led, inexorably, to other, larger ones: Was this film a form of journalism or entertainment? And, more broadly, what should an audience’s expectations of documentary films be?

Such questions are now being asked by the viewing public after The Jinx. However, they have preoccupied documentarians for years, as nonfiction film has been transformed from a relatively straightforward, niche medium to a form of mass entertainment.

Inside the documentary world, there is an inherent tension between the need to stick to a fair, accurate presentation of facts and the imperative to tell a dramatic story.

“As the stakes go up, filmmakers are really starting to grapple with the issue of how the craft of filmmaking gels with the act of reporting,” said David Wilson, who cofounded the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri.

Not so long ago, documentaries were the cinematic equivalent of castor oil. In 1988, Miramax took pains to avoid referring to Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, the story of a man wrongfully imprisoned for murder, as a “documentary film,” promoting it instead as “a new kind of murder mystery.”


However, documentaries are now well rid of their take-your-medicine stigma. Today, news and entertainment companies as diverse as HBO, Netflix, Hulu, CNN, ESPN, Amazon and al-Jazeera America are trumpeting their documentary offerings. Some airlines even offer a “documentary” option on their in-flight entertainment consoles.

The changes roiling the news business are partly responsible for this boom; documentarians have stepped in to fill the void left by shrinking budgets at traditional news outlets.

Dan Cogan, executive director of Impact Partners, which matches financiers with socially conscious films, cites The Hunting Ground, a new documentary about campus rape, as a case in point.

“Twenty years ago, that would have been an investigative series in a newspaper,” Cogan said. “Today, it is a documentary film.”

For a lot of philanthropists seeking to bring about social change, the documentary film has become the investment vehicle of choice. A few years ago, the Ford Foundation announced that it would put US$50 million into independent documentaries. (Among those it helped fund was last year’s film about Edward Snowden, Citizenfour.)

Documentaries are a predominantly liberal business, but not exclusively so: Joe Ricketts, a major donor to rightwing causes, invested in Dinesh D’Souza’s first documentary, 2016: Obama’s America, which was released in 2012 and has earned US$33.4 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

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