What are you doing about global warming? Or fracking? Arab democracy? Diminishing bee populations? Nuclear energy? Gun control? Repression in Uganda? Russia? Burma? Increasingly, what we’re doing about the world’s problems seems to be watching documentaries on them — which does feel like doing something, while at the same time being very close to doing nothing.
LITANY OF WOE
In the past month we’ve already had films on bees (More Than Honey), the Internet and children (InRealLife), and climate change denial (Greedy Lying Bastards), not to mention WikiLeaks dramatization The Fifth Estate — for those who didn’t get enough from recent WikiLeaks documentary We Steal Secrets. Next week’s issue doc is Project Wild Thing, in which film-maker David Bond embarks on a crusade to market “nature” to the iPad-fixated, outdoors-phobic youth of Britain. The irony of making a film to encourage kids to get outside more instead of watching films is not lost on Bond, and there is a sense that many other films in this category, in effect, do the same thing with grownups: gluing us to our seats with a pressing issue, then chiding us for not getting out of those seats and doing something. Could it be that documentaries are the problem as much as the solution? Are any of these films actually affecting the issues they’re championing? And are any of us really watching them anyway?
It’s almost rude to ask — and that’s potentially part of the problem. Much has been made in recent years of a documentary golden age, with more films reaching more people than ever before. In 2012, documentaries accounted for just over 13 percent of all UK cinema releases, but just 0.5 percent of the box office. And the year’s highest-grossing documentary was Katy Perry: Part of Me. In fact, strip out the big-hitting music, nature and sports docs, and there’s a nagging feeling that a great deal of well-intentioned work is being seen by virtually nobody.
But issue docs tend to get a relatively easy ride from critics. It would take a heart of stone to downgrade, say, an expose of abuses in orphanages, because of poor camerawork or slack pacing. Combine that with the relatively low costs of producing documentaries, and you’ve got a potential avalanche of narrow-interest releases of questionable cinematic value. As critic Mike D’Angelo put it a few years ago: “Non-fiction films have been overrun in recent years by visually undistinguished, fundamentally expository pseudo-films that amount to little more than illustrated magazine articles.”
Unlike fiction features, the success or failure of a documentary cannot be gauged solely in terms of artistic or commercial considerations. D’Angelo was contrasting the current wave of issue docs with Errol Morris’s superlative The Thin Blue Line, a cinematically accomplished film that also had a tangible result: securing the freedom of a man who had been wrongly sentenced to death for shooting a cop. In recent years, to be fair, a number of high-profile docs (Mea Maxima Culpa, The House I Live In) have proved to exert a significant influence on their subjects. One figure that looms large in the activist movie landscape, for better and worse, is Michael Moore. Moore did everything he wasn’t supposed to, wading into big issues and corporate offices uninvited, unashamedly putting himself in the frame, and presenting his findings with unschooled populism and personal indignation. The approach reaped dividends — commercially as well as socio-politically. Fahrenheit 9/11 remains the highest-grossing documentary of all time by some margin, even if its anti-neocon polemic wasn’t enough to prise George W Bush out of the White House. Bowling For Columbine won Moore an Oscar but couldn’t dent US gun laws, even if its pertinence persists with every subsequent mass shooting. And despite disputes over its accuracy, Sicko, Moore’s 2007 analysis of the US’s lopsided healthcare system, could be credited with laying the groundwork for Barack Obama’s current struggle to reform the sector.