DEFINING A GENRE
So what, exactly, defines a documentary film these days? While many different types of films come across my desk this awards season, I can't help but wonder what we should really be focusing on for a singular award dubbed 'Best Documentary Feature'.
There are films about music groups, sports celebrities, historical events, and current/polical affairs. But what constitutes a truly good documentary? Story? Subject matter? The 'Gee, whiz!' factor? Or the importance of the film on society as a whole?
I would argue a little bit of all of these, but with a bit more weight given to the latter.
In her book Documentary Storytelling, Sheila Curran Bernard states:
Documentaries bring viewers into new worlds and experiences through the presentation of factual information about real people, places, and events, generally portrayed through the use of actual images and artifacts. But factuality alone does not define documentary films; it's what the filmmaker does with those factual elements, weaving them into an overall narrative that strives to be as compelling as it is truthful and, at its best, results in a film that is greater than the sum of its parts
This is a great starting point, but still leaves me in a quandry as 'puff' subjects like sport and celebrity obviously allow plenty of opportunity for documentary films. Should films on Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson carry the same weight as HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A., CRUDE, and BURMA VJ? It hardly seems fair.
In the United States, sport and celebrity get more play than human rights issues, but does that mean serious documentary film critics should allow them equal play? If documentary filmmakers are to be considered journalists, their films need to reflect the same seriousness as the occupation. I'm not knocking sports writers and celebrity gossip columnists here, they have a place in the overall popular culture. I just don't think they should be held up for comparison to hard-hitting or enlightening films that can change the world.
After all, there IS a distinction between the World Series and a serious world.