Documentary films are becoming more popular, but how do you know what's true and what's cinema?
Posted July 13
In one of the most intense moments of director Joshua Oppenheimer’s acclaimed film, “The Look of Silence,” viewers are treated to an unflinching, discomfiting shot that gives the film its title: A former militiaman and mass murderer, now elderly, stares into the camera, his eyes eerily magnified by optometrist’s testing lenses as he searches, with the audience, for an answer to his horrendous crimes, the silence as penetrating as his gaze.
Oppenheimer’s film (currently streaming on Netflix and airing on PBS June 27) examines the fallout from a world that wasn’t paying attention in the mid-1960s when thousands of people were killed in the Indonesian genocide — many of the perpetrators and unapologetic murderers remain significant community members and political leaders in Indonesia today.
“What I want people to understand is that this is not just about Indonesia’s past or its history, it’s about the now,” Oppenheimer said from Copenhagen via Skype. “It’s not about 1965, it’s about the terrible consequences of impunity in the present.”
While tragic, the events of “Silence” aren’t something Americans are likely to read about in the news.
That, Oppenheimer said, may be one of the reasons why films like his are becoming a larger part of the American movie business: At a time when the news industry is struggling financially and the focus is often on shorter articles, nonfiction and documentary films offer audiences the depth and detail they crave.
“Because investigative journalism has been cut in American media, nonfiction filmmakers easily take on the duty of going out and pursuing deep investigations,” Oppenheimer said. “When (filmmakers) feel we have to pick up the ball dropped by the news media, that means we will not prioritize being artists anymore. It may be a necessary sacrifice if the media is going to continue not to investigate things like Indonesia.”
Documentary films have risen significantly in popularity since the turn of the century, increasing from less than 5 percent of all movie releases to 18 percent as of 2012, according to the media analysis nonprofit group the Harmony Institute. The Economist reports that documentaries now make up 16 percent of the Cannes Film Festival slate, compared to about 8 percent in 2008.
Experts say that it’s no coincidence that documentary films are enjoying boosted popularity at a time when trust in the media is at an all-time low. Gallup reports that just 40 percent of Americans trust media outlets to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” Amid dwindling trust in the press, documentaries with strong, emotional points of view can feel more authentic by comparison.
“News, and I’m talking about TV news mostly, doesn’t attempt to give people context anymore. It’s mostly now a reporter being front and center rather than telling the stories of others, so people feel they can’t trust it,” Columbia University journalism and documentary film professor June Cross said. “We’re no longer seen as an institution that’s fair and balanced. Documentaries don’t pretend to be fair and balanced.”
That lack of balance and fairness is precisely the worry for some journalists and media analysts. If Americans substitute documentary film for hard news reports and daily journalism, it could have major implications for journalism and for how Americans view the world around them.
“(Documentaries) can offer in-depth, detailed looks at what the news media will only superficially cover, but they’re more and more opinion based and less fact based,” said Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. “They take you to places that you will never see in the so-called ‘mainstream media.’ But they can also be manipulated.”
While “Silence” and its companion film, “The Act of Killing,” are both generally categorized as documentary films (“Silence” was nominated for an Academy Award in that category earlier this year), Oppenheimer dismisses that label, preferring the term “nonfiction film" because he recognizes the cinematic elements of his films that have helped popularize the genre like re-enactments. He most often refers to his work as art rather than journalism.
“To me the difference is that journalism offers us a window into new information and ideally tries to put it into context so it can be useful somehow. But when art (like a documentary) shocks us, it’s never because we’re hearing something new. It shocks us with that quaking moment of recognition,” Oppenheimer said. “If journalism is like a window, art is like a mirror to confront our deepest mysteries.”
Viewers are also reticent to call Oppenheimer's work pure documentary, given how Oppenheimer utilizes certain cinematic techniques. For example, the main subject of "Silence" — an optometrist, Adi Rukun, who was born after his older brother was murdered — openly confronts his brother's likely (but unconfirmed) killers in front of the camera as a sort of impromptu and very damning confessional. Similarly, both Oppenheimer's films make use of re-enactments of events in question, which some documentary purists consider questionable because they're easily changed or fabricated.
The subjective line between fact-finding and cinema is a conundrum critics recognize about Oppenheimer’s work even as they praise it.
“What he’s done … isn’t quite documentary filmmaking, but it certainly … isn’t fiction either,” Slate Magazine film critic Dana Stevens wrote of Oppenheimer’s work. “For all their aesthetic beauty, both ‘The Act of Killing’ and ‘The Look of Silence’ occupy an unsure place on the continuum of cultural forms. Are they works of art? Taped confessions? Symbolic tribunals?”
That more cinematic approach to documentary filmmaking is new, said Stacey Woelfel, the director of the University of Missouri's Center for Documentary Journalism, but it's present in many modern documentaries like "The Jinx," "Blackfish" and others.
“Up until 1960, with (director Robert Drew’s) ‘Primary’ and the work of some others, documentaries were just lectures on film. Those are pretty boring,” Woelfel said.
"Primary" was one of the first documentaries to espouse "cinema verite" documentary style, which allows filmmakers creative flexibility in telling a story, such as the use of voiceover, perhaps telling a story out of chronological order or allowing the filmmaker to become a part of the movie by telling the story through their eyes.
Changes in camera technology also allowed filmmakers to capture more intimate and up-close moments cinema verite is known for, Woelfel said — lighter, more portable cameras allowed the filmmakers behind "Primary" to follow John F. Kennedy and his family into cramped cars and hotel rooms, through crowds and into waiting rooms as poll results came in; places that older, more cumbersome equipment struggled to go.
The differing styles of documentary and injection of cinematic elements that arguably make them more interesting has made it harder to define documentary and its goals — even among professionals, no two definitions of a documentary are quite the same.
“A documentary is something that intends to be truthful,” Breyer said. “The difference is, if I’m making a fictional film, Superman can fly. If it’s nonfiction, I need strong evidence to prove he can.”
“What I think makes a documentary is attempting to tell a story in a way that helps, but it doesn’t always adhere to the rules of journalism,” Cross said.
“At our school, we define it as the luxury of time to research and present subject matter in an in-depth fashion with the rigors of journalism involved,” Woelfel said. “It’s not meant to be consumed the day it’s produced.”
Woelfel said changes in journalism in the last 20 years have paved the way for audiences to crave the detail of documentaries.
“We consume news in very small bites now like on Twitter, but we naturally tend to want to be able to sink our teeth into something, whether 8,000-word magazine piece or big documentary,” Woelfel said.
When the facts of a film are up to a single filmmaker, the truth, too, can become subject to style choices. That could be good or bad, depending on the story being told, Cross said.
“What we’re seeing now is a democratization of storytelling in a way that gives John Q. Public more agency in news gathering,” Cross said. “How can you tell what’s true? Maybe you can’t. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.”
The new ‘truth’
Cross and Breyer contend that as journalism appeals to niche audiences, truth itself has become a more slippery and relative concept than it once was — making the nuanced, emotional approach of documentaries more appealing.
“The journalistic approach is the news comes first and story second. A documentary goes the other way,” Breyer said. “The problem is, it’s not hard to convince people something is truthful. I can convince you that a lot of films are truthful.”
While news outlets appeal to different and distinct audiences based on interest and political persuasion, Cross says documentary films are thriving precisely because they don’t try to settle on what’s “true.”
“There’s this idea that somehow, I have to be a trained reporter to dispense the news,” Cross said. “That paradigm isn’t going to stand any longer.”
“That’s irrefutable evidence of the injustice that’s going on and it wasn’t the mainstream media that provided it, although it used it,” Breyer said. “That kind of authenticity shook the tree of trust.”
But the emotion-first approach can be problematic, Dixon said, when the line between documentary film and what he calls “advocacy” films is blurred — based on what a filmmaker chooses to include or emphasize.
That critique has popped up a lot recently — Netflix’s miniseries “Making and Murderer” was criticized for omitting some facts of the case it examined, HBO’s “The Jinx” was similarly judged for not going to police immediately when they found they had a taped confession of the killer, and the true crime podcast “Serial” has been scrutinized for being too one-sided.
“‘Making a Murderer’ is exploitation entertainment,” Dixon said. “The minute you start to pick and choose facts, you’re making fiction. You have to condense, but you can’t manipulate.”
Dixon used the popular documentary “Blackfish,” about the quality of life of SeaWorld orcas, as another example. SeaWorld declined to cooperate with filmmakers and called the film “propaganda."
To a certain extent, SeaWorld is right, Dixon said, though he liked the film. “Blackfish” is what Dixon considers an “advocacy film," even though the film spurred change that journalism may not, because of ethical considerations, have been able to achieve. By not including a perspective sympathetic or understanding of SeaWorld's position — even perhaps their attorneys, who could explain their side of legal cases included in the movie — the film stops trying to tell the entire story.
“That’s an advocacy piece where people come on camera and say, ‘This is terrible’ and the other side doesn’t want to comment because it will demolish them,” Dixon said. “I don’t think you can call that a documentary because a documentary presents the whole picture.”
The trouble is, most viewers don’t know the difference.
“When we’re children, we have teachers and parents who tell us that if we eat nothing but candy, we’ll die," Woelfel said. "But we don’t know what a balanced media diet looks like.”
Experts say there are some easy ways to become more media literate to help audiences siphon fact and fiction in documentaries and journalism. Breyer urges people to inject diversity into what they watch and read.
“Watch documentaries that don’t align with your opinion,” Breyer said. “You have to open your eyes and trust yourself. So many people only pay attention to material they agree with.”
Dixon suggests viewers beware certain hallmarks designed to sway them.
“Is somebody on the soundtrack telling you what to think? Is the filmmaker the center of this film? Are there music cues? Then I’d be suspicious,” Dixon said, adding that dramatic re-enactments, too, can be manipulative.
Above all, Breyer said, accept that it's OK to walk away without a solution to the problems a film presents. The whole truth is always more complex than what’s on newsprint or celluloid.
“A great documentary doesn’t give you an answer,” Breyer said. “Great journalism shouldn’t, either.”