Quick Flix's Documentaries Reveal Inconvenient Truths

Documentary films deserve their place in cinematic culture

Quick Flix, the DVD rental place on Bow Street, is going out of business. Any grief I may have felt for this Harvard Square institution was assuaged by their clearance sale, where all DVDs were sold for five dollars. By the time I got to the store, most of the high-end Criterion Collection DVDs had been snatched, and the quality offerings of the drama, action and comedy sections had been picked over pretty thoroughly. Yet one wall (or, more accurately, one corner), had been left more or less untouched: the documentary section.

To be fair, this may have been related to the store’s long-standing policy of allowing anyone who rented a movie, fiction or nonfiction, to take out a documentary for free. When I asked the cashier about the policy last year, he explained that “people definitely have an interest in seeing documentaries, but not so much that they want to pay for it.” While this may well have resulted in the enlightenment of Cambridge’s unwashed masses on topics spanning from Spinal Tap to sharks, it also reinforced the perception of documentaries as cinematic Brussels sprouts—good for you, perhaps, but not interesting enough for a four-dollar rental, and certainly not worth five dollars to own. (I’ll admit that this was my thought process, and all fourteen of the movies I left with were fiction films.)

This is a shame, because the awards-season reflection on the past year’s film offerings reveals a crop of documentaries that are entertaining, informative, and of the highest quality, including “The Cove,” “The September Issue” and “The Art of the Steal,” the latter of which opened in limited release on Friday and addresses the dispute over the control of a massive collection of early twentieth-century art. A press release for “The Art of the Steal” claims that the film “plays like a thrilling whodunit,” evoking reviews of “The Cove,” which generally expressed an excessive amount of surprise that the film was actually compelling.

“The Cove,” works because it adopts the narrative conventions of a fiction film, and despite the presence of interviews and archival footage, its goal is fundamentally the same as that of any Hollywood thriller: to tell a suspenseful story. Although “The Cove” is technically an exposé, focusing on the inhumane capture and slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, it uses the methods of fiction storytelling to narrate the filmmakers’ investigation into these abuses. It’s when nonfiction films forget that they owe the audience a narrative that they encounter trouble, a fact that seems lost on many critics and is responsible for the fact that Quick Flix’s documentary shelf remains disproportionately full.

The best recent example of this is “Food, Inc.,” which was nominated along with “The Cove” for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Although the film somehow garnered a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, its condemnation of the food industry is muddled and insubstantial despite its superb art direction.

This is a chronic problem for advocacy-focused documentaries: the ones that are aesthetically meritorious tend to sacrifice their message, and the ones that adhere strictly to a detailed, informative argument, such as “An Inconvenient Truth,” are generally unwatchable. It is unfortunate the same amount of attention is allotted to advocacy documentaries as to films that demonstrate command of form and tell engaging stories. Although they offer treatments of potent topics, too often they end with a call to action that is poorly grounded at best and fraudulent at worst.

The advocacy documentary in its present form is fundamentally bad for the presentation of important information. One cannot navigate it as easily as one can navigate text, and this is critical if one is to have a deep understanding of an argument and be able to quickly access facts. If anyone has an understanding of contemporary advocacy documentaries, however manipulative they are, it’s Michael Moore—the facts he uses in his films aren’t meant to be verified or to support an argument, but rather to endow his movies with an air of verisimilitude—’truthiness’, if you will. This aura of truth is just one thread in the tapestry of feelings his films weave in order to provoke a certain emotional reaction. This is how art operates, but it is an unwieldy method to make a nuanced intellectual argument or initiate social change.

Although I hate to say it, bad movies have a right to exist. And even if some political documentaries have made spurious claims, the bad ones have yet to make much impact (with the exception of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which was counterproductive and galvanized opposition). The problem is that these documentaries are assigned undue importance because they tap into the collective discomfort with distant social menaces, be they eco-unfriendly food production, global warming or (most perplexingly) the corporation. Even worse than the often-slanted presentation of information is the fact that these sensational pictures often eclipse better films that are more substantial and even—perhaps—as enjoyable as fiction.

—Columnist Abigail B. Lind can be reached at alind@fas.harvard.edu.

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