Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t. – Mark Twain
I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries lately. And I’ve been watching them multiple times. Yesterday was the third time I watched Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. I’ve watched Crumb about ten times now. Ditto Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. I’ve watched the One Man Band documentary on Criterion’s F for Fake disc than the main feature. The Kirby Dick documentary Sick is one of the most moving films I’ve seen lately, and one of the most disturbing.
I can’t think of another genre that is as consistently good. But why? And should these items be counted as films in the traditional sense?
I can answer the second question first, even though both are rather complex. There are those who claim that non fiction works cannot be considered art and cannot follow a narrative. If they can, then films like Argo and JFK should also be considered documentaries, as they are based on real events. Documentaries, of course, are not about the events themselves in the way that films are. They are about the human efforts to understand situations that are not always so easily understood.
I’ll use the aforementioned Enron film as an example. Everyone my age remembers hearing about it, but I’ve been hard pressed to find many who can explain what Enron did and how it ended up destroying the company. The documentary does not show the actual events. What’s most interesting are the former employees who lament the part they played in the downfall of the company and wonder what they could have done to prevent it.
It’s more dramatic that way because there is a reflection that would be found in traditional narrative films. If the characters ever do pause to reflect on their actions, it is usually kept for the great reveal in the third act. When a drama does it, it is considered the sign of a great film. Now, there have been many filmmakers who are able to use this formula to their advantage. But it’s still a barrier that must be faced.
Documentaries do not have that problem. And it is the reflection that is more natural and revealing than the journey. Arguably any story is more about the protagonist reflecting. That’s why so many of them are written in the past tense.
It helps form the emotional bond between its audience and its subjects. It is impossible to watch Sick without sympathizing for performance artist Bob Flanagan, whose disgusting performances (I’m sorry, there’s no other way to describe them) were his only way to cope with the enormous pain cystic fibrosis caused him. Dramas about diseases are a dime a dozen, and despite the accolades that are thrown at such films, most of them feel cheap and false. Sick is about an actual person going through an actual disease.
So, if there are so many real stories that are more effective than fiction, why have narrative films at all? To go back to my second question, should documentaries be compared to fictional narratives?
That is a much more difficult question. If I was being fair, then the answer would be no. Narratives must include actors, while documentaries must include the real thing. Additionally, fictional films can show scenes that documentaries cannot show. They also are allowed to have higher budgets to recreate moments and captures things documentaries cannot hope to capture. Additionally, while historical fiction can include great scenes that have no basis in reality (my favorite moment in Ed Wood is a scene that could not possibly have happened), while documentaries must tell the truth. In our world, John Ford’s words ring true: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That legend is what the people want, and it’s historical fiction that can provide that. Ultimately, they are too different to be compared adequately because documentaries are too constrained.
But at the same time, the best documentaries focus on better characters and are able to capture more about humanity than fiction can. Crumb is probably my favorite documentary and contains scenes that would never be allowed in a biopic about Robert Crumb. Indeed, his brothers are so bizarre that they would probably be written out as too unrealistic. But real they were, with their bed of nails and Boo Radley style reclusiveness. They also work in an artistic sense. Each one of them could easily have been the man that Robert Crumb turned out to be. It gives his art a desperation, and the knowledge that it is all real helps exemplify that. To me, it is as good a work of art as films like Amadeus and other such works about the burden of art.
I wish more people watched documentaries. Those that do tend to be far more open to the world around them. Besides, without that obsession with the truth and life, cinema would not exist. None of these are reasons to go out and watch a Morgan Spurlock film, but maybe you should consider it.