MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Docs: Poetry Vs Prose

Published under Oscar Outsiders.

I am a serious doc geek — the kind who would bore you stupid on a date dissecting some fascinating doc about Bulgarian toe fetishists. And sadly, I’ve just not been blown out of the water much by the docs this year. Maybe it’s the tightening of the economy overall making it harder for filmmakers to get compelling documentaries made. Maybe we’re just in a cycle of docs not being the preferred flavor of the month again. But there have just been very few docs I can think of this year that wrenched me like War/Dance and Deliver Us From Evil, shocked me like Jesus Camp, visually stunned me like Manda Bala, filled my heart like For the Bible Tells Me So, inspired me like Darius Goes West or even surprised me like An Inconvenient Truth.

Many of the docs I saw this year, while they had interesting subject matter, were not what I would consider “theatrical” films. They were films that would have played just as well, or even better, on a television screen. There were just a handful of really good docs this year, and most of them are on the recently released Best Documentary Oscar shortlist. Here’s the full list:

At the Death House Door
The Betrayal
Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh
Encounters at the End of the World
The Garden
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts
In a Dream
Made in America
Man on Wire
Pray the Devil Back to Hell
Standard Operating Procedure
They Killed Sister Dorothy
Trouble the Water

Nothing terribly surprising about the short list overall, other than the omissions of The Order of MythsRoman Polanksi: Wanted and Desired and American Teen. Several films that ought to have been in the running, but were disqualified by the various Oscar rules pertaining to docs, are also not on the list, most notably Waltz with BashirDear Zachary, Young@Heart, and Up the Yangtze.

Looking over this list of films, one of the things that I wonder about is what makes an Oscar-caliber documentary and whether I would consider all these films to meet that level of artistic achievement. Among other things, I believe quite strongly that Oscar docs generally should feel theatrical, not feel made-for-TV. I want to clarify that by adding that there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with making a doc that’s shot for television. But for me, what distinguishes a theatrical documentary from a television documentary are these factors:

1) Is there something visually about that film that makes it better seen watching it in a theater setting than a television?
Great theatrical documentaries, like great theatrical films generally, are interesting to look at visually. They show a sense of artistry in the choices made around lighting, color tone, angles of shots, focus. The film has shots in it that beg to be seen only on a huge screen, in the dark. The opening shot of Manufactured Landscapes. The lush colors and stunning visuals of Manda Bala. The painterly landscape of Uganda as shot in War/Dance, combined with dramatic personal stories and real characters you could care about. The priest’s face as he talks about liking to see little children in their panties in Deliver Us From Evil. The scene in Darius Goes West where wheelchair-bound Darius is supported by the collective effort and love of a group of college-aged best friends in his first-ever time going into that strikingly blue ocean.

2) Is there dramatic tension?
Even in a documentary, whether you’re working from the base assumption that the outcome of the storyline is already known or you’re presenting information that most people have never heard of, the structure of the way in which the story is presented should draw the viewer in, excite them, make them want to know what happens next. There needs to be a key question around which the story flows. Will the priest show any level of remorse for abusing his victims, and will the victims get any sort of resolution (Deliver Us From Evil)? Will the children in the war camp in North Uganda overcome the odds against them to win the competition and bring honor to their tribe (War/Dance)? Do the events take a sudden turn that shocks and outrages us (Dear Zachary)? Will these people caught in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina find a way to rebuild a better life from the destruction (Trouble the Water)? Alternatively, it can start down one path and veer down another, better one: In Darius Goes West, they started out simply filming a road trip of a group of guys taking their wheelchair-bound friend to try to get him featured on MTVs “Pimp My Ride,” but it ended up being a deeply touching tale of these 20-something guys taking their friend, who will almost certainly die young of his disease, on the journey of his life, and the joy of Darius at seeing and exploring the larger world for, perhaps, the only time in his young life.

3) Does it flow narratively — or if it doesn’t follow a clear narrative flow, is there an actual artistic reason for that, as opposed to just poor direction and editing?
In other words, does it feel like an actual film, or like an episode of 20/20? Which leads us to …

4) If it’s a biopic of a famous person, or an ordinary person or people in extraordinary circumstances, what is compelling in the way in which the information is presented?
Docs that piece together otherwise interesting stories as little more than a collection of news reel footage and talking head interviews tend to be focused more on the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How than on telling a real story in a compelling and dramatic way, and docs that fall into that category tend to play better in the intimacy of television rather than the bigger stage of a theater.

Looking over the films on the Oscar shortlist, there are four that I’ve seen of this list that meet all my criteria for a great theatrical documentary:

The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Director Ellen Kuras is a renowned cinematographer, and it shows in this stunningly shot, heart-breaking film about a family torn apart by violence in Laos who relocate to the United States, only to struggle to survive in the urban jungle of New York City’s slums. The most visually lovely film in the bunch, with a great story; this film was over 20 years in the making, and the time Kuras took with pulling the final cut together from 20 years worth of material shows in the final product. The Betrayal has dramatic tension throughout, (what will happen to this family), it has the narrative flow of a story, not just a bunch of information culled together, it’s a tale of ordinary people thrust into circumstances beyond their control, and how they survive it, and the gorgeousness of its cinematography begs you to see it on a big screen.

Encounters at the End of the World
Werner Herzog revisits his favorite theme, man’s relationship with nature, in this visually striking, ironically narrated, and very artsy look at the real people (and a lonely penguin) Herzog meets in exploring Antarctica. Herzog explores the environment himself, allowing his own frustration with certain aspects of the life he finds in this cold, desolate place to show through. He gets sidetracked by seemingly minor (though uniquely fascinating) characters, diverts into poetic meanderings, and explores his subject in rambling, exploratory, and often completely unexpected ways, but as a filmmaker, he takes chances, he’s not afraid to make the film he wants to make and follow the paths his interests veer down, and there are some amazing things visually in this film. Encounters is far more poetry than journalism, or even prose, but it still has an overall structure that makes it far more than a PBS documentary on the Antarctic, and it stands out this year for its utter uniqueness. Nobody’s quite like Herzog, or ever will be, and when he’s on, he’s on.

Trouble the Water
Trouble the Water is an inherently political film (the massive screw-up that was both the preparation for the landfall of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath), told through the intensely personal story of a woman who lived through it, capturing the events that unfolded on a camcorder she’d happened to buy a couple days before the storm. This film is interesting in that some of the most dramatic footage was captured by an absolute amateur, aspiring rapper Kimberly Rivers Roberts, who wielded her camera throughout the storm, narrating a dramatic tale as she shot. Anyone can aim a videocamera and hit a record button, but what makes Roberts’ footage so compelling it not the way in which its shot (expectedly amateuristic) but the way in which she chooses the subjects to focus on and, in particular, the way she lends her unique voice and personality as she talks — sometimes to others, sometimes just to herself — while shooting it. Credit also has to be given to directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, who took Roberts’ raw footage, saw a story there, made Roberts the focal point of it, and edited it all together with a flow and structure that truly makes the whole so much more than the sum of its parts.

Man on Wire
A great example of a documentary film about one person doing an extraordinary thing — in this case, French daredevil Phillipe Petit walking a tightrope strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center — told in a remarkably theatrical, dramatic way. This one also has the highest box office of all the films on the Oscar shortlist, which may bode well for its chances. More importantly, Man on Wire is a fantastic example of a film in which the outcome is already known: Petit is interviewed early on in the film, so we know, even if we haven’t researched anything about the story in advance, that he survived his daredevil stunt performed at 1,350 feet up in the air, which makes the tension conveyed by director James Marsh that much more remarkable. Man on Wire is thrilling, moving and inspiring, and the footage captured by Petit’s friends of the way in which they pulled the whole stunt off, and especially his actual trek across the wire, is breathtaking, and much more so when seen on a big screen.

All of these films are not only good documentaries, but great filmmaking. I’ve not yet seen every doc on the shortlist yet, so there may be additions to this list as I catch up with some I’ve missed, but for now, these are the strongest entries of the lot among those I have seen (and personally, I would have put The Order of Myths, the Polanksi doc and American Teen all on the shortlist, as each of those films is artistic in ways that some of the short-listed films just are not). Great documentaries strive to be more than just prose, more than just journalism, they achieve a level of artistry that sets them apart, and all these films achieve that lofty goal.

by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon