I’ll be moderating a panel about documentary film criticism on Friday at the Silverdocs Festival. Participants include David Edelstein, film critic for New York Magazine and NPR’s Fresh Air, Thom Powers, documentary programmer at the Toronto Film Festival, Lisa Schwarzbaum film critic for Entertainment Weekly and Amy Taubin, film critic and contributing editor for British Sight & Sound and American Film Comment. It’s an hour-long panel at 5:30 p.m., June 19 in the Discovery HD Theater.
The critical issues peculiar to documentary fascinate me. On Tuesday I wrote a quick review of the new film Convention which premieres tonight (Wednesday, June 17) at Silverdocs. Perhaps because I was thinking about issues related to this panel, I was particularly struck by the chance documentary makers take when choosing a subject. It’s a huge investment of time and resources to cover an event such as last year’s Democratic National Convention in Denver. And what if you don’t get particularly interesting material? Do you just walk away? Or make something of what you have?
Newspapers are very pragmatic about this sort of thing, though the stakes get higher the more they have invested in a story. If you spend a day following a profile subject and you come up with nothing, there’s pressure to pull the plug. Editors ask: What’s new here? One of the reasons we considered reviewing Convention was the hope that the filmmaker’s might have discovered some little tidbit of newsiness the general media missed. And it’s a hard sell, with this kind of documentary, to review it without that nugget of interest. You have to make the case that the film is worthwhile as film. In the daily crush of movie coverage, it’s not always easy to do that for documentaries.
Call it the romance of content, and it’s a romance that confuses audiences as much as critics. How to distinguish a documentary with an important and compelling subject from a well-made, path-breaking documentary (that may or may not have a sexy topic)? Should the rules be different for a documentary about someone suffering from cancer and a fictional film about the same subject? If you lament the clichés of the former, you may seem callous to the suffering of the cancer patient who has offered up his or her privacy to the filmmaker. I reviewed IOUSA—a documentary about our national fiscal irresponsibility—a while back and found the mechanics and methods of the film rather wanting. Many people read my review as proof that I’m not interested in the powerful concerns raised by our ballooning national debt. It’s a problem that has dogged the way we think about photography: A photograph of something beautiful isn’t necessarily a beautiful photograph.
I expect that we will spend some time discussing the parlous state of contemporary criticism and the future of it, too. Thom Powers wrote an insightful piece back in November asking the question: Where are the great documentary critics? Given the richness of the form, the flowering of creativity, the sheer number of new documentaries, how can we encourage more and better critical writing? The problem is made more pressing by the rapid decline in the traditional media—a decline which may, paradoxically, make the documentary world all the richer, and more essential, as fewer stories are covered in the old places. What are the possibilities for a new web-based criticism? I was about to say I’m skeptical, then I remembered I’m now writing a blog.
This, and much more. If you can’t make it Friday (and even if you can) feel free to post ideas and questions for the panel here. And I’ll do my best to include them in Friday’s discussion.