The question on everyone’s mind is, Will it last? Documentaries are the hot cultural phenomenon at the moment, and in a society where change is tantamount to breathing, one cannot help wondering if the next “it” thing will simply overtake their sudden and ubiquitous popularity. This is a discouraging thought, as documentaries have a value that goes way beyond superficial stimuli. They have been part of thoughtful peoples’ experience since the Lumière brothers’ The Arrival of a Train (1895).
It was a different picture in 1998, the year that the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, (then called DoubleTake), was launched. It was always our belief that documentaries were meant for the big screen as well as television, and though a few had enjoyed that success over the years, they were certainly not playing to audiences on the scale they are today. So we took a chance, screening in competition a mere twenty-eight films, including such standouts as The Farm, The Brandon Teena Story and Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s (1997). Any one of these could have gone on to theatrical success had the climate been what it is today.
I was often asked during the early years of DoubleTake, if I felt documentaries were changing and growing in the esteem of the general audience. I’d like to think I was prescient and had predicted the excitement around docs that they’re currently enjoying. Though I didn’t go that far, I did observe that documentary filmmakers were growing in their craft and seemed intent on telling good stories, not just delivering information. It is that ability that separates the best from the rest and attracts general audiences. Indeed, good storytelling is the hallmark of any successful film, regardless of the genre.
We had a small but captive audience of documentary lovers in the first year, but we knew we could not rely on only that if we were to be a successful festival. We needed to convert the unconverted, and we chose to do so by creating interesting thematic programs to attract newcomers to subject matter that moved them. We knew once we got them to the theaters and they experienced documentaries on the big screen, they would be ours forever. We set the bar high with our inaugural program called Tolerance, curated by Laurence Kardish from The Museum of Modern Art and introduced by Melvin Van Peebles. It was a propitious beginning. In subsequent years, we followed with The Great Films of the Twentieth Century, curated by Mary Lea Bandy (MoMA); Outside Looking In: Coming of Age Stories, by Alan Berliner; 2001: Fast Forward by Kent Jones; and Score: Music and Documentary by D.A. Pennebaker. I look back on these thematic programs with pride. We had created something brand new at a festival—a means of focusing on urgent and exciting issues utilizing classic and contemporary films. Films became a catalyst for discussion of ideas; it was not all about prizes and celebrities. These programs were totally new bodies of work created through the intelligence of our curators and they continue to live and breathe today.
And while we successfully drew more to the genre through these idea-driven series, we saw the films in competition grow in prestige and numbers. For better or worse, the prizes and celebrities grew along with them. The first year of the festival, we received 100 submissions. The next year 300, and they continued to shoot up. Now we hope they will not exceed the approximately 800 we screen each year. Not only do the entries grow, but the festival devotes more and more space to these exciting new films. Yes, they have gotten better, not because inexpensive new equipment makes the technique readily available, but because standards and tastes have changed and the competition is fiercer. I credit the higher standards set by HBO and PBS for the stronger storytelling that drives these films.
No one doubts that the current ascendancy of documentary is real, and more interestingly, real to the general consumer. Intellectuals, students, and film buffs have loved them all along, but it is the relative mainstream that has now embraced them with fervor rivaled only by the over-arching indie film onset—launched in part by Sex Lies and Videotape (1989), and before that, the French New Wave. And though many attribute nonfiction film’s newfound acceptance to reality TV, I disagree.
Reality TV may have made documentaries acceptable to a marginal few, but the reality TV template is as far from real documentary as video games are to old master drawings. At the risk of sounding snobbish, most folks who find Fear Factor and A Simple Life exciting might be bored to death by Errol Morris and Frederick Wiseman. One is intentionally false, and the other is striving to be real. And there is a provocative in-between. The personal polemical documentary driven by an oversized personality is the interesting question. Individuals like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock set their stories in motion, much like Donald Trump begins the search for an apprentice. But their intentions are closer to the pure documentary. They are interested in exposing injustice and affecting change. The fact that they achieve this partly due to their magnetic personalities is not to diminish the goal, though the achievement is often put to the test.
That is the best thing about this transformation. People are finally beginning to realize that documentaries are not about showing the truth, but finding it. They are a search—a process—and the best documentaries ask the best questions without necessarily delivering the answers. Because the right questions have been asked about Fahrenheit 9/11, fans and non-fans alike have come to understand that Michael Moore doesn’t have to be right, he has to make us think—about the truth and about what we accept as truth from not only the filmmaker, but the government and just about every other leader and pundit who choose to mouth off. It is not his responsibility to be correct, but it is our responsibility as members of society to question everything he says.
It is not about acceptance of a film, this one or any other, but about critical thinking. And if we translate that to our perception of this administration and whatever administration follows, then Moore has achieved considerably more than getting us to accept the premise of one film. He has educated a society to think for itself, and that is the strongest system of checks and balances a democracy can have.