Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Great Year for Docs?

There seems to be a lot of chatter about how good a year it was for docs, I'm still in the process of tracking down - and trying to understand - such claims, but here are a handful:
  • The recent NYT piece "A Strong Crop of Documentaries, But Rarely Seen"
  • HotDocs programmer Sean Farnel's blog post about this year having a "depth of excellence among this year's new crop of nonfiction films" and another post claiming "a depth of creativity in a benchmark year"
  • AJ Schnack's interview exchange with Alex Gibney where Schnack raises the issue - "a lot of people talk about this being a golden age of work" - almost in a way to distance himself from such a claim, though Gibney takes it up with: "we have been in a golden age for awhile"
  • Christopher Campbell at Cinematical asks the question (at the end of August) "Is 2010 the Best Year for Documentaries Ever? (and admits to having the feeling that it is) and then firms up at year's end with "[c]ould anyone have guessed this time last year that 2010 would be the best year for documentary ever?"
  • Benjamin R. Freed at Washingtoncitypaper.com claims "2010 was a remarkably strong year for documentaries."
  • Jay Cheel over at The Documentary Blog's year-end summation writes "[w]hile some argued this was a weak year for films, I found it pretty tough to narrow down my lists" - seeming to suggest a good year, right?
  • Charlotte Cook, also at The Documentary Blog, writes "2010 has been an incredible year for documentaires and I feel as though I've seen some of the documentaries I'll consider my favourites for many years to come."
 Two points.  First, as I suspect is obvious, I'm not so sure it was such a great year for documentaries. Granted, I'm not a voracious consumer as some of these folks are - notably, of course, Farnel - I saw around 30 of "this year's" docs, attending only TF10.  Second, and of more interest, is that none of the claims above are backed with any explanation of why they think it was such a good year - that is to say there is the lazy assumption that there were a lot of great docs.

Michael Cieply's Times piece mysteriously lingers on box office returns, even though he quickly reveals that docs did not have a good year at the box office.  Freed pauses to describe why it is he likes several of the films, which is a start, but doesn't quite get to defending the claim.  Farnel's entries merely drop the claims and move forward.  It seems somewhat awkward to me the way Farnel quasi-dismisses the confluence of opinion of several titles as reportedly 'good' - as if he is positing a groupthink, or limited appraisal, is at work in crowning a limited number of titles.

As a fairly serious fan of documentaries, I'd posit that the robust documentary festival culture has something to do with the impression that things are so good in the documentary world.  Even if there are only a couple of dozen docs that get fair distribution in big cities (WAITING FOR SUPERMAN as a year's best, really?), there is the buzz that there are many other title one ought to catch.  On the less positive side of the growth of a "doc community", I sometimes wonder how much of this appreciation is due to a desire to expand the marketplace via hype/excessive positivity and/or a desire to praise the work of one's peers/friends in a somewhat excessive manner.

My skepticism about this being a banner year for documentary is tied to my less-than enthusiastic reception of several titles that are heralded as stand-outs, namely: LAST TRAIN HOME, THE OATH, RESTREPO, and  EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP.  Let me also be clear, I do think each of these titles are generally quite good, just not remarkable, or great.  My issue with these titles is that they, less-so EXIT, but still to a degree, are terribly conventional (and my issue with EXIT is that it feels terribly gimmicky, never a plus in my book).  If given a one sentence description of any of these films, it is likely that anyone would have a pretty good idea of the films' narrative arcs and general style.  They are well-told stories, told plainly.  RESTREPO should tell us something about what it means that embeded media is now an expected piece of any war effort; it should go beyond the cliché of soldiers losing innocence, and comrades.  Certainly the fact that Restrepo was fought for then abandoned is interesting, but I'm not sure it justifies the whole, or a claim to greatness of the whole.

I'm not sure I envy the festival programmer that must consume hundreds upon hundreds of titles every year/season, but I am curious what kind of window that gives to the form.  What is it like to experience so many mediocre films (how does that effect what one considers great)?

In a year that I probably paid more attention to documentary than I had in the past, I was quite happy with a handful of titles: DISORDER, 45365, UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS, IT FELT LIKE A KISS, and even, more conventionally WASTE LAND and WILLIAM KUNSTLER, but only SWEETGRASS stands out as exemplary.  Some of them were quite flawed, but I'd nominate them as good representatives to exemplify the year's strength, at least at this point, without having revisited any of them.  Perhaps, like Charlotte Cook, I'd find more of these films standing out more than others from any given year, I just have my doubts.

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