Here are four documentary trends seeping further into the mainstream
The True/False film festival took place last weekend, and although to many that might conjure up little more than thoughts of a high school multiple-choice test, for those who follow nonfiction films, it means something larger.
True/False is one of the most elite nonfiction showcases in the world; the movies that make it there — only 37 in total — suggest what’s good, what’s popular and what the best documentary minds are thinking about.
Here, then, are four trendlets that are helping to shape the nonfiction zeitgeist and could make their presence increasingly felt in the months and years ahead.
The American margins. Finding America via the people who exist on its edges isn’t new. It goes back 15 years to Stacy Peralta’s seminal “Dogtown and Z-Boys” and a long way before that. But in the age of social-media sameness and, coincidentally or not, an election-season debate over American identity, there’s a revival of such films.
Among those at True/False were “The Other Side,” in which Roberto Minervini finds a nearly off-the-grid couple on a Louisiana bayou who lead a primitive, disenfranchised and often drug-addled existence; “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes,” Brett Story’s examination of the ways in which prison life refracts through America (think, a prison-care package store in the Bronx or an eastern Kentucky town praying for the return of a prison and its attendant jobs); “Concerned Student 1950,” a featurette from the Field of Vision series about Black Lives Matter protests on the Mizzou campus; and “Peter and the Farm,” Tony Stone’s look at a philosophical Vermont farmer both proud and questioning.
As depressing as some of the movies can be, there’s something almost mythic about America being viewed this way. The subject of Stone’s film, for instance, is solitary, living on a hill, surrounded mainly by animals, reflecting (not always happily) on a life in which he dedicated himself to developing his land. “Sometimes something happens [making] a movie where you’re interested in it and you hope others are too,” Stone said at a True/False screening. Judging by these singular portraits — landing in a glossy age of celebrity and reality-television uniformity — we couldn’t be more interested.
Long form. It was inevitable, really, that in this golden age of TV we’d see docu-series of five, six or seven hours in duration. Binge-watching is too powerful, and documentary filmmakers too prolific, for the traditional feature not to balloon.
What’s impressive, though, is just how wide the range of long-form documentaries has become. A genre that began as a mainly true-crime phenomenon — “The Staircase” a decade ago, then “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer” more recently — is now stretching to other realms. True/False screened Abbas Fahdel’s “Homeland (Iraq Year Zero),” a six-hour look at life in Baghdad before and after the American invasion. It nearly showed “O.J.: Made in America,” Ezra Edelman’s 7 1/2-hour look at the Simpson trial; though there’s a crime element to that one, the film is far more about race and racial iconography. (ESPN airs it this June.)
The police-investigation story lends itself to episodic twists and turns. But as True/False demonstrated, long form doesn’t have to be limited to that.
A new verite. Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles brothers and D.A. Pennebaker all practiced a form of observational documentary decades ago. In the years since, the form changed, mutated and veered into the unrecognizable. Straight observations became a dying breed.
But a new generation, tired of all the doodads, or simply motivated by what’s-old-is-new-again energy, are returning to it. It’s the radical-immersion piece — put the camera as close to a subject as you can and watch what happens. (Shrinking camera technology helps too; it’s a lot easier to peep in on someone when the peeping machine isn’t gargantuan.)
At True/False, there were Alex Lora and Antonio Tibaldi, whose “Thy Father’s Chair” offers a kind of judgment-free intimacy with a pair of hoarder brothers.
There was Jessica Dimmock and Christopher LaMarca’s “The Pearl,” which did the same for a quartet of trans women in the Pacific Northwest.
And Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s “Weiner,” at True/False after its Sundance run, did the same with the New York politician Anthony. When the spell is broken in the film thanks to some filmmaker questions, Weiner turns and wonders if “there’s a species of fly on the wall that talks.” Whether it occasionally pipes up or not, the insect isn’t moving.
Documentaries that aren’t documentaries. “Kate Plays Christine” was a featured film at True/False, also fresh off a Sundance debut. Robert Greene’s movie has been categorized as a documentary, but that’s too easy a designation. The film, in which the indie actress Kate Lyn Sheil prepares to play a real-life anchorwoman, has even its main character acting; in the documentary moments, she told The Times last month, she is speaking the answers “that Robert wants to hear.”
“The Other Side” also does that, since Minervini is using editing and performance techniques straight out of features, and there are moments when the viewer forgets they’re seeing a documentary. When the realization hits, it makes the experience all the more powerful — what seems like a polished dramatic work is really happening — even as it provokes questions about whether such polishes make it less true.
A decade or more ago the question about documentary was centered on Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and other new formalists who used animation and technical wizardry, not to mention potentially jerry-built moments, to convey their truth.
These new anti-documentaries are in a sense more fundamental shifts, since they’re crafted as feature films, sometimes with scripts to match. But their issues are also more complicated, since they’re not claiming to be wholly true in the first place — if anything, by being made in this way, they’re questioning the form as a whole. With other filmmakers sure to follow their lead, get ready for more such films — and more such slippery questions.
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