The New Documentary: Sacred or Profane by Ron Steinman

Assume with me that the documentary film as we once knew it for some filmmakers no longer exists. I believe that the classic form of the documentary film best serves the public. I am unhappy with what a number of filmmakers are doing to a genre once thought of as being sacred. I am not against change, but change only for the sake of change means nothing. Younger filmmakers who lack tradition and a sense of history are putting what they believe is their truth on film or on video in ways that could quicken the death of a once honored class.
Except for PBS, and occasionally the pay TV channels such as HBO and Showtime, and some independent films, the classic documentary is under assault.
A recent report from a Canadian film festival reveals that there are directors who now use actors to recite pre-recorded words from interviewees, some of whom might be dead, and thus unavailable for an interview. In some cases an actor mouths the words because the subject is unable to recite his or her own words. Done slickly as to make the viewer believe he or she is hearing and seeing the original person speak endangers the truth. It makes the audience believe the person on camera is real, which is a lie. Might as well do a fiction film, a narrative, and toss out the pretense of honest reality. The techniques now used to produce these films are a violation. Reincarnation becomes reality. Is it generational or simply perverse that these changes are taking place? Worse is that unschooled critics on the Web accept the changes in the non-fiction film and think those are worthy of high praise for the reason that, of all things, they are different. Because something is different does not mean it is of high quality. I am not against change when it advances an art form such as the documentary. But when change triumphs over content, as it sometimes does when new techniques replace the older ones, there is no place for it at my table. Importantly, consumers who seek truth are poorer for the lack of it.
Documentary producers work hard to clarify reality. It is no secret that documentary filmmakers re-order interviews to make the film flow. Whatever the style of the documentary film, interviews must make sense. But the subject must always speak for him or her self. The film should not falsify images. The film should not add shots or sequences that are lies. At the very least, the documentary film must present solid information, the filmmaker’s truth, as clearly as possible. That is what the documentary film is about. Nothing more. Nothing less.


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