Roger L. Simon

Beware of The Documentary

I have been meaning to write for some time some thoughts I have about the documentary film form and have been inspired to do so because of an article on Pajamas – A Liberal College Kid Sees Sicko. We published that piece because we like to stimulate discussion and because, frankly, we want to bring younger people into Pajamas Media. (The CEO is, as many of you know, of a “certain age.”)

Now my intention in this post is not to bash Michael Moore – I’ve done plenty of that – but to examine the documentary form. To be blunt, I am suspicious of it, no matter what point of view is taken by the filmmaker. Film, to begin with, is highly manipulative, but documentaries purport to be truth. Are they? Not really. They are an arrangement of the version of the truth the filmmaker wishes to portray or promulgate. In fact, in most cases, they are a HiMarks outline of that version of the truth, because the film is at most two hours long. (Of course there are exceptions – The Sorrow and the Pity, etc.)

In the best documentaries (Crumb), this arrangement of the truth is brilliantly and subtly done. In other cases, flashy techniques are used to preach to the converted (Leni Riefenstahl… or, to a much lesser, cheesier effect, Michael Moore). But still it is an arrangement. It almost always lacks the intellectual rigor of text. If you look at Wikipedia, for example, even given the inherent biases, a basis for fact-checking is established. Documentaries, almost deliberately, obfuscate the facts. Fiction films, of course, are fictions. (Ironically, they may often be closer to the truth.)

Now of course all written forms – film and text – (including this) obfuscate facts. But the issue is the feedback and the checking. You can give me feedback – right now – in the comments and tell me where I am wrong. You can’t do that with a documentary. The name itself is fallacious.