We used to assume that documentary films were telling us the truth.
Or as close to truth as journalism could get. Every J-school grad knows that simply by observing and reporting, a journalist affects the news, and that constant vigilance against bias is part of the job.
That such vigilance was practiced by documentary makers once was a given. Boomers who grew up on classic TV docs like 1960’s “Harvest of Shame” (about migrant workers) and others produced by CBS News in the Edward R. Murrow era, took it on faith that documentarists were doing their best to give us the objective truth.
In the ’60s and ’70s we got cinema verite, a purist’s approach in which the documentarist simply records events, never asking questions, never intruding on the action, never commenting. No narration. No talking heads. (A prime example is “Grey Gardens,” about mother-and-daughter eccentrics living in a crumbling Long Island mansion.)
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Old-school documentaries rarely left audiences feeling as manhandled and manipulated as do many of today’s “nonfiction” films.
Contemporary docs often seem less interested in discovering the truth than in making a case for a “truth” the filmmaker has already accepted. Instead of the documentarist practicing vigilance, it’s now the audience that must approach with caution.
Let the viewer beware.
But it’s also because the language of documentaries has changed. Back in the day no self-respecting documentarist would employ anything as suspect as staged re-enactments, animated sequences or artsy-fartsy impressionistic camera work.
Documentaries then were pretty straightforward … and often a bit boring.
But as documentaries have thrown off their tired talking-head ways, their popularity has skyrocketed. They are being judged less on their veracity than on their entertainment value, and by that criteria it’s a new golden age for docs.
The subscription-cable world has gone documentary mad, with nonfiction miniseries like Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” and HBO’s “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” dominating conversations once restricted to “Dallas” or, more recently, “Game of Thrones.”
The prosecutors in the Steven Avery “Making a Murderer” case have charged the filmmakers with bias for what they left out. The controversy has only fueled interest in the series.
The recently concluded True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Mo., offered a weekend crammed with upcoming documentaries, many of them pushing the limits of just what the word means.
There are still some straightforward docs being made. Last week the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport offered “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” a documentary about filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s continuing influence, and on Friday the theater opened “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,” about the American heiress who championed modern art. Both films are fueled by extensive audio recordings left behind by their subjects — and by good, old-fashioned talking heads.
Looking ahead, 2016 promises a full schedule of intriguing documentaries. Among some of the more promising:
▪ “Life Animated”: This True/False hit is about an autistic boy coaxed out of his shell only by Disney animated films, most of which he has seen hundreds of times. It was shot over more than a decade by his father.
▪ “Waiting for B”: Eager to get the best seats in the house, Brazilian fans of Beyonce camp out for two months on a Sao Paolo sidewalk. What begins as a look at pop culture madness becomes something else when the queue becomes a focal point for LGBT youth.
▪ “Speed Sisters”: In an environment where women are often third-class citizens, the all-female members of a Middle Eastern auto racing team must fight for money, participation and respect, breaking stereotypes along the way.
▪ “The Bad Kids”: This Sundance Festival winner focuses on a remote desert high school where teachers and administrators attempt to reverse the self-destructive cycles in which three teens are trapped. Sounds like a close cousin to the Missouri-lensed “Rich Hill.”
▪ “Field Niggas”: This eye-opening look at the homeless who gather nightly at 125th and Lexington in Harlem has been called “hallucinogenic,” not only for the drug-addled ramblings of its subjects but also for the filmmakers’ daring visual style.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s movie news and reviews at ButlersCinemaScene.com.