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Magic moments: My love affair with documentaries

I love the documentary, but hate the name. With those five droning syllables, the word in English -- coined by John Grierson way back in the twenties -- has a lot to answer for, conjuring up everything that has given the form a bad rep: not a drama, a dry dossier bulging with facts yet bereft of fun, good for your health but, hold your nose, the Brussels sprouts of cinema. And that's all nonsense, of course.

A great documentary is none of the above. A great documentary is filled with as much story and drama and emotion and -- let's 'fess up -- aesthetic contrivance as any work of fiction. Maybe that's why, in the wrong artful hands, documentaries make for splendid propaganda. Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will is a brilliant celebration of Nazi iconography -- but the truth and nothing but the truth it assuredly ain't. Yet even put to a higher purpose, they come with a caveat: The best of the breed are never fabrications of the facts, but they're always fabrications from the facts.

I didn't know this at first, and perhaps it was just as well. Like many love affairs, mine for the documentary began with a misconception of the beloved. I thought I was witnessing unalloyed truth, and bought into the myth of cinéma vérité, of kino pravda, of the camera as a fly-on-the-wall offering through its objective lens an unvarnished account of reality. I was, in my innocence, not unlike the amazed audience when the Lumière brothers unspooled those early " actualités" -- hooting and ducking as the train pulled out of the station and into my lap.

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But that's a happy illusion, in a way, and nothing to apologize for. All films are a form of voyeurism, and voyeurism can be a healthy vice, promoting empathy and fellow-feeling. So, as a kid, when I was watching the troubled Loud clan in Alan Raymond's An American Family, or the bickering Edwards in Allan King's A Married Couple, I felt like a grown-up Tom peeping through a privileged keyhole -- this was real life I was spying on, nothing less than pure human behaviour.

Well, it was and it wasn't. Soon enough, I learned about Heisenberg, who told me the mere presence of the camera was shaping that behaviour. And I discovered the editing room, and knew the director was further shaping the shapings. But these little revelations did nothing to dim my excitement. Quite the opposite. They just heightened the intrigue and made the puzzle more challenging. Sure, Lance Loud was playing to the camera, but how he hammed still said a lot about him. (There's some fine acting done in documentaries -- "real" thespians could learn a thing or two.) And how Raymond cut the ham said as much about him and his biases. Far from off-putting, this sort of speculation just drew me into the film more deeply. Good documentaries all have that effect, asking us to work, to get off our behinds and into the picture. The fly comes down from the wall and starts buzzing around in the action -- thinking, feeling, searching.

Searching for what? Not for truth, I've come to realize, but for something more attainable -- for understanding, including the understanding that truth is a slippery commodity. What's the truth about the tormented father in Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans -- is he no more than an abject pedophile? Or about Robert McNamara in Errol Morris's The Fog of War -- is he just an unrepentant self-justifier? Or about the supplicants in Robert Wiseman's Welfare -- are they simply innocent victims of a bureaucratic state? In every case, we don't really know. But we do gain an understanding of their motives and their pressures and their strengths and vulnerabilities. These films are all voyages of discovery, where the director often seems as surprised as we are by what gets found en route -- an unexpected pocket of sympathy, innocence masquerading as guilt, or guilt as innocence. Many of the most compelling documentaries are essentially character studies, and human character is an endless mystery.

I'm not suggesting that truth is necessarily relative and mutable. In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's epic examination of the Holocaust, or in The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophul's unrelenting probe of French collaboration with the Nazis, or in The Mills of the Gods, Beryl Fox's early unravelling of American policy in Vietnam, what's true is palpably obvious, and it's not hard to separate right from wrong. However, in every instance, good and evil are given an all-too-human face speaking an all-too-human language -- being deceitful, being sincere, rationalizing, confessing, attacking, defending. And, once again, we get pulled into this torrent of words, wondering not just about the historical battle for truth but also about something a lot more immediate and personal -- how we would have lined up in the fight.

By contrast, the worst documentaries have no sense of discovery. Instead, they begin with a set of assumptions and select the facts to fit the premise. Broadcast journalism abounds with this stuff. A popular model: Find a victim (of war, of cancer, of abuse, anything will do); tell his sad story; get him to cry on camera; voilà, you've got yourself a sensitive doc on a sensitive topic. There's nothing dishonest about this, it's just pat and easy and, consequently, uninvolving. These predicable pieces are so focused on the destination that they forget about the journey.

And that's completely wrong-headed, as smart directors know. That's why the "stalkumentary" works so well -- Michael Rubbo trying to corral Fidel Castro in Waiting for Fidel, Michael Moore on the heels of Roger Smith in Roger and Me. There, the goal is never reached, but who cares when the journey is such a hoot -- wonderful satiric fun.

Which brings me to another reason for my love affair. Documentaries are just so various. They come in all sizes and types, perhaps because there's no right way to make them -- nothing that corresponds to fiction's basic three-act structure. In other words, the form is as flexible as the content. Sure, the filmmakers themselves will debate this contention, arguing heatedly about, say, the merits of voiceover narration versus unintrusive vérité. But it seems to me that both can work, and have worked, superbly. Donald Brittain used voiceover, and the effect was poetic. Fred Wiseman never does, and finds the same poetry through other means, although it takes him considerably longer.

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However, length too is infinitely adjustable. Lanzmann's Shoah clocks in at 9½ hours, but not a second feels expendable. Brittain's Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen runs a mere 45 minutes, yet the film seems as nuanced as its hero. The same flexibility applies to content. In Peter Davis's encyclopedic Hearts and Minds, the scope widens to embrace the entire Vietnam generation, with everyone from the politicians to the grunts held to account. Conversely, in Nicolas Philbert's intimate Etre et Avoir, the setting shrinks to a one-room schoolhouse, and the subject to a single extraordinary teacher, quietly engaged in an equally intense struggle for the hearts and minds of his young pupils.

Do documentaries have to be wordy? Usually, since talking heads are revealing. But even here there are glorious exceptions. In Phantom India, the character under study is the whole subcontinent and, over its six-hour duration, Louis Malle lets his eloquent camera do almost all the talking -- we look on transfixed. Ditto for Robert Flaherty in his seminal Nanook of the North, a film that preserves a vanishing culture in its steady and silent gaze. With Malle and Flaherty and certainly Dziga-Vertov in his aptly-titled Man with a Movie Camera, the documentary is primarily an act of seeing -- words give way to imagery, and the emotion resides in the picture. Obviously, this is crucial when animal, not human, nature is under scrutiny. Winged Migration is a recent and lovely example: Barely a syllable is spoken, yet the sights are breathtaking and the drama intense.

Yes, documentaries are a many-splendoured thing. And resilient too. Even when debased, they cling to a vestige of their power. The current spate of reality-TV shows is the documentary at its most bastardized -- there, the content is inane and the artifice transparent, as hand-picked contestants get shamelessly coached through a concocted game. But the doc's magic survives even in Survivor, or at least some tiny glimmer of it -- in a gesture, a glance, a word, a precious second that sneaks through the cracks of contrivance. That's what I wait for, and what I cherish -- that second is where my love affair began.

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More


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