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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Squabbling Over Docs

Over on SpoutBlog, Karina Longworth takes me to task over my recent column on documentaries, writing, in part:
This is the aspect of Voynar’s piece that I take issue with:
She goes on to make a four-point checklist of what she considers to be requirements “for a great theatrical documentary,” and then concludes that only four films on the 2008 Oscar shotlist fit those requirements: The Betrayal, Trouble The Water, Man on Wire, and Encounters at the End of the World. She concludes by offering the four films the following compliment: “All of these films are not only good documentaries, but great filmmaking.” Which implies that a film could be a “good documentary” while not exhibiting “great filmmaking,” which raises a question or three.
Shouldn’t the quality of the filmmaking be of primary concern, regardless of whether or not the film itself qualifies as a documentary? What good could come from a critic systematically holding one genre of film to a different standard than all others? If we’re going to make guidelines for the evaluation of documentaries, should we also do it for animation, or for foreign films, or for all those Zooey Deschanel films that premiere at Sundance and then disappear off the face of the planet? Where does it all end?

I responded over on the comments on Karina’s piece (there are some other good comments there, so check them out if you’re so inclined), but putting it over here as well:

Just to clarify, Karina, I never said that quality of filmmaking shouldn’t be of primary concern in other genres, nor did I anywhere say or imply, as the title of this piece suggests, that docs should be held to a “different” standard than features (by which I assume you actually mean narratives, as opposed to docs, since “features” relates more to the length of the film than its genre).
This was a column specifically about the Oscar-shortlisted docs, though, and many of the points I raised have been raised by other folks, from documentary filmmakers like Jason Kohn (Manda Bala) to A.J. Schnack. Further, while I highlighted only four of the films on the Oscar shortlist, I clarified that I’ve not yet had a chance to see every doc on the list, and therefore couldn’t evaluate them yet one way or the other.
The points that both Chris and Bilge made in their comments are fairly spot-on. There are a lot of “issue” docs that get lauded more for the sympathetic nature of their subjects than for any excellence in the actual filmmaking. Well-made, theatrical documentaries combine both interesting subject matter with some degree of artistry in their filmmaking. There has to be some sort of distinction between “some random person with a camera” — which is what Trouble the Water would have been without the direction Tia Lessin and Carl Deal stepping in to turn the raw footage into an actual film with a narrative flow — and actual filmmaking.
And lastly, the four “rules” in my column were not intended to be (nor do I think I implied they are) anything other than the personal rules by which I evaluate documentaries. I’m certainly not advocating for some hypothetical standard based on my particular views on what differentiates a doc with interesting subject matter from a truly great documentary film. All of us who write about film for a living have our own standards by which we judge what we think about films, whether we write those perspectives down as a “list” or not — including you. If we didn’t all judge films — of any genre — by some sort of personal standards, whatever would be the point of writing our opinions on films to begin with?

Further elaborating:
What I found particularly interesting about Karina’s write-up is that I don’t think, in essence, she and I really disagree all that much. Earlier in her piece she says, “As you might have guessed, I disagree that this has been a weak year for documentaries. As I wrote last week, many of the most successful nonfiction films of the year have been challenging in form and idiosyncratic in content, and though I’m not cukoo-bananas for all of them, I think the fact that art seems to be trumping artless activism is encouraging.”
Well, that’s pretty much exactly my point. Artless activism does not equal a great theatrical doc — a point she clearly does not disagree with. What she seems to take issue with, primarily, is my calling my personal list “rules.” And hey, I can kind of understand that, as I tend to rebel sometimes against anyone labeling something “rules,” but as I said, these are really nothing more than the personal guidelines by which I evaluate a documentary film. Are there guidelines by which I also evaluate other genres? Of course. And Karina, like any other person who writes about film for a living, has her own set of guidelines as well, whether she calls them that or not.
What we respond to in viewing a film — of any genre — very often has as much to do with what we bring into it as what we’re seeing onscreen. The philosophic lens through which we tend to view the world, our own life experiences, and our own taste in filmmaking styles impacts our take on a given film and what we write about it as much as all the parts that went into what we’re viewing on the screen. Karina, like anyone who writes about film, has particular tastes, likes and dislikes, prejudices and perspectives, that affect what she thinks about what she’s seeing. She may not label them as “rules” per se, but you can read them between the lines of everything she writes about film — as you can with any good writer. If she didn’t have some internal barometer by which she evaluates films, she’d be writing uninformed, useless tripe that didn’t mean jack to anyone who reads her, and that’s clearly not the case. And the “rules” in any case are not some sort of hard-core checklist I sit down with when watching a documentary; it’s an organic process, and that bit of the column was just my attempt to put them down in a more pragmatic way, not me saying “this is how everyone should judge films.”
I have nothing but respect for Karina personally and in her writing, and honestly, I think we’re disagreeing more on semantics that actual ideas here; nonetheless, it would be interesting to see her enurmerate, sometime, her own personal guidelines by which she evaluates a film.

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“Well, actually, of that whole group that I call the post-60s anti-authority auteurs, a lot of them came from television. Peckinpah’s the only one whose television work represents his feature work. I mean, like the only one. Mark Rydell can direct a really good episode of ‘Gunsmoke’ and Michael Ritchie can direct a really good episode of ‘The Big Valley,’ but they don’t necessarily look like The Candidate. But Peckinpah’s stuff, even the scripts he wrote that he didn’t even direct, have a Peckinpah feel – the way I think there’s a Corbucci West – suggest a Peckinpah West. That even in his random episodes that he wrote for ‘Gunsmoke’ – it’s right there.”
~ Quentin Tarantino

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~ Hideo Kojima