Normally I don't pay much attention to newswire critics, but Tuesday's article by Christy Lemire (Associated Press & Canadian Press) put me in a defensive mood. Lemire has written a piece in which she reflects on the movies she's seen in the first half of 2006, and realizes that her current top ten list is made up primarily of documentaries. I don't reject the declaration that we're experiencing another good year for docs, but since critics have been making this same observation for the pasts several years, it makes you wonder if it's the docs that are getting better or simply the fiction films that are getting worse. Or is it a little of both?
I say that it's neither. Documentaries just always seem universally better than narratives. Because they typically lack artificial elements like acting, plot and dialogue, on which viewers most easily judge the qualities of fiction films, docs are more difficult to analyze. Despite the fact that some docs are misleading and may distort or completely fabricate facts, they always have the perception of reality, and for most people, reality means truth and truth means good.
With most documentaries, the audience is given more than mere entertainment, whether it is taught something, is convinced of something, or prompted to think about something further. In this way, docs are rarely a waste of time, and therefore critics may find it difficult to give them bad reviews. But what about when a doc isn't intent on being educational or insightful? How is it that Dave Chappelle's Block Party is a great film for someone (me) who doesn't necessarily favor the comedy of Chappelle of the music of the film's featured artists?
I don't think that most critics know how to properly review a documentary, and Lemire's reasons for why docs stand out are not appplicable to only non-fiction films. She writes, "They vividly and viscerally show us a world we might never have known about otherwise. They engage us, make us laugh, make us think, and move us." But I can apply that statement to fiction films released in 2006 as varied as Manderlay and X-Men: The Last Stand, too. As for Block Party, and An Inconvenient Truth even, I find that they mostly succeed as films in their ability to effectively tell a story, standing out for their similarity to narrative features.
An Inconvenient Truth is less discussed for its storytelling than its subject matter, and this is evidence of most critics' confusion of how to look at documentaries, particularly controversial or political films like Truth and Fahrenheit 9/11. This kind of doc is usually the only kind you'll see garner bad reviews, because many viewers will judge them based on what they are about rather than how they how effective they are. Though it is possible to discuss a film's subject matter without mistaking an opinion on the matter for an opinion on the film, I think too many critics have praised Truth based on its facts -- and how important it is to see the film because of these facts -- than on their presentation. A similar problem made Fahrenheit an overrated film a few years ago.
So what makes the basketball doc The Heart of the Game better than the basketball drama Glory Road? Does the realism of the Iraq War in The War Tapes make it better than Mission: Impossible III, with its stylized, manufactured action? There are valid points for claiming each doc is better than the fiction film I've paired it with, but it is important that moviegoers understand reasons other than the claims that they are "real" or "true." Documentaries need to be analyzed in the exactly same ways that narrative films are, and they should always be examined for how cinematically appropriate they are -- is film the best, if not only, medium through which the subject matter could be properly presented? All films above all need to show what they are about, not tell what they are about, with no exception to documentaries.
So is it acceptable to say that in the first half of 2006 that non-fiction cinema has been stronger than fiction? In terms of visibility, yes, but that is likely due to the popular interest in "reality" so far this decade. But documentaries in general haven't necessarily gotten better in 2006, they're just more noticeable, and obviously the best of them are more visible than the rest. So far this year I have seen more documentaries than narrative films (most of them at the Tribeca Film Festival) and I can say I've seen a lot of really bad ones. In fact, the best film I've seen so far is not a documentary (ok, well, it partially is), while the worst I've seen is.