Knowledgeable people have been talking a lot about documentaries lately, about how new, smaller digital technology is allowing people to get closer to their subjects -- not to mention producing films much more cheaply. It's a renaissance for documentaries, they say. Eight documentaries released in 2006 cracked the list of the top 100 highest-grossing documentaries of all time, and another 15 currently reside on the second hundred.
But here's a simple question: how many of these would anyone want to watch a second time? How many have a shelf life? For example, here's my personal documentary "shelf life" top five: Crumb (1995, Terry Zwigoff), Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997, Errol Morris), Lessons of Darkness (1992, Werner Herzog), To Be and to Have (2002, Nicolas Philibert) and My Voyage to Italy (1999, Martin Scorsese).
I'll start with the most popular: An Inconvenient Truth, which is currently on DVD, and has become the third highest-grossing documentary of all time. (For the curious, #1 is Fahrenheit 9/11, #2 is March of the Penguins, and the rest of the top ten are as follows: Bowling for Columbine, Madonna: Truth or Dare, Winged Migration, Super Size Me, Mad Hot Ballroom, Hoop Dreams and Tupac: Resurrection).
Now, An Inconvenient Truth is an absolutely crucial film. I'm thrilled that it has been so popular, and hopefully its warnings will sink in to many of its viewers. I hope more people see it and that schools allow it to be shown in classrooms. It's even a stunningly well-made film, beautifully shot, with an entertaining, organic rhythm and a very charming Al Gore at its center. But let's assume that we manage to prevent the earth from flooding ten years from now, and that DVDs are still around and that there are people living on earth to watch them. Who will want to watch An Inconvenient Truth then? Nobody. It has a shelf life of ten years, or less.
Second on our list is Wordplay, which is the 24th most popular documentary of all time (also on video). It follows the exact same template as another, almost completely unknown film from 2004, Word Wars, about a Scrabble competition. Both movies are a lot of fun, and I could imagine a second viewing of each, but probably only true crossword puzzle and/or Scrabble nuts would actually own the movies in their DVD libraries.
I'll skip ahead to a movie that's actually still playing, Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's Shut Up and Sing (24 screens), the documentary about the Dixie Chicks and their 2003 scandal. Currently at #63 on the top 100, this film has the benefit of good-sounding music to help its future appeal. Any five-star home video system should be able to rattle the windows with these Dolby Digital tunes. My biggest qualm with the movie, which I otherwise admired, is that it plays heroes and villains with the Chicks and their detractors, playing up the emotional angle instead of really exploring the horrifying mob mentality that made their dilemma possible.
Placing at #73 on the top 100 and currently playing is Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Jesus Camp (4 screens), which scared the bejeebers out of me. It was on my SFFCC ballot as the year's third best doc, but it's certainly not one I'd want to see again any time soon. Currently at #227, and nominated for an Oscar, Iraq in Fragments (4 screens) is an unusual, often powerful look at Iraqis from their own point of view. It's an essential documentary for this moment in time, but again, it doesn't have much of a shelf life beyond the end of the current war and of the current administration.
A few brief words on Borat (266 screens); it's not a real documentary, but it's clever and insightful enough that it still has quite a bit to say about America at this moment in time. Plus it's funny enough to warrant many, many viewings and a place in any library. My favorite current documentary, and the only one that comes close to a permanent place in the canon, is Mark Becker's Romantico (5 screens). Like Terry Zwigoff's Crumb (1995), it spends its time exploring the feelings and behavior of one subject, without the intrusion of talking heads or experts of any kind. The film simply follows mariachi Carmelo Muñiz Sanchez, introduces his major dilemma (he makes more money playing in the U.S. but misses his family in Mexico and lacks the necessary papers to move back and forth) and lets the drama unfold by itself.