It had to come to this. Now monkeys -- sorry, chimpanzees -- are making their own documentaries.
Well, that's not entirely correct, but that's the angle by which tomorrow's BBC special The Chimpcam Project is being reported by most media. The reality is that the doc is about a behavioral scientist, though it does feature footage shot solely by 11 chimps from the Edinburgh Zoo. And the producer who gave them the smash-proof cameras is now looking to put other kinds of animals in the director's chair as well.
I wish I could say I find the idea fascinating, or even adorable. But honestly, I haven't been this annoyed about the implied ease of documentary filmmaking since Jonathan Caouette made every young wannabe think they can and therefore should make a film about themselves with his very cheap and very self-indulgent Sundance hit Tarnation (which can now be seen, in parts, on YouTube, where it belongs).
Just because you can make a documentary doesn't mean you should make one. And just because someone seems like a good subject for a documentary doesn't mean he or she should be one. For example, the new documentary Off and Running is about a black teenager raised by two white lesbians -- along with their other adopted children -- who seeks out her birth mother. Sounds like a great subject for a film, but this particular doc, directed by Nicole Opper, is actually quite dull and pointless.
There are, of course, great films about seemingly boring subjects, such as Moving Midway, a doc made by film critic Godfrey Chesire, where he examines his heritage while physically moving his childhood home to another plot of land across town. And that film is somewhat reminiscent of two from the great first-person documentarian Ross McElwee, whose Sherman's March and Bright Leaves are each constructed around personal contemplations of his family and ancestry.
The key, as always with cinema, whether fiction or non-fiction, is to construct a strong narrative. Neither Chesire nor McElwee's documentaries are just simply about their human subjects anymore than Roger & Me is an autobiography of Michael Moore. They go into bigger ideas than just the everyday lives of their subjects. And they're made by great storytellers who just happen to put themselves in the front lines of their narratives.
If you're a great storyteller, you can make a great documentary. Otherwise, you may be just someone who can shoot interesting or at least watchable footage, just as the chimpanzees have. It's like the Beastie Boys concert film Awesome; I F&ckin' Shot That!, which primarily includes footage shot by the concert's attendees. How many of those individuals could have shot and edited a quality concert film on their own? Maybe none, but Adam Yauch was able to take all their footage and turn it into a decent documentary.
All you amateur videographers out there, by all means continue making home movies if you want to preserve family memories, but unless you're a talented filmmaker you should put them aside in a drawer until someone like Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) comes along and finds good use for them.
I blame the last decade, which, more than the 1980s, should be called the "me decade." From the trend of memoirs to the explosion of social media, people now put their stories and their thoughts out to the public in any way they can. And with cameras and other filmmaking tools constantly decreasing in price, more and more people are making documentaries about themselves and their friends.
Off and Running is subjectively made by a film teacher about one of her students, and much of it comes off like a bad, self-indulgent first-person documentary due to inclusion of an ongoing diary narration from its protagonist and credited writer, Avery Klein-Cloud. Mostly, though, it doesn't go anywhere. It has no inclusive structure and just seems to follow Avery until it randomly ends (probably because it's based on a situation rather than a story). For that reason, it might have worked better as a reality series.
Oooh, and that infuriates me even more than the issue of ease. The idea of lumping reality television in with documentaries is another very disappointing thing to happen to non-fiction cinema in the last decade. Ever since non-fiction series became the most popular thing on TV since orphan-based sitcoms, film critics and other cineastes have been wondering why the interest and popularity hasn't carried over to documentary films.
It's also a question constantly brought up to veteran documentary filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman and D.A. Pennebaker by audience members at Q&As. If you've ever witnessed such inquiry, you'll know that it upsets these legends of observational cinema, probably because not only does reality television actually have little to do with even the direct cinema type of documentary, it makes the genre look easy in its faux comparativeness.
The only relatable aspect of reality TV and documentary film is that both tend to be only as great as their editing. Otherwise, they are substantially separated by the fact that the former is continuous and based on a premise while the latter is contained and necessitates a concluding narrative. Reality TV also has more of an allowance for uninteresting subjects so long as they fit the show's premise, which is why anyone (or any animal) can make and/or be the focus of an entertaining reality series but it takes a talented individual, a compelling story and stimulating ideas to make a worthwhile documentary.
What do you think makes a good documentary subject or good documentary filmmaker?