It’s a commonly held belief that we’re experiencing a Golden Age of documentary film, and that assumption is solidly affirmed by the program of this year’s edition of AFI Docs.
The festival, now in its 13th year, will kick off June 17 at the Newseum with a film ideally suited to its audience of Washington players, media insiders and nonfiction film buffs: “Best of Enemies,” a portrait of the venomous intellectual rivalry between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, directed by Robert Gordon and Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”).
Chock-full of revelatory archival footage of Buckley and Vidal going hammer and tongs on nightly television during the 1968 presidential conventions, “Best of Enemies” revolves around two brilliant, engaging and feisty protagonists, preserving an otherwise lost chapter of American social and cultural history and inviting viewers to reflect on the state of our current media culture, political discourse and public intellectuals as a nearly extinct species.
“Best of Enemies” exemplifies the kind of movie that might as well be precision-engineered to succeed at AFI Docs, which this year will include films about a variety of subjects, including post-9/11 foreign policy, education, immigration, the war on drugs and gun violence. As in past years, the program will make room for absorbing portraits of galvanizing cultural figures, including Nina Simone, Larry Kramer and Noam Chomsky — the closing night film, “Mavis!,” about Mavis Staples, is a surefire crowd pleasure. And there are plenty of pocket histories on such topics as the National Lampoon and the Nation, Steve Jobs, the Black Panthers and Cold War-era espionage.
All worthy subjects, to be sure. But therein lies a problem. Even from the privileged vantage point of a Golden Age, it’s possible to see a medium in need of freshening up, as nonfiction filmmakers fall into the trap of relying on their charismatic, timely subjects to engage viewers, rather than bold, daring or artful filmmaking itself.
The dilemma became clear to me in March, when I attended True/False, an intimate, shrewdly curated festival in Columbia, Mo. Not surprisingly, I left just about every screening feeling entertained and enlightened. But by the end of an admittedly delightful weekend, I sensed a creeping feeling of inertia, as I sat through yet one more movie toggling dutifully between archival footage and talking heads, or an intimate unnarrated portrait of a marginalized eccentric. In many cases, the most conventional way to tell the story happened to be the best. But in others, a deadening feeling of familiarity set in, as people, stories and — God forbid — “issues” seemed to slip effortlessly into easily digestible templates camera-ready for PBS, premium cable or an Oscar clip reel.
Like every artistic discipline, documentary film has experienced its share of formal sea changes, especially over the past half-century. In the 1960s, cinéma vérité, pioneered by Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and the late Al Maysles (whose final film, “In Transit,” will play AFI Docs this year), stripped away narration and explanatory titles that had heretofore characterized so many didactic documentaries, and used the bare-bones “fly on the wall” conceit to reveal their subjects. In the 1980s, Ross McElwee and Michael Moore perfected the art of the personal essay, injecting themselves as characters in their own picaresque tales of discovery, and Errol Morris revolutionized the industry by introducing reenactments and stylized cinematic flourishes in the true-crime thriller “The Thin Blue Line.” (Actually, he reintroduced reenactment, if you consider the work of Robert Flaherty in 1922’s “Nanook of the North.”)
Perhaps the most recent innovation to be turned into a commonplace trope is the Participant model — exemplified by “An Inconvenient Truth” — wherein a social problem is elucidated with sharp storytelling and graphics and, just at the point when the audience is galvanized for action, it’s given a 10-point list of letters they can write, petitions they can sign and Web sites they can visit to stay involved.
In recent years, even the most timeworn techniques have been given new life by bright, enterprising filmmakers: Sarah Polley and Josh Oppenheimer invigorated the art of Morris-esque reenactment in their respective groundbreaking films “Stories We Tell” and “The Act of Killing.” The subconscious and intuitive roots of the personal essay film have been explored to potent, densely layered effect by such artists as Bill Morrison, Jem Cohen, Alan Berliner and Jay Rosenblatt. With “The Waiting Room,” about an Oakland emergency ward, the mesmerizing Ukraine documentary “Maidan” and “Field Niggas,” about street life in Harlem, filmmakers Peter Nicks, Sergei Loznitsa and Khalik Allah have brought fresh sensitivity and compositional elegance to bear on vérité’s rough-hewn, spontaneous style.
And some directors are blazing new paths entirely. Brett Morgen made the bold choice to stage “Chicago 10,” about the political activists tried after the 1968 Democratic convention, as an animated film set to transcripts read by actors. He brought similar ingenuity to bear on “Montage of Heck,” his recent biography of Kurt Cobain. The directors Sam Green and Adam Curtis are fusing filmmaking and performance in live appearances and screenings (both appeared at True/False this year, and Green recently brought “The Measure of All Things,” his collaboration with musician Brendan Canty, to Artisphere.)
Part of AFI Docs’ core mission is to help develop fruitful partnerships between filmmakers and Washington-centered policymakers; it stands to reason that the festival would favor explanatory films that pivot around political history and hot-button current events. But even within the confines of that mandate, a handful of this year’s films manage to break the narrative mold: “Requiem for the Dead,” about American citizens who died from gun violence over a three-month period in 2014, is composed entirely of sounds and images from social media, news stories and police recordings (HBO will broadcast the film June 22, a few days after its AFI Docs screening.) “Listen to Me Marlon,” about Marlon Brando, is similarly centered on recordings the actor made as a personal audio diary. Berliner served as an editorial adviser for “The Russian Woodpecker,” a fascinating history of Soviet spycraft that mashes up traditional exposé with discursive mood and tone.
Michael Lumpkin, the new director of AFI Docs, noted recently that the search for groundbreaking work can be a challenge. “I think the exciting part of documentary filmmaking is when the edges get blurred and pushed, and there’s experimentation,” Lumpkin said. “But that’s really hard to do. It’s hard enough just to make a documentary, in terms of funding.” When we talk about filmmakers taking artistic risks, he added, what they're risking is money from the nonprofit groups, broadcast outlets and foundations that traditionally fund nonfiction work.
Often those funding structures have a utilitarian agenda, with social change, public education, audience activism and other “deliverables” taking precedence over more intangible values and formal daring. On his Web site Truly Free Film, in a column called “How Economics Influences Indie Film Aesthetics,” the producer Ted Hope recently observed that nonfiction films tend to be “thesis-based” — rather than experimental, expressionistic or open-ended — in order to satisfy their financiers, rather than the artistic ambitions of their makers.
“Documentary film financiers favor subjects for audiences that have already been aggregated by affinity groups (so that they are easier to reach and market to),” he wrote.
But those assumptions may be shifting. Last fall, Tabitha Jackson, who leads the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Project — an influential player in the nonfiction funding world — delivered a keynote address at the Doc NYC film festival in which she called on filmmakers to pay just as much attention to form as they do to content. “The lingua franca of nonfiction filmmaking should be the language of cinema and not the language of grant applications,” she said. “We must support and promote the intrinsic value of documentary as much as its instrumental value.” Jackson then announced a Sundance documentary initiative “to identify, nurture and support a cohort of voices we feel are truly distinctive.”
With more innovative work potentially on its way through the pipeline, Lumpkin said that AFI Docs may be showing more experimental work in years to come. “It’s a pendulum,” he added. “And I think that there’s momentum for it to be swinging back, [so] that aesthetics and the art and craft of making documentary film will be more prominent once again.” Documentaries may be nonfiction, but they can and should be much more than just the facts.
AFI Docs Wednesday through June 21 at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and other venues in Penn Quarter, as well as the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring. For more information, visit www.afidocs.org.