I didn’t get into documentary filmmaking on purpose. I stumbled in, and didn’t get out. It’s a lifelong school of hard knocks. You can try acting holier-than-thou to your brethren in Hollywood, but at the end of the day you have mostly maxed out your credit cards or your dad’s.
Your masterpiece is screened in a local film festival or church basement. If you get unusually lucky, you make it into Sundance or onto a smattering of PBS stations, seen at an ungodly hour. It’s lonely on the low end of the media hierarchy.
Yet every week I hear from aspiring documentarians — some Hollywood “’biggies” — with their “love” projects. Usually I am reminded of playwright Moss Hart’s invaluable advice: “If you have a message, call Western Union.” These days, digital social media posts are far cheaper and infinitely more ubiquitous.
But nonfiction film has its advantages. For one thing, it has been a home for female directors ignored by male-dominated Hollywood studios. A recent study by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that 43 percent of producers of documentaries at film festivals last year were female, a number consistently greater than women behind the camera in scripted film. In my experience, these numbers are further strengthened by the heroically unsung role of film editors — many of them women — in documentary.
It may be that a credit card and the passion to pursue a subject have proven a lower hurdle for women in recent decades than winning a seat in the scripted writing rooms in L.A. It wasn’t always thus, however. Most early documentary filmmakers were men, due both to the weight of equipment carried and the male-dominated professions practiced. Not only women, but facts were in short supply.
In 1926, Scottish filmmaker John Grierson, in his nom-de-plume as ‘The Moviegoer’ in The New York Sun, reviewed the “creative treatment of actuality” in Robert Flaherty’s ‘Moana’ and coined the term “documentary.”
One might well ponder Grierson’s intended meaning, as Flaherty had lugged his back-breaking 16 tons of filmmaking gear to Polynesia not to “document” in the strict sense of the word, but to re-enact topless “maidens” in traditional tapa cloth costume — Christian missionaries having converted the natives to Western clothing decades before.
To compound his blurring of actuality, Flaherty further staged an obsolete Samoan coming-into-manhood tattooing scene. And in his earlier opus “Nanook of the North,” Flaherty had filmed his retro-Eskimos harpooning walruses, when they had long before taken up shotguns for hunting. Picky, picky.
Documentary has gone farther at times than merely bending truth. For infamy, it is hard to trump Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” a distillation of 60 hours of the Nazi Party Congress of 1934, commissioned by Hitler himself.
The power of film to persuade is a double-edged sword. Propaganda films were employed to great effect in World War II newsreels, and many of us came of age watching anti-VD educational screeds that shaped our earliest impressions of factual film.
Long before Flaherty had clothed and armed his indigenous subjects — beating by nearly a century today’s “re-enactment” sequences on Discovery and the History Channel — one of the earliest documentary filmmakers was Parisian surgeon-filmmaker Eugene-Louis Doyen. Before the turn of the century, Doyen built on “actuality” films that ran about a minute long. Starting in 1896, he filmed 60 of his own operations, allowing him to revisit them at leisure and improve upon surgical practice. Early documentary inevitably mirrored workplace gender difference.
Fast-forward to the present, and whither documentary filmmaking at a time when women have caught up — at least in this genre — and social media rule the waves. As short-form efforts on YouTube, Instagram and other user-generated sites have begun to usurp traditional broadcast viewing platforms, the future of documentary in the new media streams is unclear.
Diehards who insist on practicing the documentary arts may experiment with telling stories uploaded incrementally over time, forms of “docu-diary.” Could reality doled out in doses comprise a compelling new documentary genre, or will we prefer virtual-reality immersion through others’ eyes?
As media evolves, the line between fact and fiction increasingly challenges perception. Flaherty had good company last year in cinematic trickery. Martin Scorsese’s Netflix documentary about Bob Dylan as performer, revisiting Dylan’s 1975 ‘Rolling Thunder Revue,’ employs sleight-of-hand.
The filmmaker sneaks into the otherwise historically accurate record actors mimicking on-camera participants in the rock-and-roll odyssey. Spot the “plants” in Scorsese’s fake news documendacity.
Had I known what I was getting myself into all those years ago, I might have remained at Time Inc. in print journalism. After all, magazines and newspapers would always be in demand. Then again, as Dylan sang, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”