Post written by Olivia Hancock.

The True/False Film Fest brings critics from all over the country each year to celebrate the documentary art form.  However, Robert Greene, director of Fake It So Real and moderator of the first panel of the fest, says a lot of critics are missing the mark when it comes to talking about nonfiction films.

“The building blocks of making a movie become a negative when it comes to documentaries,” he says.

The panel, made up of critics Miriam Bale, Vadim Rizov, Eric Hynes and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, agree that it’s time for documentaries to be seen and written about as art — just like any other movie. That means talking about basic components of film form: editing, cinematography and sound.

The Problem

Only the Young features teenagers living in California and has been criticized for lacking context. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

Greene says he first noticed a difference between how fiction and nonfiction films are discussed when he read a review of Only the Young, which was shown at True/False last year, by New York Times critic Manohla Dargis.  He says she was longing for the film to have context where none was really necessary.

“When it’s a documentary, (critics) are going, ‘Where the hell is the important stuff I’m supposed to be getting out of this? Why is this just about teenagers living, damn it,” Greene says to the laughter of some of the panel members.

The discussion took the form of a casual debate with members of the audience chiming in, usually to stand up for the subject matter the panel said is secondary to style and form in documentaries.

The Odd Fellows Lounge, where the panel took place, added to the laid-back atmosphere with its smaller venue size and mixture of cushy couches and folding chairs.

One audience member pointed out limitations that many documentary filmmakers face that might affect the form of a movie, such as a smaller budget.  Hynes responded by saying that critics often take those limitations for granted, and that’s what is affecting their writing negatively.

“We’re actually not talking enough about form with documentary films because we think, ‘Oh, this doesn’t apply to this,’” Hynes says.

The Solution

The panel says that in a perfect world, people who truly have a passion for documentaries would write about them.  But this isn’t economically realistic, and assignments can’t be handed out only to the people who are really jazzed about them.

Tchoupitoulas might be considered ethically against journalistic standards, but those standards shouldn't apply to docs because they are art forms like any other films. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

Vishnevetsky suggests that it’s time to stop trying to hold documentaries to journalistic standards that fiction films don’t have to live up to.  He cited Tchoupitoulas as an example of this; it’s a documentary that was shot over months in New Orleans but made to look like it took place in one night, which is more art than journalism.

“On the one hand it’s very much about the reality of this city, but on the other hand it’s structured in a completely — if you were looking at is as a piece of reporting — fraudulent way,” he says.

Greene adds to Vishnevetsky’s statement, saying, “The way Tchoupitoulas was talked about in reviews was like, ‘How dare they break the rules —’”

“How dare they make narrative?” Vishnevetsky chimes in, smiling.

“— which really was, ‘How dare they make a film more interesting?’” Greene says.

Vishnevetsky says leaving out form in reviews is akin to a sportswriter only reporting a score of a game and not saying anything about the dynamics of the team.

“It’s the same as if you were reporting the most basic facts and then not talking at all about the context in which these events occurred,” he says.

One Response to Panel recap: The Revolution Will be Criticized: Do critics miss the boat on nonfiction filmmaking?

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