Picture credit: Teo Hernandez
What links together Joe Exotic and Michael Jordan? 2020’s two larger-than-life documentary stars are charismatic products of celebrity culture, whose stranger-than-fiction stories focus on one person’s herculean rise/fall/rise chronicle. Their nostalgic tales are fed to viewers through Netflix, the streaming service that has arguably given “Documentary” a new cultural cache, even if the form seemed already ubiquitous. The makers of Tiger King and The Last Dance (both 2020) ask viewers to switch off for hour-upon-hour of episodic documentary, retelling stories almost directly from Wikipedia. They trade cultural epiphany for anodyne repetition. What then, Cinema Year Zero has asked itself, is the documentary form for?
The art vs entertainment cultural debate persists, and documentary has a unique ability to navigate journalism, storytelling, and the cold, hard facts as light entertainment. Nothing is more frustrating than the latest issue doc being heralded for its mere ability to perform a public service, and yet all these designations are conflated, blurring easy definitions of what documentary is, exacerbated by its prevalence in everyday life. Between footage of the chemical explosion at Beirut’s port, manipulated and deep-fake imagery of political figures from Donald Trump to Jess Phillips, and the pandemic’s encouragement of Zoom-based visual entertainment, documentary is all around, and ever more difficult to understand.
Is this inherently ‘Sus’? That colloquialism may have taken on a negative dimension, but to us it doesn’t mean bad, so much as worthy of interrogation. So let’s take a closer look at the ethics of documentary in this sus age of streaming. A sus age party, if you will. When deciding the brief for this volume, we knew our writers would interpret it differently. Some have seized on ‘documentary ethics’, others have focussed on ‘the streaming age’. What we did not necessarily plan for, yet has nevertheless become an inescapable reality, is that the essays in this volume often converge on questions of viewpoint. Who owns the camera? Who owns the gaze? Who is its subject? These relationships, as John Berger said, are ‘never settled’.
Fittingly for those questions, we start at the beginning of documentary cinema, with Joseph Owen’s examination of Robert Flaherty’s dubious and pioneering 1922 film, Nanook of the North. Through the lens of Virginia Woolf’s writings on biography, Owen interrogates the divide between fact and fiction in Flaherty’s film. How does the fact/fiction chasm intersect with the political act of perceiving? What does it mean for Flaherty to embellish facts about an Inuk man for the mass consumption of American and European audiences?
Flaherty’s documentary may have wrestled with these ethical conundrums, even if the time period seems to predate that sort of introspection in the medium by many years. By comparison, Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind (2018), also an object of mass consumption after its release on Netflix, is a splurge of self-effacing depravity. As Ben Flanagan argues in his essay, The Other Side of the Wind is a hybrid documentary about its own making. Isn’t that ultimately what all films are? Have the controversies that dogged Nanook of the North been so wrapped up in its legacy that they have become an essential part of the film itself? Nanook was a triumph for the white male genius; The Other Side of the Wind was about the downfall of that genius. Perhaps The Other Side of the Wind has more in common with its Netflix cousins: the true crime documentary. If Nanook of the North depicted a complex history pared down (and often distorted) for mass-consumption, what horrors now populate the true crime industrial complex? The loudest cultural voices are those who want morals confirmed to them by entertainment; yet Tiger King, which is predicated on a willing amorality, seemed like the biggest thing on the planet for two weeks of lockdown. The memes were shared, and Carol Baskin is now in the cultural lexicon.
The footage of George Floyd’s death, shared around the world, was likely seen by more people than Netflix could have hoped to capture. Perhaps, this is where documentaries are headed: structureless form built around the 15-second videos many of us capture on our phones every day. Orla Smith’s reading of Dreams of a Life (2011) reconstructs a projection of the news events that occur in our minds, to show how Carol Morley’s documentary helps viewers to get closer to otherwise forgotten news stories. As Satya Hariharan explores, there are antecedents for this type of ‘filmmaking’. John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs (1986) captures Birmingham in the days after the 1985 riots, manipulating original, archival and newsreel footage to create a collage that privileges no kind of image above the other. As a precursor to the way users experience moving images on social media, this expanded means of documentary filmmaking suggests a healthier, more democratised landscape for the format.
Then again, maybe not. Cathy Brennan’s examination of YouTube huckster and all-round awful guy Shane Dawson argues that just because anyone can make documentaries doesn’t mean everyone should (paging Anton Ego). It’s an angry essay, but this is Dawson we’re talking about, a man whose insane egomania and insatiable lust for video views has led to astonishingly long five-part documentaries of 90-minute episodes. O.J.: Made in America (2016) this is decidedly not. Leave the low-budget, long-form internet storytelling to masters like Jon Bois.
Perhaps one day Dawson will be the subject of a documentary like The Viewing Booth (2020). As Cat Mahmoud explains in her essay on that film, along with Me and the Cult Leader (2020), these documentaries represent the flipside of something like Nanook of the North. Now the seer is being interrogated, and the muddling of truth that pervades Nanook is precisely the subject of these new films. Then, Tom Atkinson himself projects into the future, to see how Isiah Medina fails to adapt a Verso classic. Inventing the Future is an effort at praxis that appeals to the Letterboxd Trots but misses the pivot of the current moment even as neoliberalism is on the verge of collapse.
Finally, Maximilien Luc Proctor reaches the very end of documentary. Walking through Nathaniel Dorsky’s Aboretum Cycle (2018), among others, his cinema digest pushes formal limits further with a rumination on the emotive possibilities of experimental documentary.
Viewpoint is a key theme, maybe the key theme of how we receive documentaries in 2020. Social media means everyone has a viewpoint, and we have attempted to survey a broad range of thoughts and feelings on documentary. Eight writers will never be enough to capture the ever expanding history and potential of the documentary form. Regardless, we hope that whether you read this issue or listen via the podcast, you will reconsider the veracity of images beyond what an algorithm tells you.
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Nanook of the North by Joseph Owen
Joseph Owen examines the power of knowledge and perception in Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.
The Other Side of the Wind by Ben Flanagan
Ben Flanagan makes the case for Orson Welles’ long-lost masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind is a hybrid documentary on the death of a genius.
Dreams of a Life by Orla Smith
The public perception of a dead woman is challenged in Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life, as Orla Smith writes.
Handsworth Songs by Satya Harihan
Satya Harihan draws a line across history from 1980s British police violence in Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs to our present moment of image saturation.
The Mind of Jake Paul by Cathy Brennan
Cathy Brennan documents her fragmented thoughts and frustrations working her way through the filmography of corrupt YouTube auteur Shane Dawson.
The Viewing Booth by Cat Mahmoud
Two new festival hits – Me and the Cult Leader and The Viewing Booth – are investigated by Cat Mahmoud for what they can teach us about how we receive and regurgitate images.
Inventing the Future by Thomas Atkinson
Thomas Atkinson surveys the digital documentary future promised by Isiah Medina’s Inventing the Future, and says: ‘Is this it?’
Arboretum Cycle by Maximilien Luc Proctor
Maximilien Luc Proctor finds valuable documentary insight in the experimental films of Nathaniel Dorsky, Teo Hernandez, and James Benning.