Call For Comments: What makes a documentary? You can’t handle the truth.

New this week on HBOMax, The Staircase is the narrative dramatization of Netflix’s 2004 docu-series The Staircase
Drunk History, An American Classic

From Monica: This semester I taught my first undergraduate class. It just so happens to have been on documentary film, which probably wasn’t the thing you’d expect from VoxPopcast’s resident fashion historian. But as someone very interested in the liminal spaces where reality and performance converge, I found a lot of theoretical overlap. Can we really capture a person’s “real” behavior when they’re aware of the presence of a camera? Has this ability changed now that cameras have shifted from novelty to a ubiquitous part of our lives? What is the role of social media in the “myth of photographic truth,” or the idea that the camera is evidentiary because of its ability to capture photographic realism? Can we ever really re-create or re-enact something? What are we prescribing onto a past event as filmmakers or viewers? Is it possible to escape the problems of spectacle in the documentary genre when our first conceptions of the genre were ethnographic films like Nanook of the North (1922) and wartime propaganda like Frank Capra’s Why We Fight (1942-45) and our current conceptions are somewhere between reality TV and Tiger King (2020-21)? Who is actually watching HBO’s dramatization of The Staircase (2022) when we already have Netflix’s The Staircase (2004)? Is Drunk History (2013-2019) actually a documentary about the ability to recall facts in a state of inebriation? I’ll be honest— the thing about teaching that I didn’t expect was that despite knowing a lot about documentaries, re-engaging with this material actually made me feel more like I was someone masquerading as knowing a lot about documentaries. It’s finals week and I’m still sitting with a lot of unresolved questions, which seemed like a natural fit for a new podcast episode. 

Borat, the other American classic.

A documentary is rather loosely defined as a film with a factual subject and form, which is perhaps why so many auteur styles fit so nebulously inside. You might think of Ken Burns’ love of nine straight hours of still photographs and voice-over narration. But admittedly, the things you think about Ken Burns aren’t the things Ken Burns thinks about himself, which is to say that Ken Burns considers himself an “emotional archaeologist” and not the “sleepy naptime movie” you remember from high school History. Or you might consider Michael Moore’s controversial provocateur style in Roger and Me (1989), which arguably seems to have walked the satirical line of socio-political commentary so that Sasha Baron Cohen/Borat (2006, 2020) could run. Or you could consider the way Jennie Livingston, director of Paris is Burning (1990) denounces that contemporary documentary tends to approach their subjects with a sense of irony without acknowledging that the tradition may have emerged much earlier, recalling films like Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens (1975). Or the ways that true crime documentaries seem to measure their success based on if they can change the judicial outcome in the real world by re-opening a case, a precedent set by Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line (1988), but leading to the potential of biases in projects like Making a Murderer (2015-2018). Or you could watch hours and hours of MTV’s Catfish (2012-2022) without realizing how little it has in common with the original Catfish (2010).

Grey Gardens, 1975

This week we’ll be joined by our friends Tobias Deml, director of Gaming Wall Street (2022) and Julie Sokolow, director of Aspie Seeks Love (2015), for a discussion regarding if our contemporary definitions of documentary have changed; especially when it comes to the newfound popularity of the documentary genre amongst streaming platforms which seem to want to make everything into an episodic deep dive. Let us know your thoughts!

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