“Houston We Have A Problem,” Nicole Torre‘s documentary feature that I helped produce, had a good run of film festivals this year (noted here in previous blogs). After the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam we began discussions on final distribution and if the film was a “feature” documentary or one slated for television.
Doculink, a documenatry discussion board (and one of the great resources for any filmmaker) has recently carried many postings on the top documentaries of the decade and some Listers were limiting their choices on “theatrical” releases. I’ve never met Adam Hyman with Los Angeles Filmforum, but I thought he did an amazing job of addressing the issue on Doculink and with his permission, I reprint it below.
American Documentary “Feature” vs. “Television” by Adam Hyman
There is an absurd division (although one with real economic and artistic effects) between “feature” and “television” docs in America, where almost always only the former are taken seriously, although, as with the UK, probably 95% or more
are made for the latter.
A large element of this is that the television docs almost always have pre-ordained styles from the networks, and often have narrators, and both of these factors are considered limitations on being either “true” documentaries or “expressions of the director.” Most often the latter can be true, when one does watch various television doc series (I am for now separating “reality” from “non-fiction” or “documentary” shows, as even the Academy does now), one can see is the issues, particularly in visuals and in structure. I think that despite those limitations (and lack of budgets for high-end CGI or reenactments), many television docs still have a smart and often interesting (in content if not in style) approach to their topics.
In part this is tied to the eternal hierarchy that the film world does its best to instill, with theatrical releases being “better” or at least more worthy of analysis than works made for television. (In part to overcome the vastly greater viewership of television). In part it’s related to the criticism world, still often conducted in terms of auteurs, where theatrical releases are seen as work of a director, and television works are seen as works of a producer and network executives. There is truth in the latter, of course, but the baby is also thrown out with the bath water.
Usually docs with theatrical releases are the only ones that get on people’s radars. Many of the best docs, of course, never get a theatrical release in the US, nor a TV release; if they are from a foreign country or are
unconventional (or even more just “observational”), perhaps they just play a festival or two, and that’s it. It’s also impossible to keep up with even a reasonable percentage of works made for television (or theaters, really).
Another factor is the bias in America for direct cinema docs as “truer” over any with narration or reenactments, also a longer discussion… There are a variety of other reasons as well, which I hope will be raised by others.
But, in the USA, the only documentary director who works for TV whose name is more generally known is Ken Burns, even though many others should be known. But for example, I think the program “102 Minutes That Changed
America,” which was a History Channel show, was a remarkable documentary – the experience of the World Trade Center collapse assembled entirely from home videos, without narration. I am amazed that the History Channel aired it. And I can’t tell you the name of the director. But it’s a work that is worthy of viewing and discussion. But at the same time the History Channel (I also will never start calling it “History” as they attempt to rebrand it, especially as they reduce the
historical content on it) also still airs in the daytime lots of WWII docs, almost all stylistically the same, etc.
There’s also a strong bias from the Academy against “music” docs, and for “activism” and “war” docs. People (well, Academies) usually evaluate docs based on their subject and not on how good the film actually is…but that’s a whole other discussion. I did note the absence of music docs from Erin’s very good starting list (I would call it 50 Worthy Films, rather than “Best” but whatever) – “Anvil”; “Some Kind of Monster”; “Devil & Daniel Johnston” and “DiG!” I think are also
worthy films from the Aughts. Ah, but look, I also have just listed 4 that had theatrical releases, and I bet there are some fine ones made for TV. Just thought of one – “Musician” in the “Work” series – a portrait of Ken Vandermark, an hour doc, probably shown only on European television and some alternative venues in the US, but made by a Chicago filmmaker, Daniel Kraus. But portraits of musicians are also never considered to be “important” films, like those of other topics, even though they often get theatrical releases if the musicians have suitable public following.
Ah, another discussion of underlying biases – the best result of “Best of” lists… 🙂