It was a familiar feeling. I’ve seen a lot of documentaries lately; indeed, they’re hard to avoid. They’re celebrated at Sundance, awarded prime slots on HBO, given lengthy runs in art houses. They’ve even commanded the attention of the Nobel judges. With digital technology bringing down the cost of production, it sometimes seems that everyone south of Twenty-third Street in Manhattan is making a documentary, and the term “indie” is invoked with the same reverence once reserved for “auteur.”
Why, then, when viewing these films, do I so often feel bored, disgruntled, and perplexed? Watching An Unreasonable Man, for instance, a chronicle of Ralph Nader’s career as consumer gadfly, public advocate, and national politician, I became annoyed at its sketchy and selective treatment of his role in the 2000 presidential campaign. Sitting through Shut Up and Sing, Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s examination of the storm that engulfed the Dixie Chicks after their lead singer said she was ashamed that George Bush was from Texas, I became impatient with the shapeless sequences from their domestic lives and the interminable discussions of their career prospects. Watching When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee’s meditation on Hurricane Katrina and its cataclysmic effects on New Orleans, I found myself counting down the minutes on my DVD player as yet another redundant interview or storm sequence was offered up.
In too many cases, documentaries seem to omit critical information. Or fail to provide important context. Or neglect to follow up interesting leads. Or leave impressions that are never backed up. All in all, something seems to be missing. And, based on my spate of viewing, I think I know what it is: a narrator. In all of the above-mentioned films, there is no narration or voice-over, no guiding intelligence to help the viewer make sense of the kaleidoscope of images and interviews being presented. This is not by chance. In the world of indie filmmaking, narration is verboten. It is seen as old-fashioned and heavy-handed, a device more appropriate to slow-footed journalism than cutting-edge art. It’s considered far more effective to let the story “tell itself,” to have it quietly unfold so the viewer can discover it on his own. The only type of outside intervention allowed is “intertitles,” those scribbled info cards that seem lifted from silent movies.
With the right subject and right filmmaker, the no-narration approach can be effective. (A good example is The War Room, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall look at the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign.) What’s more, the lack of a narrator is not the only source of the documentary blues. Clumsiness, self-indulgence, and political tendentiousness play a part as well. Nonetheless, the failure to use a narrator is often a key drawback, one that can turn even the most compelling footage into a mish-mash.
Darwin’s Nightmare is a good example. Directed by the Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper and nominated for an Academy Award in 2006, the movie describes the destructive train of events set in motion when, in the 1960s, the Nile perch was introduced into Africa’s Lake Victoria. A voracious species, the fish quickly devoured most other life in the lake. After its flavorful white meat was discovered in Europe and Japan, demand for the fish boomed, and the perch trade flourished. In one of many powerful images, Darwin’s Nightmare shows giant Soviet-era cargo planes touching down on a runway in Mwanza, a town on the Tanzanian shore of the lake. Taking on fifty-five tons of the fish, they’re barely able to lift off. Meanwhile, the bellies of the locals go unfilled. The film offers a harrowing look at the collateral damage of the perch trade—the sad-eyed street prostitutes who service the Russian pilots; the destitute families of fishermen who succumb to either aids or the crocodiles in the lake; and, in one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen on film, the filthy, festering open-air pits where the maggot-infested carcasses of the filleted perch are dried and fried before being carried off for sale to locals too poor to afford the flesh of the fish itself.