None of this mattered to the reviewers. Most raved, with several singling out Sauper’s filmmaking techniques for praise. “Rather than use voice-over or talking-head expert interviews,” A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times, “he allows the dimensions of the story to emerge through one-on-one conversation and acutely observed visual detail.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote approvingly of Sauper’s “willingness to avoid hectoring voice-overs and simply talk quietly with his subjects.” And, in The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday noted that Sauper “takes his time building his case, never inserting his own editorial voice but letting the Tanzanians, and occasionally a representative of the World Bank or European Union or United Nations or some other interchangeable part of Ineffective and Cynical Bureaucracy Writ Large, tell their own story.” This is preposterous—Sauper’s “editorial voice” informs every frame of his film. It’s just not overt. (This suggests another common problem with narrator-less films; while pretending to have no point of view, they often have a very strong one.)
For all its shortcomings, Darwin’s Nightmare remains an impressive and haunting film, one fully deserving of Oscar consideration. Had it offered less art and more information, however, it might have actually won.
The roots of the bias against narration run deep. They can be traced back to the 1950s and the rise of cinéma vérité. At that time, some French filmmakers began using small cameras and unobtrusive sound equipment to record natural action and authentic dialogue—part of an effort to get at the true nature of reality. Narration and voice-over were shunned as disrupting the sense of intimacy and authenticity they were trying to achieve. In the 1960s and early 1970s, this approach was adopted in America by such pioneers as Frederick Wiseman, who in Titicut Follies exposed the horrendous living conditions in a hospital for the “criminally insane,” and Albert and David Maysles, who in Grey Gardens recorded the eccentric routine of two elderly women living in a dilapidated twenty-eight-room mansion in East Hampton.
The Maysles brothers became especially influential, gathering around them a coterie of young directors, editors, and cameramen to whom they preached the vérité gospel. Among its canons: get close to your subject; show rather than tell; avoid imposing a point of view; and never, ever, use narration. In thus urging, the Maysles were reacting against traditional documentaries of the sort produced by CBS Reports, with their prosecutorial tone and “Voice of God” narration. Thus trained, these young filmmakers went on to produce some of the greatest documentaries of all time, including Hearts and Minds, Peter Davis’s withering attack on U.S. policy in Vietnam, and Harlan County, USA, Barbara Kopple’s riveting portrayal of a Kentucky miners’ strike. Neither film used narration, relying instead on a skillful blend of images, interviews, and archival footage to create a powerful impression.
What was fresh and compelling then, however, has become stale and conventional now. Vérité has become dogma and, in the process, contributed to what Manohla Dargis of The New York Times has called “the maddening sloppiness that distorts too many nonfiction projects.” For a measure of the change, one need only compare Harlan County, USA to Shut Up and Sing.
Of late, vérité’s reign has been challenged. Some filmmakers, rather than squelch the narrator, have placed him at the very center of the film. Leading the way here, of course, is Michael Moore. Beginning with Roger & Me and continuing with Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko, Moore has single-handedly created a new genre in which the narrator serves not only as commentator but also as tour guide, provocateur, stuntmaster, and stand-up comic. Going a step further, Morgan Spurlock, the director of Super Size Me, a polemic against the fast-food industry, builds the entire film around his own expansive (and waist-expanding) persona. Here the narrator seems less the Voice of God than Godzilla, trampling on everything in its path.