Out of Focus

How indie dogma undercuts the documentary

Recently, I attended a screening of the documentary Meeting Resistance, an inside look at the Iraqi insurgency. I was eager to see it. Few Western journalists had managed to penetrate the insurgency, and the glimpse offered in the documentary was original enough to garner showings at West Point, Centcom, and Camp Victory in Baghdad—part of an effort by the U.S. military to educate its soldiers about the adversary they face. As an added lure, the film’s directors, Molly Bingham and Steve Connors, were going to be on hand to take questions.

At the core of Meeting Resistance is footage from interviews with nearly a dozen insurgents living in the Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya. Each is identified with a simple generic tag. Each makes startling observations. The Teacher, a middle-class man with three children, describes stockpiling weapons for use in killing collaborators. The Traveler, a poor laborer who says he spent twenty years fighting alongside the Palestinians before returning to Iraq, boasts about the quality of the insurgents’ intelligence. When Paul Wolfowitz visited Baghdad, he claims, they knew “what time he comes in, what time he leaves…even his room number.” The Fugitive says that the Americans detained his mother so that he’d turn himself in; whether she’s released or not, he announces, “I will stay in the resistance.” The Syrian describes coming to Iraq to perform jihad; The Imam discusses the key part clerics are playing in encouraging resistance; and The Wife discloses how she uses her abaya to carry weapons and messages without being detected. “I yearn to be martyred,” she declares. The portrait given is that of a movement that is thoroughly disciplined, unwaveringly courageous, and utterly determined.

As to why the insurgents fight, however, Meeting Resistance seemed less sure-footed. The film gives prominent attention to a professor at Baghdad University who, having studied the insurgency, offers some precise figures about its composition. Eighty-five percent of the movement, he says, “is motivated by religion,” with young men impelled by Islam to regard “every aggressor, every occupier, as an enemy they should fight.” Thirteen percent are motivated “by patriotism, tribal codes, or revenge or reprisal” in response to “the bad actions of the occupation.” The remaining 2 percent are Baathists from the former regime. In their interviews, several insurgents attest to the part Islam played in their decision to oppose the Americans. Others, however, mention different sorts of motivations. “I remember what they did to us during the war, my friends that they killed,” says The Warrior. Whenever American tanks and soldiers passed by, he adds, “I felt a fire in my heart.” The Traveler describes an acquaintance who, after being roughed up by the Americans, goes out and buys a rocket launcher, which he promptly uses against them. “My ideology is nationalist,” The Traveler observes, declaring that “this is the greatest opportunity to establish the core of Arab unity.” That didn’t sound very Islamic.

During the question-and-answer period, some audience members picked up on these discrepancies. One woman said that, before attending the screening, she had watched the trailer of the film on the Internet and that it had asked, “What would you do if someone invaded your country?” That, she said, left the strong impression that nationalism was the main motivator behind the insurgency. Yet the film itself, she went on, strongly suggested that Islam was. Which was it? Responding, Molly Bingham said that when she and her co-director began their research, in May 2003, the insurgency had been largely secular in outlook but that over the course of their interviewing, as the occupation toughened, the population had undergone a transformation, growing more radical and more religious.

That seemed a critical observation. Why, I wondered, wasn’t it in the film? Other pertinent information seemed to be missing as well. During a discussion of the insurgents’ determination to silence traitors, for instance, a body is shown lying in a river. Was this man in fact a traitor? What were the circumstances behind his death? The film did not say. At another point, after a fighter describes the care the insurgents take to avoid civilian casualties, we are shown the aftermath of a car bomb in which a hundred people were killed or wounded. Who was behind the attack? The insurgents? If so, what did that say about their stated concern for civilian casualties? Again, no explanation. There were many other ambiguities of this sort. So, while awed by the directors’ courage and tenacity in gathering their material, I came away from the screening frustrated by the gaps I saw in the finished product (not to mention the generally rosy way in which the insurgents were portrayed).

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.

While effectively evoking this bleak backwater, the film simultaneously explores reports that the cargo planes that fly in to pick up the fish arrive not empty, as local notables maintain, but filled with weapons for use in Africa’s endless civil wars. After various tantalizing clues are offered up, a Russian pilot finally confesses on camera that, on his flights down to Africa, he does indeed bring weapons with him, offloading them in Angola before traveling on to Johannesburg to pick up grapes for the return trip to Europe. So, the pilot says in his broken English, “the childrens of Angola received guns for Christmas, and European children receives grapes.” Explosive and wrenching, the revelation seems the final brilliant stroke in a piercing parable about the cruel logic of global capitalism.

Yet, as I watched, the old feelings of irritation and befuddlement began to rise. Darwin’s Nightmare uses no narrator, just the occasional intertitle to impart some shards of information, and the results are often confounding. At one point, for instance, the film shows some grainy clips of an ecological conference in Kenya where some platitudes are uttered about the quality of the lake’s fish, but these pass by so quickly that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. In describing the perch trade, the film shows the plant where the fish are packaged, but we’re never told how much the workers make or what broader benefits the plant may have produced for the community. The discussion of the arms-for-fish pipeline seems especially muddled. In his determination to avoid narration, Sauper at one point has a night watchman at a fish research institute read a few lines from an investigative article in a regional newspaper. The journalist who wrote the piece is interviewed, but in so fleeting a fashion that we can’t tell how he arrived at his conclusions. What’s more, the climactic admission from the Russian pilot seems to diverge from the one offered by the journalist—a variance that the film makes no effort to address.

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.

More recently, there has emerged another school that, seeking neither to bury the narrator nor to praise him, uses him simply to inform and explain. A good example is No End in Sight, Charles Ferguson’s pitiless dissection of the Bush administration’s planning and execution of the Iraq war. The film uses no flashy graphics, no clever juxtapositions, no cinematic gimmicks, just a series of well-informed interviews intercut with vivid archival footage—all efficiently moved along by the unassuming but confident narrator (the actor Campbell Scott). In Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Alex Gibney uses a lively mix of talking heads, news clips, stylish visuals, and arresting audiotapes to convey the greed and arrogance of this one-time corporate juggernaut and to show how it embodied the rapacious, roulette-like, deregulated economy of turn-of-the-century America. Such a multidimensional presentation would have been impossible, I think, without the use of a voice-over to make it all cohere.

Watching these films, I somehow felt I was witnessing the rebirth of old-school documentary making, the triumph of traditional journalistic values over pretentious art-house ones. Eager to test my hypothesis, I called Alex Gibney. On hearing it, however, he bristled. “I don’t necessarily think film should be like journalism,” he told me. A documentary “does something very different from an article, using images and sound rather than the written word to create a powerful impression.” At the same time, Gibney said, he has no patience for the resistance to narration. “There’s no excuse for not being clear,” he said. In his recently released Taxi to the Dark Side—a searing look at U.S. interrogation policies post-9/11—the use of a narrator helps not only to tighten the film but also to make it more lucid. “Why test an audience’s attention span by cutting together fourteen different sound bites when you can get the same thing across with five words of narration?” Gibney asked. Today’s filmmakers, he said, “are trapped in a paradigm,” one in which “fashion too often overcomes good sense. It seems to me perverse.”

It’s time to jettison the paradigm. But are the indies independent enough to do so? 

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Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.