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?