Why movies make the best journalism

May 27, 2015

We are enjoying a golden age of documentaries, although your underfunded neighborhood documentarian may feel otherwise. HBO, Netflix, and PBS are all producing excellent work that’s creating more buzz than print journalism, with films like Blackfish, Virunga, Going Clear, and Restrepo providing provocative and award-winning examples. Documentaries depend on drama, which creates chatter, which attracts eyeballs and advertisers. And as Robert Redford told the BBC in 2012, documentary films are “a better form of truth” than newspapers. Print would do well to watch its back or, better yet, learn a trick or two from its savvy media cousin.

What makes documentary film a better truth-delivery system than print? The most effective documentaries combine advocacy with immediacy. Film feels in the present tense, while print, striving for objectivity, lingers in the reflective past. “I left still photography because it could not provide the things that I knew films could provide,” said documentary godfather Willard Van Dyke in a 1965 Film Comment interview. “I was excited and interested in film as a pure medium of expression, but I was more interested in using it as a social end.”

The trick up documentary journalism’s sleeve is that while film seems impartial, it’s actually no less ideologically infected than any other medium. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which has grossed $222 million worldwide since its 2004 release to become the most financially successful documentary to date, was based on real reporting but took off on the strength of Moore’s wry, passionate, yet authoritative voice—a vital component, whether overt or implied, of the documentary experience.

Persuasion is one of documentary filmmaking’s foremost functions, and its use for progressive social change was recognized early on. Indeed, documentary originated as a leftist medium in the 1930s, a time of political unrest and economic crisis not unlike our own. Another vital component of Moore’s film, obviously, was its biting humor. A spoonful of irony helps the medicine go down, as demonstrated by the popularity and impact of fake/real TV comedian-journalists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Cinematic artistry is tough to beat. Print journalism, however arduously reported and beautifully written, will never quite overtake film’s experiential advantage. Much had been written about SeaWorld’s mistreatment of its whales prior to the release of Blackfish in 2013. But it took Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “hauntingly brutal” film to bring it into the consciousness of young America. While one might introduce political or humanitarian causes into the mainstream through persuasion alone, they’re more effective when coupled with a stylish visual component and identifiable point of view.

Documentaries are the original reality medium, and reality, as nearly every “reality TV” fan must know by now, is a form of fiction. And so is journalism, insofar as it rearranges facts into a story, emphasizing some while downplaying others. The “reality” of nature turned into something radically different in Netflix’s award-winning 2014 documentary Virunga. Filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel discovered desperate poachers, oil-company corruption, and heroic park rangers while filming an old-fashioned nature documentary about the gorillas of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The facts arranged themselves into a different story altogether.

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Journalism is no longer simply about reporting facts, if it ever was. And as storytelling gains ground as a means of grabbing and holding readers’ attention, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to argue for the moral superiority of print over film. As Academy Award-winning Citizenfour director Laura Poitras noted at a recent Sundance panel, documentary filmmaking is “journalism plus”: a combination of fact-finding, storytelling, and “trying to get at larger questions about the human condition.”

In the case of Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo, it’s more like “journalism double-plus.” Restrepo is the whole package: Articles for Vanity Fair evolved into the book War, the documentary film Junger made with the late war photographer Tim Hetherington, and its 2014 sequel, Korengal. Various aspects of the story were covered in broadcast news, National Geographic, and elsewhere. Restrepo offers a model for journalism that is neither print nor text, one or the other, but all of the above. Which is to say it attracted the attention of both readers and viewers, even though it grossed less than one percent as much as Fahrenheit 9/11, not that box office and viewership necessarily correlate.

Having a great story isn’t enough; someone also has to get it out there. And when it comes to marketing, film has it all over print. “You have to capitalize on the film’s intrinsic drama,” British documentary distributor Anna Godas told The Economist. “When we released Restrepo, we could have pushed it as this sad investigation into what it means to be a soldier in Afghanistan. Instead we pitched it as an action film, which is by far the more engaging angle.” Sometimes even a “better form of truth” needs spinning.

Richard Gehr writes for Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. His latest book is I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker’s Most Brilliantly Twisted Artists (New Harvest).