Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Why?

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: What is the meaning of your meaning of life doc? Why am I mostly wondering why I’m watching it?

Right off the bat, let me say you may just want to file this one away under my pet peeves, even moreso than most of the other DDFs I’ve written. If you have gotten satisfaction or something worthwhile from making or viewing docs on existential questions, more power to you. I have not, and I’ll briefly explain why here.

Generally the kind of doc I’m taking issue with here is one that sets out to explore the “big” questions – What is the meaning of life? Why is there conflict in the world? What is humanity’s purpose? What is love? What happens after we die? blah blah blah. Typically, the filmmaker chooses him/herself to act as a guide to exploring this topic, and sets out to find “experts” – perhaps academics, or theologians, or Nobel Prize winners – or, heck, maybe s/he bypasses those high-fallutin’ sorts and talks to perfectly ordinary men or women off the street for their opinions. Usually by the end of the journey, the filmmaker has found some wonderful, hopeful answers from his/her respondents that often boil down to some ridiculously simplistic conclusion, like “Love! Love is the meaning of life! Of course!”

Sure, call me a cynic, but I’m really tired of watching these kinds of docs. For one thing, as noted above, they’re all pretty much the same. Why? Because these questions are the big existential questions insofar as they don’t have answers. As a filmmaker making a meaning of life doc, do you think you’re really going to find a definitive answer and present it in the span of 90 minutes? Maybe if you managed to resuscitate Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha and interviewed them for a few years, you might have a start, but even then, good luck synthesizing it into a satisfying conclusion.

Let’s say you do manage to convince some quality interview subjects to give you some of their time. You’re really going to waste the Dalai Lama’s time by asking him what love is? It’s the Dalai Lama – he’s had a fascinating life. You can do better than that. If you have the access, make the most of it, and you might end up with a much more interesting, and much more unique interview.

Why do you think others will want to watch your existential doc? Yes, I know – some filmmakers don’t concern themselves overly with the question of audience. For some of you, you are making this film primarily because you want to – an artistic expression. All well and good, if you just make the film and shelve it, but if you send it out to festivals or broadcasters and try to have it seen, you probably should be thinking at least a little bit about audiences other than yourself. So, getting back to the question – why do you think others will want to watch your film?

Setting aside what might be your target audience – undergrad philosophy majors? self-help book fans? – are you offering anything innovative or engaging that other films on the same big questions haven’t already? Is your quest compelling viewing? What about the approach you’re taking makes it appropriate for the question you’re examining? If your answer to these questions involves skits, try again. (Sadly, yes, I’ve seen some existential docs make use of skits to try to bring a “unique” POV to the topic…)

Frankly, I don’t know that the documentary form is the appropriate vehicle to make much headway with these types of issues, at least not in a talking heads heavy format, and especially not in a survey film. If, instead, you find a fascinating subject whose life in some way offers the viewer a unique illustration or insight into one of the big questions, you might have something there. Moving from the theoretical and philosophical to the practical and personal may make the difference in convincing an audience member like me that your subject, and by extension, you, have something compelling to say about one of the big questions.

1 Comment

Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

One response to “Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Why?

  1. Andrew Lang

    Hi Basil. Its an interesting post, because these questions are exactly the ones tackled by some of the most timeless “fiction” filmmakers, such as Bergman, Bresson, Tarkovsky and Malick. And the conclusion “love is the meaning of life” is pretty much the conclusion of Malick’s Tree of Life, which he won the Palm D’or for. So why are such themes rarely (if ever?) successfully tackled documentary? I agree that talking heads is too literal a way of doing it. But I wonder if a filmmaker were able to dramatize questions of the meaning of life (as opposed to talk about them) whether the documentary world would be receptive? It seems that most documentaries that make any kind of impact are related to some kind of political, cultural or historical moment…and yet this is, arguably, exactly what they should not be if they are to be considered truly great art. The poet WH Auden, in his essay on Igor Stravinsky and the nature of great art wrote: “The most widespread error is to take political action as the model for artistic fabrication. To do this is to reduce art to an endless series of arbitrary happenings, and to produce in artists and public alike a conformism to the tyranny of the passing moment” Tarkovsky opined that “the political is always spurious when expressed overtly in a work of art”. Perhaps the overriding taste for documentaries to explore moments in time over existential questions is one of the reasons that documentary still has a hard time being accepted as high art on the same level as the best fiction films.

    Your post is interesting as I can imagine how these films grate by using talking heads and a very literal exploration of the themes. But as so often with What Not to Doc, I find myself feeling that the type of film being taken to task is POTENTIALLY more original than the majority of documentaries being made…I agree with you: that the only way to make this kind of film is to dramatize the themes rather than have people talk about them

    Just some opinions this morning. Hope you are well!

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