Dear Documentary Filmmakers: While you don’t have to be impartial, whitewashing your subject’s faults diminishes your doc.
You’ve decided to make a film on a public figure of some sort – perhaps an internationally-known historical personage or a locally-known small-town politician – and you’re approaching the project as a kind of biography. Even though your subject was implicated in some kind of scandal, or perhaps didn’t have the smoothest personal life, you choose to ignore these darker aspects of her life or instead to present a revisionist version which makes her out to be unblemished. In so doing, you’re perpetuating myth-making, and, especially in the case of political subjects, essentially generating partisan versions of history – at worst, a form of propaganda, and at best, hagiography.
Let me be clear: Documentarians are under no obligation to maintain strict journalistic objectivity. Some, of course, choose to, because this approach fits the kind of project they want to make. In other cases, such as advocacy films, the filmmaker wants to take a stand in an explicit, partial manner. While she may attempt to include oppositional voices in her film in order to convey the fullness of the issue being explored, the tone or focus of the overall project still signals her stance as firmly in one camp versus in another.
While I’m not arguing that every doc must present a fair and balanced analysis of both sides of the story, I do believe that filmmakers should strive to be intellectually honest with their audience. In the case of biographers of public figures, if you are personally a supporter of your subject, you don’t necessarily have to provide a soapbox for her detractors, but you should acknowledge the criticism and how she has dealt with it. You don’t have to dwell on the scandals that have plagued her, but if they are part of the public discourse, it’s disingenuous of you not to address them in some manner.
To not do so puts you at risk of creating a portrait of your subject that is without nuance, lacking a critical perspective that can offer insight and expanded analysis. The problem with such hagiographic approaches is that they idealize their subjects (the term’s literal meaning is “writing about a saint”), and while that may be perfectly fine viewing for acolytes of your subject, it doesn’t offer much to an audience who is seeking a more complex portrait, or who may not be convinced of your subject’s exalted status. Ultimately, such a preaching-to-the-converted profile is often incredibly boring and incredibly easy to dismiss – and that seems to be the exact opposite result filmmakers hope for.