How a Journalistic Approach Has Ruined Documentary Filmmaking By Antti Selkokari

in 12th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Antti Selkokari

Three recent documentaries at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival convinced me that it is not scandals, sale potential, or jokes that documentary filmmaking needs, but rather an honest artistic approach.

Frustratingly often a filmmaker confuses his role with that of a journalist, blurring the lines between chasing a scoop and creating a work of art. In his film Gray Matter , Joe Berlinger repeatedly refers to himself as a journalist, stating ” I and my journalist colleagues.” The approach in Avi Lewis’s The Take is closer to a TV news magazine show than that of a documentary film. As Cristina Nord wrote in her review of The Take from the Buenos Aires Film Festival in 2004, The Take does not care about reaching a visual concept beyond urgency; it does not care about developing a balanced perspective.” This critique is sad but true, since The Take repeatedly ridicules factory owners while leaving the larger view of Argentinian society uncovered. Jonathan Stack’s Liberia: An Uncivil War goes to great lengths to collect statements from every possible American citizen residing in Liberia during the civil war in the summer of 2003. Stack’s work has gruesome shock value as it shows some graphic pictures of corpses and blood splashing in the streets of the Liberian capital.

The reasons for the blurred lines between journalism and art spring organically from two facts: many directors who have worked professionally as television reporters have not made the transition from journalists to real artists successfully; another reason is that TV companies buy material they expect will be more suitable for television than the cinema screen. We should stop pretending that everything sold under the moniker of a documentary film really is just that and call it what it truly is: a TV feature.

In his film Gray Matter , filmmaker Joe Berlinger tries to track down an Austrian physician, Doctor Gross, who was assumed to be guilty of torturing and murdering handicapped children for medical purposes during the Nazi regime. Berlinger uses a lot of screen time to shock us with glass jars containing the brains of children. Dr. Gross evaded trial in 1950 when the legal process against him was stopped. Berlinger tries to convince us how he has revealed a lot of important evidence about a possible cover-up. The whole film self-destructs when it goes into full Nick Broomfield drive with Berlinger stomping around an Austrian neighbourhood knocking on people’s doors asking them if they have seen Dr. Gross. Showing real blood and children’s brains reeks of a filmmaker’s puerile glee at the expense of viewers.

Thinking back on Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 , the film created the biggest possible confusion among the audience and the critics alike. And now we are beginning to see the consequences, because every successful film paves the way for successors. At that time the world was happily chirping about how Moore’s film tells the truth about America. Instead, Fahrenheit should have been seen as a cartoon, a caricature in the vein of other great American iconoclasts like H. L. Mencken (the satirist well-known for his bite: “Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.”)

As entertaining and influential as works made by Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield are, entertainment should be considered as something extra, additional value that comes as a side effect and never as a final goal in itself. Otherwise, better quit documentary filmmaking and move onto comedies.