How do you respond to one-sided documentaries? Do you dismiss them for their lack of fair and balanced reporting? Do you celebrate the film if you agree with its agenda and denounce the film if you're against its position? Are you approving of bias only if it's upfront and/or personalized (a la Michael Moore)? And finally, where do you draw the line at accepting one-sidedness? Obviously any film against the Holocaust is okay. There's no other socially acceptable side to be on. But is everybody okay with a one-sided film against dolphin slaughter? How about one against the mass murder of electric cars?

These are all questions for which I'm curious how a general audience feels. I know how most critics respond to non-fiction films: subjectively enough that I can tell the politics and beliefs of the writer based on how he or she reviews them. Occasionally I'll know even before the reviews are out. At press screenings, critics tend to cheer and boo more during documentaries than fiction films. Footage of George W. Bush has especially elicited sneers from audiences at such screenings over the past few years.

Yet even with the critics who wear their ideologies on their sleeves there will always be a considerable preference for balanced documentaries, the sort that evenly lay out two sides of an issue, feature testimony from experts and significant parties representing both viewpoints and are at least seemingly nonpartisan or lacking in any agenda on the part of the filmmakers. This is especially welcome with hot button topics like abortion, which is why Tony Kaye's Lake of Fire was so well received. It's one of the most successfully apolitical documentaries ever constructed.
Yet that specific, brilliant example aside, I tend to favor documentaries with a certain leaning and appreciate most films with an angle as far from neutral as possible, no matter the side taken. I'm not talking about films that completely ignore other points of view or those with unfair, ungrounded and deceptive claims (a la both Michael Moore and his opponents at times). I mean documentaries that have real purpose and are made by filmmakers who are passionate about the subject being documented as well as their honest perspective on it.

It's surprising how many filmmakers appear to shake away their perspectives in the hopes of being more balanced or impartial only to produce a film that comes off as indifferent or ambivalent about the subject matter. Sure, there are documentaries about specific people and events that are totally objective, but when a film looks at a topic that's broader and/or issue-oriented, a documentarian is best to take a stance and say something about that topic.

This week I watched two very different new documentaries. The first, which I will only slightly discuss because I want to praise it more fully closer to its release date, is the necessarily one-sided The Art of the Steal. I say necessarily because if its story, detailing fifty years of a custody battle involving a multi-billion-dollar art collection, were to be a more balanced look at the dispute between little-power art students and big-money bureaucrats, it would have been extremely bland. The issue is not well known or important enough to most people to be attractive solely on facts and equal-measured debate. There has to be a classic David vs. Goliath narrative. Yet it unsurprisingly has been criticized for its one-sidedness.

The other film is called Waiting for Armageddon, and it follows three Evangelical families who believe the Rapture is coming any day now. The documentary is a rarity in that it approaches its subject matter openly and without agenda yet is narrowly one-sided in its scope. Directed by three filmmakers, Kate Davis (Southern Comfort), her sometime collaborator David Heilbroner (Pucker Up) and Franco Sacchi (American Eunuchs), all of who were curious and for the most part unknowledgeable about Christian Zionism and their beliefs regarding the Rapture, Tribulation and Armageddon.

Initially I was excited about the approach, which reminded me of Kaye's motives for making Lake of Fire. He was undecided on the issue of abortion and therefore went to both sides and documented them as if he were a juryman considering fairly both arguments in a trial. But Davis and company don't present any other views on their subject than those on the side of Christian Zionism. And while that should be fine for a film intent on merely informing of them and their beliefs, the lack of passion apparent in the result makes for an ultimately dull learning experience.

I don't know what could have been better, though. A filmmaker who disagreed with the subjects already would be pointless. And I wouldn't want to see a film about Evangelical families that held them in contempt or exploited them in any way. Documentaries that make fun of their subjects for entertainment value are insulting to me as much as they are to the people being mocked onscreen. Yet a film made by someone more aligned to the subjects also wouldn't have that sense of wonder and investigation required for what the filmmakers were going for, either.

But what is the other side that might be appropriately added to a film like Waiting for Armageddon? Scientists? Muslims who'd like to argue against the Evangelical Christian tourists wishing for and regularly joking about how the Dome of the Rock needs to be destroyed ASAP for the second coming of Jesus to occur? Yeah, maybe there is room for some balanced opinion on some aspects of the film's subject matter. But there's also no reason there can't simply be a film about these people and their singular point of view.

What are some of your favorite one-sided or well-balanced documentaries and why do they work with the approach they adhere to?
categories Columns, Cinematical