Documentary filmmaker at workWhat distinguishes a "documentary" from a "narrative feature"? You might as well say, what distinguishes Michael Moore from Brad Pitt? Moore has made three of the top five grossing docs since 1982; the other two featured penguins and global warming. We tend to associate "documentary" with "truth," though the "facts" presented are often disputed, and some highly-regarded "documentaries" have staged some or all of their content. Ronald Bergen in The Guardian argues that "there has always been 'cheating' in documentaries." He concludes: "Isn't it time we drop the word 'documentary' for good?"

Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is cited in the article as a "leading figure" of Direct Cinema, whose proponents "believed the camera could record the truth unobtrusively. But even Wiseman recognised that there is no pure documentary but all film-making is a process of imposing order on the filmed materials." Yesterday I watched part of Wiseman's The Store (1983) at AFI Dallas, and his skills as a filmmaker are evident: capturing a Neiman-Marcus salesman casually mention a $45,000 price tag, saleswomen being led through "finger calisthenics" and practice smiles, the opening and closing of elevator doors to signal location and time changes. Even if none of the footage was staged, Wiseman decided what to include in the finished film and in what order it would appear. We don't know what he may not have been permitted to shoot.

Some people think a "documentary" sounds like medicine: good for you but not fun to watch. I think the term itself has created a ghetto that keeps people from seeing great movies. What do you think? Is the term "documentary" archaic and out-of-date? Has the line between documentary and fiction become blurred beyond recognition? Is it time to drop "documentary" from our cinematic vocabulary?

categories Movies, Cinematical