Are there still documentaries? A glance at this year’s Oscar nominees, a thriving festival circuit, and my own Netflix history makes the answer plain. And yet the question persists. It squats at the end of long days spent consuming “real” images and “true” stories, navigating the apps and feeds animated by user content, the video-driven news homepages, the platforms that upload hundreds of vlogs and tutorials each minute. It confronts those who spend the same long days being captured, consensually and otherwise, by the cameras surrounding us, embedded in the screens we use to watch other people eat, unbox, talk into their bathroom mirrors, and react to other people in other videos. A world in which reality is screened by definition would seem to pose a threat to a genre rooted in its claim on real life. What now distinguishes documentary from the air we breathe?
Watching the 2020 Oscar-nominee Honeyland, in which a rural Macedonian beekeeper finds her meager way of life threatened, clarifies that question. Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, Honeyland is tradition-bound in form and content: Its picturesque extremities and trade in exoticism invoke the ethnographic studies of Robert Flaherty, whose entirely staged Nanook of the North (1922) is widely considered to be the first documentary. Merging a vérité ethos with hyperpolished execution, the intimacy of the filmmakers’ access and a painterly, chiaroscuro aesthetic invite a particular type of wonder. Kotevska and Stefanov follow Macedonian honey farmer Hatidze as she coos and hollers at her bees in a peasant skirt and headscarf, performs sacred extraction rituals, befriends sketchy new neighbors, and feeds and harangues her ailing mother inside the stone-walled hovel where they live. Odd, extraordinary, and bound by fading traditions, the lonely toil of one of Europe’s last wild beekeepers is almost too perfect a documentary subject. This may explain why—although I could not take my eyes off of Hatidze—I was unsure, throughout, of how to look at her.
Watching documentary today is a dual experience in much the same way, I imagine, that watching the earliest moving images must have been. Viewers of Lumière actualités recognized what they saw—workers leaving a factory; a train pulling into the station—as both clear reflections of the real world and utterly fantastic, a sort of magic trick. The rise of documentary helped parse that response onto separate tracks; throughout the twentieth century, nonfiction filmmaking made claims on authenticity and dispassion it was not designed to uphold. One effect of an era of atomic media literacy and nonstop screen exposure is a sort of full-circle revival of that first, deceptively sophisticated reaction to the moving image, particularly when it comes to representations of “reality.” A willingness to accept documentary images once again exists in tandem with the impulse to mistrust them. A shift in the way we evaluate such imagery emphasizes what can’t be seen: a sense of good or bad faith, of the author’s intentions.
To the extent that every documentary enacts a drama of intention, this shift has brought the genre renewed relevance. Bound by formal and narrative constraints, nonfiction films present a focused opportunity to hone an increasingly urgent skill—the viewer’s sense of whom and what to credit. Among other things, to be impressed by a documentary is to be persuaded that trust is still possible between two people on opposite sides of a camera, and to be implicated in that possibility.
If Honeyland almost completely effaces the presence of its directors, the duo is embedded in each exquisite shot, the uncommon degree of access, their subjects’ apparent comfort. A late scene in which Hatidze’s sobs over her mother’s corpse forces the unavoidable question: to believe or not to believe? Hatidze’s apparent trust in the filmmakers works to relax a viewer inclined to doubt such a marvelous story, to question the truth of each sublime stroke of light and immaculate tableau. Precisely because it upholds so many documentary norms, Honeyland can be viewed both as a successful example of the form and a referendum on its own existence. More than informing and educating, raising awareness, or telling incredible true stories, today’s best documentaries renew our faith in documentary itself. Honeyland’s second Oscar nomination—for Best International Feature, a category generally reserved for fiction films—confirms its fruitful traffic in duality.
Far from doubting the genre’s continued existence, in his prologue to Screening Reality: How Documentary Filmmakers Reimagined America, Jon Wilkman calls ours a “golden age of documentary filmmaking.” A nonfiction director with roots in public broadcasting, Wilkman has written a history of American documentary beginning with Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 photographic motion studies and ending with that “documentary-inspired mutant, Reality TV,” the president it helped birth, and the “post-truth era” both entities now represent. Wilkman touches only peripherally on the streaming revolution, a major factor in the volume of documentaries now under production, and the willingness of viewers to consume them the same way we do much else: privately, and in bulk.
American Factory, the 2020 Oscar winner for Best Documentary, tracks the reopening of a shuttered Ohio GM factory under the ownership of Fuyao, a Chinese auto-glass empire, is the first release from Higher Ground Productions, the company formed by Barack and Michelle Obama in 2018. If their production deal with Netflix—reported to be in the high eight figures—and announcement of a doc-heavy release slate helps affirm the golden age that Wilkman invokes, it is even more certain evidence of the streaming gold rush: In at least one pocket of the American economy, mass production is alive and well.
Shades of the Obama deal emerge in Wilkman’s framing of Henry Ford and Franklin Roosevelt as among the first to harness effectively documentary’s powers of cultural influence. Having transformed American life via the automobile, along with being dedicated to “informative persuasion” and “defining America’s national identity,” Ford turned to the movie camera. He began by filming his employees on the line, looking for ways to improve efficiency, and in 1914 founded the company’s motion-picture department. His first film, How Henry Ford Makes One Thousand Cars a Day, premiered at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. The Ford Educational Weekly, a series of short, civics-oriented docs, screened before features in theaters nationwide. By 1918, Wilkman writes, Ford, who donated the shorts, was “arguably the most influential nonfiction producer and distributor in the United States.”
If Teddy Roosevelt’s image was enhanced by his strutting newsreel appearances, FDR was more interested in how nonfiction film might support New Deal policies and counter titans of capital like Henry Ford. Among the classics that emerged from this effort—part of Roo-sevelt’s Works Progress Administration—is Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), “a historical survey of the devastating impact of decades of overcultivation in the Dust Bowl of the Great Plains.” Lorentz’s next film, The River (1938), turned to a Mississippi valley devastated by unregulated agriculture and deforestation. If The River connected with audiences and critics in ways that Plow did not, Hollywood remained unsure what to do with this new kind of true-life storytelling—didactic but pretty, lyric but political, and more often than not a giant bummer. The River won Best Documentary at the 1938 Venice International Film Festival, but another government-sponsored doc, Leni Riefenstahl’s sleek, triumphal Olympia, took the Coppa Mussolini—then the prize for best film.
From Wilkman’s dutiful, scattered charting of the genre’s progress, there emerges a shadow history of American documentary as a predominantly leftist art form. Robert Flaherty’s work inspired the British critic and filmmaker John Grierson to coin the term documentary. Grierson’s exposure to William Randolph Hearst’s “yellow press” while traveling through 1920s America led him to wonder, Wilkman writes, “if there was a way to redirect that persuasive power to the service of progressive activism.” Other filmmakers and photographers, including Dziga Vertov, Paul Strand, and Ralph Steiner, wondered the same thing. By the time Henry Ford died in 1947, leaving a foundation from which a thousand public-television docs would eventually bloom, American documentary was closely aligned with Grierson’s belief that the form should be a tool for social change and purveyor of liberal ideals.
Wilkman affirms this idea, connecting documentary’s “long tradition of resistance to injustice, corruption, and lies” to those filmmakers—including Michael Moore, Barbara Kopple, and Alex Gibney—who today counter a “post-truth” era “with humor, socially committed storytelling, and relentless journalism.” He gives an apt accounting of American documentary’s interest in the conditions from which it emerges, the way the genre was shaped by and responded to a century defined by industry, technology, free markets, civil rights, institutional fracture, relativism, the individual, and an insatiable hunger for the real. But on documentary’s fractious, juicy questions of form, ethics, and ideology—including that of its political DNA—Wilkman’s rhetoric turns vague, passive, prone to consensus. A determined lack of ideas and analysis leaves the reader somewhat adrift, watching from a distance as wave after provocative wave crests and washes into the shore, unridden.
Wilkman characterizes the current moment with a mix of enthusiasm and rue. If documentarians had long sought political support as a means to enacting change, he writes, “in 2016 the insider ambitions of nonfiction filmmakers were finally realized, but not as most hoped.” Presumably not part of the golden age at hand are the documentaries of Dinesh D’Souza, notably America: Imagine the World Without Her (2014), and 2016: Obama’s America (2012), the second-highest-grossing doc of 2014 and the fifth-highest-grossing doc of all time, respectively. D’Souza has roundly bested Steve Bannon, the would-be Leni Riefenstahl of the Republican Party, whose dozen or so documentaries “attacking liberals and advocating far-right nationalist causes” were largely ignored.
Wilkman frames D’Souza’s success as a function of ubiquitous viewing platforms and a severely polarized climate, eliding in the process a key part of the genre’s legacy. He attributes the belief of D’Souza fans that “truth was a choice, determined by one’s point of view” to postmodernism, “a leftist literary theory that was especially popular among academics in the 1980s.” But across the genre’s brief history, insofar as it pursues political aims, even the most righteous documentary has functioned as an instrument of division. Conservatives have always hated Michael Moore, just as they stonewalled Pare Lorentz. Wilkman writes of how Jewish studio executives refused to meet with Riefenstahl during her 1938 victory lap of Hollywood, which happened to coincide with Kristallnacht, the historic pogrom ordered by Riefenstahl’s sponsor, Adolf Hitler.
In a promotional video for American Factory, the former president and first lady appear in conversation with the documentary’s codirectors, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar. Shot in a loose, observational style, American Factory makes an old documentary story new: Reconfigured by global capitalism but real as ever, here are the worker and the man, the personal and political, empire and the individual. Now in her seventies, Reichert, who has said she did not “‘decide to be a filmmaker’ so much as decide to use the tools of documentary to make social change,” appears in a chapter of Screening Reality called “Additional Takes,” an awkward compilation of the pioneering work of women, Black filmmakers (including William Greaves and Henry Hampton), and other documentarians of color, Hector Galán, Beverly Singer, and Bob Nakamura among them. “You let people tell their own story,” Michelle Obama tells Reichert, explaining her attraction to American Factory. Although the Obamas signed on as producers after its completion, the association presumably doomed the film with the right-wing audience from whom their production deal spurred vows to cancel subscriptions and watch “Leftflix” nevermore.
It’s possible to read Screening Reality as a slow-moving disaster story. In a darker mood, Wilkman’s passage on World War I cameramen jockeying to record coveted moving images of actual combat, then deciding to stage them when that proved near impossible, might strike a reader as the beginning of the end. Despite the title—and Wilkman’s repeated invocations of the untenably vast, proliferating thing called “screened reality”—the book’s purview is relatively narrow. Much of what earns a place in this history hews to a traditional definition of documentary: early classics like Man of Aran and the World War II docs The Battle of Midway and Let There be Light; cinema verité landmarks including Primary, Salesman, and Dont Look Back; the long careers of Frederick Wiseman, Kopple, Ken Burns, and Errol Morris; and the recent wave of true-crime epics that includes Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and OJ: Made in America. In keeping with his background, Wilkman emphasizes producers, including Fred Friendly, David Wolper, and Don Hewitt, who pioneered docu-journalism on television.
The constraints are as practical—the text is almost 450 pages—as they are disappointing. Screening Reality overlooks whole universes of nonfiction filmmaking, particularly the experimental and essay films that have always coexisted with conventional documentary, and that address in a different register questions of truth and screened representation. Maya Deren appears for a paragraph; the work of Andy Warhol merits a single sentence. The absence of figures like Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, and the innovations of the National Film Board of Canada highlights the limitations of such an ambitious study.
Wilkman hits the important beats of the vérité revolution, particularly the work of Albert and David Maysles, without illuminating or updating our understanding of its place in the evolution of the genre and the larger realm of real-life depiction. Quotes from the Maysles themselves do more to suggest the appeal—and the inevitability—of this new aesthetic. The “great exactitude” with which Albert believed it was possible to record reality had less to do with style or supposed objectivity than a more ephemeral kind of authority: “If you film with empathy and love, [when they see it] the people you film say ‘that’s the truth.’” Explaining why their signature approach works so well for the commercials and corporate videos that paid their bills, in 1982 David invoked the new media consumer’s savvy: “Young people won’t put up with junk anymore. To be believable, to be provocative, you have to show some of the warts.”
Certainly this was the idea behind An American Family, the 1973 PBS vérité docuseries focused on the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California. The show was a formal and cultural watershed, “a precursor to programming that dominated American television—an alternative reality where real people were stars, the truth was an informally scripted fabrication, and audiences didn’t seem to care.” Wilkman goes slightly further in his assessment of reality TV, allowing that if it “changed what Americans expected from the truth…the process had evolved over time.
Most traditional documentaries emphasized information, but with his films, from Nanook to Louisiana Story, Robert Flaherty realized the dramatic possibilities of real people reenacting essential experiences of life. Cinéma vérité brought the immediacy of “being there” to actual situations and events. Reality TV turned life into a performance, with choreographed conflicts and everyday stars who play the roles of heroes, villains, and fools.
Wilkman’s detached, voice-of-God narration falls shortest in such moments. A general unwillingness to problematize poses an increasingly bigger problem as Screening Reality goes on. The author makes his distaste for reality TV clear without articulating a clear case against it, one that fully credits the genre’s implication in more “serious” documentary modes, and the appetites those modes helped unleash. Who, after all, might these confounded goons be—the unwashed millions who no longer bother with truth, who jump at the chance “to commiserate or gawk,” enthralled by “the pointless demands of Keeping Up with the Kardashians”? What is the difference, really, between Nanook—an Inuit man named Allakariallak whom Flaherty paid to play the role of “the kindly, the brave, the simple Eskimo”—and Kim K.? (It should be noted that Flaherty impregnated Maggie Nujarluktuk, the woman who played Nanook’s wife, during the shoot; he left the Arctic shortly before she gave birth, and never met his son.)
Screening Reality concludes with a look at a possible merger between virtual-reality technology and nonfiction film. The doc-as-information bomb sits at odds with the VR ethos that filmmaker Gabo Arora describes as rooted in feeling, and the valuative power of personal experience. In 2015, Arora took part in the United Nations’s Virtual Reality Initiative, which invited documentarians to make VR films that might foster empathy for humanitarian causes. “The concern is not as much about ‘Did you understand?’” Arora said, describing his Clouds of Sidra, which takes viewers inside a Syrian refugee camp, “[but more about] do you feel present?”
Arora’s reframing of what documentary should do compounds the genre’s challenge to stay honest in form and content. The promoting of emotion as a prime vector of understanding has helped drive reasonable people into separate realities, after all. Intention remains essential, but the conjuring of feelings cannot be enough. Documentarians “can warn, inform, and establish best practices,” as Wilkman points out, but “audiences share responsibility for evaluating and accepting the truth.” The greatest change that nonfiction film can effect today may be to reacquaint Americans with that responsibility. As essential as any truth a given documentary might draw forward is its potential to model truth’s faithful pursuit.