Truth Is Stronger Than Fiction: The Case for Documentaries

I just got back from the Telluride Film Festival, which took place over the Labor Day weekend in Telluride, Colorado, a beautiful town in the San Juan Mountains. The festival is always an inspiring event, welcoming hundreds of the world's top filmmakers showing their latest films, curating programs or simply attending as spectators along with the general public. Most of the press attention is given to the latest fiction films starring well-known actors. However, for the last several years, somewhat under the radar, the festival has steadily increased the number of documentaries it shows. The reason? Festival co-founder and co-director Tom Luddy tells me that Telluride is simply responding to the growing number of excellent documentaries made around the world.

I have found over time that I actually prefer documentaries to fiction films. Why? From docs, I learn and am exposed to things that I did not know before: how somebody chose to live his or her life; historical events of which I was ignorant; issues that are happening today, at home or abroad that I did not know were happening. Documentaries fill the enormous void created by the corporate media, which often chooses not to explore uncomfortable problems that might be characterized as "uncommercial." When documentaries shed light on these problems, it's often the first step to making people conscious of them and ultimately helping to solve them. By showing intimate portraits of real people, documentaries also have the power to shatter stereotypical thinking, the basis of prejudices which people might have about others. In contrast, fiction films often use a shorthand in storytelling which works by reinforcing stereotypes.

The remarkable aspect of documentaries and the reason they are so important, for film students and filmgoers alike, is the simple fact that documentaries are about real people in real situations. At Telluride, I saw two standout documentaries about two fascinating yet very different individuals. Keep On Keepin' On, a marvelous documentary about the life of famed jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, directed by Australian Al Hicks and produced by Quincy Jones, offers great music, and inspiring life lessons from a musician who is also a great teacher. That's one possible function of a documentary film: to inspire by documenting the life and struggles of a real-life musical genius. It's impossible to walk away from this film without feeling uplifted by the story of a man who has mentored such music greats as Quincy Jones and Miles Davis. The Decent One, a chilling masterpiece by Israeli filmmaker Vanessa Lapa, chronicles the rise of Heinrich Himmler, a leading member of the Nazi party and head of the SS, through his personal letters to his wife, all the while juxtaposing his bland recitation of the day's events with documentary footage of the horrific destruction he was actually perpetrating. In its understated way the film forces you to acknowledge the truth of the phrase "the banality of evil."

While fiction filmmakers strain to get their scripts right, to cast the roles correctly, in order to direct and produce a story which is a convincing version of reality, documentary filmmakers have the opposite problem. Documentarians start with a thousand bits of reality that are then sculpted into a compelling narrative. When they succeed, the result can be still more powerful than a fictional film because the story is real.

No better example of this process can be found than in the work of Ken Burns, whose most recent film The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, premiered on PBS this past Sunday, September 14. After seeing the 14-hour magnum opus earlier this summer I had the privilege of moderating a discussion between Ken and Geoffrey Ward, who wrote the script, on July 22 at The Theatre at the Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. Ken and Geoffrey presented one hour of clips to a packed house, and afterwards I asked the filmmakers to discuss their process. The Roosevelts is the first documentary where the lives of these historic individuals are interwoven into one narrative. Ken's team spent years on the film and the result is brilliant: it will entirely reshape the way most Americans feel about Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The Roosevelts redefines what a documentary can do and demonstrates that great filmmaking knows no genre boundaries. I urge everyone to see this great film.