Review Of Capturing Reality: The Art Of Documentary

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/6/11


  Pepita Ferrariís 2008 documentary, Capturing Reality: The Art Of Documentary, on the insights of documentarianís craft is a solid film, but one that, despite its nature, never does what it celebrates in the films of others: i.e.- to innovate and explore all the ways that true stories can be told. The film runs 97 minutes and consists almost solely of the talking heads of almost 40 documentary filmmakers talking on their craft, interspersed with about 150 or so scenes from many of their films.

  Aside from the very pedestrianness of the enterprise, the reality is that very few of the clips shown actually articulate the points made by the filmmakers, who include such notables as Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Albert Maysles, Jennifer Fox, Peter Wintonick, Jessica Yu, Kevin MacDonald, and Nick Broomfield. Despite the disparate nature and styles of these documentariansí films and their directors, Ferrari shows no ability to even attempt something of more depth. This is not to say that her film is a bad one- it isnít, for its content gives plenty to ponder on, but its presentation is so bland that little of what the filmmakers say will have an impact beyond that of a rote lecture.

  Rather than the standard talking head segment, it would have been interesting to see a Herzog or Broomfield in the editing room, talking about a future film and why they will cut a scene one way or another, and then segue into the discussion of truth, reality, and manipulation that is the filmís best moment, when the name of Michael Moore is unleashed, and some of the other documentarians not only take umbrage with the idea of there being no manipulation, but show considerable envy at the success of Morris and Herzog, as they snipe about Morrisís creation of a faux office in Gates Of Heaven, or Herzogís concoction of a faux minor tic in his main subject in Little Dieter Needs To Fly. The problem with the comments is that none of them really address the fact that documentaries are not really concerned with truth, as much as reality vs. fiction.

  Many people confuse truth with reality, and given this filmís title, it would have behooved Ferrari to explore the very difference between reality and the truth so many of the interviewees declaim. The two words are not synonyms. Truth requires an act of volition whereas reality does not.  If I am wearing a blue shirt, that is reality. If you say to me, ĎDan, you are wearing a blue shirt,í that is a truth. Reality doesnít care if it is noticed or not, but a truth always requires an act of notice, but the reality is that reality is sometimes best gotten to via the use of falsehoods, many of the like that Herzog and Morris employ. What separates a propagandist like Moore from Morris and Herzog is that Moore is not even aiming for reality; he is simply pushing an agenda; and one that may contain elements of truth.

  When Kevin MacDonald speaks of his making of Into The Void, wherein re-enactments constitute the bulk of the film, the documentary then turns over to the special effects, sound, and technical aspects of the documentary film, and the film picks up the interest level because, frankly, too much of the film is wasted upon mediocrities preaching about whatever philosophic or political ax they have to wield. Instead, masters like Herzog, Morris, and Maysles had far more to offer. Jessica Yu, as example, whose 2004 documentary, In The Realms Of The Unreal, chronicled the debauched life of psychotic unpublished hack author Henry Darger, shows why the film needed to stick with the masters more than the wannabes, for her film was larded with hyperbole that ultimately gave no insight into the warped mind of Darger, nor any insight into why Yu obsessed over this character who, by all rights, should have been sucking on his toes in a mental institution. Yuís idea of a story is merely anything that interests her, and in watching the film itís instructive to note the solipsism by which these filmmakers operate.

  It is little wonder that the documentary film has fallen into such banality in the last decade. Yes, more people make these films than ever, but more make bad documentaries than ever before. This is because, like Ferrari, they pick poor subjects to film, they do not enliven those subjects with their craft, and they follow their own compulsions over material that will interest and inform a wide audience, not merely satiate their own picayune Ďvisions.í Capturing Reality: The Art Of Documentary is not a bad film, but itís not good, either. Had it paid more attention to details like story, editing, visuals, scoring, then it may have scored well. As is, itís a wannabe, which is a reality all too real in this art form.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]


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