Humans in Focus

revealing the documentary's appeal

“Give me a child at seven and I will give you the man,” utters a voice in all of Michael Apted’s Up documentaries. These films, which started in the mid sixties with 7-Up, trace the lives of fourteen British participants from various backgrounds and social classes from childhood into adult life. The films of the children at age seven, then at adolescence at fourteen, young adulthood at twenty-one and twenty-eight, and adulthood at thirty-five and forty-two, are pinnacles of the documentary form. That is to say, when Michael Apted (now a successful director of standard Hollywood fare such as Gorillas In the Mist, Nell, and Gorky Park) began working on the series, I believe his intention was for the films to be a general chronicle of life in Britain, told through very personal stories and hopes and dreams for the future. With the addition of each Up film in the series, however, the focus has shifted. Now only eleven of the original fourteen participants have continued with the project. Those that have remained with Apted’s chronicle have become bonafide celebrities in Britain, where the documentaries are regularly shown on television. Perhaps it is this unexpected notoriety that is most unsettling about the repercussions from the series. These, some from the upper class of British society, some from a children’s home (as well as various class levels in-between) have become celebrities. They are, in fact, literal movie stars in the movies of their lives.

With these Up films as exceptions, there have been few documentaries that have touched sizable audiences from around the world, let alone in this country. Documentaries are rarely (if at all) seen in neighborhood multiplexes. To see a documentary in the theater, one must find that which is comparable to Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre or travel to the MFA, where all types of cinema from around the world are standard Friday night fare. For most, (read: those living where the Sony/multiplex is the only option) never get the chance to see films like 42-Up (the most recent of Apted’s chronicles) onscreen. Many of these films seem doomed to ride the tides of the now heavily commercialized Bravo and Independent Film cable channels. It seems unlikely that we should still have such a vibrant documentary culture in this country, with few commercial avenues on which to view these works. There are few documentary filmmakers that are household names. Very few. Perhaps the closest filmmaker to gain commercial mass appeal is humorist and union-rights advocate Michael Moore.

This fact is, of course, deeply ironic, for Moore is staunchly opposed to “selling out.” (Really, who isn’t?) His films, among them the hilarious and deeply critical Roger & Me, often center on the veritable strangeness and corruption of human nature. For Moore, the enemy in Roger & Me is the head of the car company General Motors, who closed a plant in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. The closing of this plant proved to be destructive for the town, splintering both its economy and morale. Roger & Me is about Moore’s quest for answers. He gets few from the bureaucracy at GM, but cannot help but gain a few laughs from the audience along the way. Interspersed with Moore’s attempts to infiltrate GM’s corporate structure are snippets of the lives of some citizens of Flint, those affected by the closing of the automobile plant. These anecdotes are the film’s real source of power and humor, for some of these residents are truly quirky; they are, like the subjects of the Up films, inherently tied to the economics of their place. Where Apted questions his participants about their definitions of love, their desire for families (or not), and how they hope to have fulfilling lives, Moore does not push the citizens of Flint in Roger & Me. He is much more of a passive filmmaker, in that he allows his subjects to appear, in all of their quirkiness and desperation with very little prodding from off-camera. Apted, however, is much more of a investigative filmmaker. He asks direct, perhaps more philosophical questions of his participants. Moore simply asks the citizens of Flint what they will do without their main source of income.

Though not as wide-reaching as 7-Up or any of the subsequent films, Roger & Me is a treat for those needing an introduction to modern American documentaries. Though made in the early 90s, it is still timely, juxtaposing innocence with corruption. This film was the catalyst for Moore’s rise to fame (if one can call it that), leading him to television, where he lasted for a short time with his series TV Nation. His name, though not as recognizable as most feature film directors, carries much weight in the world of social filmmaking.

Another notable figure in modern American documentary filmmaking is the visual master Errol Morris. Covering ground as diverse as a visual retelling of Stephen Hawking’s work in quantum physics (A Brief History of Time), the story of the residents of a small town in Vernon, Florida, the fantastic and startling Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, and the recently released Mr. Death, Morris has helped to redefine the modern documentary. His films are recognizable for their saturated colors, inventive music (Philip Glass is a frequent contributor to his films) and engaging subjects. Specifically, in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, Morris presents the audience with four very different people who are each experts in their respective fields. These people are virtually blind to everything but their own expertise. Like many of the residents of Flint, Michigan in Roger & Me, the participants in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control are inherently obscure, quirky, and seemingly innocent of events outside of their fields of expertise. In this way, Morris’ film represents a different kind of documentation. That is to say, his picture focuses on subjects that an audience would not know of otherwise. Morris’ film is reflective and deliberating where Apted’s chronicle is direct and undeviating.

The aforementioned directors notwithstanding, the very notion of the documentary has morphed into a kind of television spectacle. As movie studios face the challenges of luring a generation raised on television into the dark confines of theaters, it is no surprise that there is little room for insightful documentary pictures that deal with true subjects. Grand fictional tales that are epic in scope and short in substance are the norm in most theaters. Of course, it must be said that few Hollywood films are nearly as grand in scope as Apted’s Up series.

Though as far from Hollywood as one can get short of falling into the Atlantic, writer/director/actor Woody Allen used the documentary style to great effect in his 1980 effort, Zelig. Done in the style of old-time documentaries, Zelig is a wonderfully funny quasi-documentary. Poking fun at fame and success, Zelig set the scene for other more recent (and far more profitable) documentary-style films. By this I mean, of course, the sleeper hit of last summer, the oft-mentioned Blair Witch Project. Though I’ll refrain from yet another summation of the film, suffice it to say that Blair Witch draws exclusively upon the documentary form. A far cry from its distant cousin, Zelig, Blair Witch turned in over 308 million dollars worldwide. Perhaps the main appeal of this film is, interestingly, that audiences believed the story to be a true one. Though just about everyone knows that this is not the case, Blair Witch‘s appeal lies in its unflinching style. In essence, it is the style of a standard documentary filmmaker.

Providing inspiration for would-be filmmakers or not, documentaries will continue to grace the screens of local cinema havens and will remain staples of independent and world cinema television cable channels. True stories of varying shapes will continue to provide audiences with cinematic alternatives to fictional accounts. And documentary directors will most likely remain hidden beneath the shadows of their more profitable Hollywood peers. This much can safely be said.