Documentaries take the cake for each slice of life
What is it about documentaries that make them so appealing?
Is it our desire as human beings to want the truth and only the truth?
When truth is transmogrified by directorial choices, artistic intent and finite filming opportunities, does the “production” of a film blur its accuracy, its “whole story”?
The 26th annual Notre Dame Student Film Festival, hosted in DeBartolo Performing Arts Center this past weekend, gave visual evidence of this desire for truth. The festival’s highest quality films came from a genre typically known for being solely informational, perhaps to the point of being dry: documentaries.
The genre shed its Dateline-esque recipe long ago with films like “March of the Penguins” and “Super Size Me.” A documentary’s selected scenes, respective transitions (assisted in some cases by Morgan Freeman) and the soundtrack take the chaos of the everyday and hone in on a message. Documentaries feed into our problematic voyeuristic tendencies while simultaneously informing or entertaining us with issues common to the collective consciousness of a variety of viewers.
Somehow, documentaries seem to come off to viewers as “more important.” It’s as though their instructional value or conjuration of empathy are inherently more seductive and persuasive than an imagined fictional film.
At this year’s festival, for instance, there were three documentaries that outshone the rest. With three very different subjects — a woman with ALS, a nine-year-old cross-country cyclist and a local after-school program — the films managed to incite tears of compassion, grief and laughter. The authenticity portrayed by the directors and experienced by the audience was a far cry from the expected emotions of horror or cursory intrigue.
As we watched “Much Ado After School,” a documentary by Brian Lach (Editor’s note: Lach is the Multimedia Editor for The Observer) and Nicole Sganga on the Robinson Community Learning Center’s Shakespeare Program and the recipient of this year’s Audience Choice Award, a friend leaned over and said, “This is so realistic.”
We couldn’t help but fall into a quiet cackle-fit, lingering in our ill-timed brouhaha to the dismay of those seated around us.
“That’s the thing, it’s a documentary. It’s real,” I (Rebecca) whispered in reply once our giggling subsided.
The film is non-fiction. It’s description in the festival’s pamphlet read: “An ambitious afterschool program brings out the inner Bard in a South Bend group of students.”
Say South Bend wasn’t where we went to school, say it was as arbitrary as Springfield in The Simpsons. Say the story of South Bend native Brian LeBron-Williams, who he is as a person, was entirely made-up.
Yet, Brian exists in the same world we do. Not only does he exist, but he and his beloved supporters and fans at the Robinson Center are only two blocks away from the southern tip of Notre Dame’s campus.
The directors of the documentary, therefore, manipulated the story to achieve an impressive universality where viewers, like our friend, cannot discern the theoretical hero from the tangible one right down the road. The film could’ve taken place anywhere, but can a program in South Bend faithfully stand-in for everywhere? And should it?
“Eat Ride Sleep,” directed and produced by Mikey Nichols and Lauren Josephson, was another outstanding favorite of the festival. The documentary’s sequence of shots portrayed 9-year old cross-country biker CJ Burford on the road. However, instead of only including the Channel 4 news interviews that were broadcast nationwide, the directors chose to also reveal CJ as an everyday hero — hilarious and imperfectly perfect. The film flashes between actual news coverage of CJ, the motivated cyclist inspired by God, and CJ as “a real boy,” who has not reached double digits and must be home-schooled during breaks.
Coverage of his good-natured family, who followed behind CJ in a rented RV, was limited on Channel 4’s reports, but the documentary’s inclusion of familial interactions enriched the experience.
Another hilarious detail left out from local news reports was CJ’s journal he kept throughout the duration of his trip, from which his mother read his angst aloud. CJ sat coyly as she read forth a lot of “I hate —”s followed by parental units or anything that required hard work except biking.“I love biking.” It was clear what made him happy.
He also wrote in the same journal that his mom is awesome, perhaps the coolest ever. “Well, which is it?,” Mrs. Burford asked. “A mix,” CJ answered. DPAC’s audience at Friday night’s 6:30 showing erupted.
It’s this combination of classic journalism and slice-of-life hilarities that make CJ’s story all the more memorable. And it’s relatability that make this young boy a hero and make him matter — he’s just a kid, but he’s also larger-than-life. Documentaries can make humans into super-humans. But does it matter that the films only feature one aspect of a subject? Who will CJ be in 10 years?
“Curry & Erin,” moved in a very different direction. The film’s directors, Eric O’Donnell and Maureen Gavin, traveled to Nashville to tell the story of artist and ALS patient Erin Brady Worsham. While there, the story tellers changed their angle mid-trip. Erin’s husband, Curry, was a bass singer in the “Indian River Boys” quartet, even opening for Joan Rivers. Now, he’s spent the last 20 years taking care of his wife. The two had been married 20 years before Erin was diagnosed with the debilitating disease.
The documentary’s transitions were paired with light music. Erin told the story (with subtitles) of how her husband had “sacrificed” so much for her. She wondered aloud in a voice much like Stephen Hawking’s computerized utters how she could ever repay him except by loving him.
As she answers deeper and deeper questions about her relationship with Curry, he remains out of the picture. The interviewer poses a question, she answers and then the following scene Curry asks Erin where he should place the roses in their garden. “Next to the peonies? No? Oh, over there,” when Erin, of course, cannot gesticulate in any direction. His love, and ability to understand, is transcending and heroic.
Documentaries like these are the ones that have lasting effects on the human spirit. They are not the story of Kate Hudson-Winslet-Upton and Ryan Gosling-Reynolds-Pitt, pre-scripted and with a mandated happy-ending.
In fact, last year’s film festival featured quite the opposite.
“The Suicide Disease” produced by now-alums Katie Mattie, Vincent Moore and William Neal, wrecked our souls. Watching the story of former ND chief-of-staff Frances Shavers’ struggle with Trigeminal Neuralgia was overwhelming. It was one of those stories that stays with you, resting in your back pocket to grab when discussing life-altering films or inspirational medical battles. We bring it up from time to time, and it was no surprise when the film won honors at L.A.’s Sunset Film Festival.
It can’t be forgotten that documentaries can perform under the guise of truth, fitting into a manufactured and thereby fictive category just like any other film. But the stories of Erin and Curry, of CJ and family, of Brian from the Robinson Center are real. The messages told in these films are not as explicit as “Super Size Me’s” big reveal: “McDonalds makes you fat,” “Americans are obese,” etc. Documentaries become art when you are allowed to deduce what you will from the story. The film is not just informational, it’s thought provoking and emotion evoking and therefore, far more powerful than the rom-coms and horror flicks that dominate the box office today.
After all, any story that is retold is altered from its original form.
As writers for The Observer, we are considered college journalists. But journalism in itself has become a muddied, carefully constructed form of reportage. As our hero Hunter S. Thompson once said, “absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.”
Truth does not equal accuracy, and confronting this reality can leave one feeling unfairly manipulated or mousetrapped.
Just like journalism, documentaries — defined by the OED as “factual” and “realistic” — are wielded by their producers to elicit a specific response from viewers. The achievement of a good documentary is its memorable story, which can only be attributed to its good storyteller.