With the American Film Institute’s Silverdocs festival wrapping up on Monday, it’s a good time to weigh the impact on the documentary form of the brash ideologue whose confrontational and often witty style has come to define it — for good and for ill.
Undeniably the most commercially successful documentarian working today, Michael Moore embodies a new, blunter approach that has eclipsed the unintrusive “direct cinema” style pioneered by men like Albert Maysles and Frederick Wiseman. Increasingly, however, Mr. Moore’s professional peers are asking themselves whether his adversarial attack has done lasting damage to the credibility of the form and, in turn, to the access once enjoyed by its practitioners.
Consider the new documentary “Food, Inc.,” which is hamstrung by one intractable problem: No agri-company wanted to talk to its director, Robert Kenner. “It’s hard to make a film without narration and have all different points of view when people are not ready to speak,” Mr. Kenner says.
Rather than simply taking Mr. Kenner at his word when he says he strove for objectivity, one can look at the finished product: The company that comes away from “Food, Inc.” looking the best arguably is Wal-Mart, the only mega-corporation to appear on camera. This was a man looking for answers, not axes to grind.
In recent years, the documentary has undergone a radical transformation. Greats in the field such as Mr. Maysles and Mr. Wisemen used to film what they saw and let the action tell the story. Mr. Moore changed all that.
The left-populist filmmaker in the signature baseball cap wields the camera and the editing bay like weapons, using the genre to discredit his enemies and promote his own agenda. (Whether that agenda is purely ideological or tainted by self-interest has itself become a matter of some debate among friends and foes alike.) Because of the manner in which Mr. Moore has transformed the medium, subjects are warier than ever before about appearing in front of the camera.
“He tends too much in the direction of propaganda,” Mr. Maysles told The Washington Times in an interview. “He’s not that kind to the people on his films.”
Mr. Maysles, this year’s Silverdocs’ Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree, is uniquely qualified to discuss the controversial filmmaker and his shortcomings, having directed more than 100 documentaries in the past half-century. He’s one of the pioneers of direct cinema, a style that eschews narration and other tools that shove the audience in a desired direction.
“I still deplore the fact that so many documentaries rely on narration to tell the story rather than letting the story [tell] itself,” Mr. Maysles says. “Hosts and narrators and music tend to spark up things. The real power of the documentary is people experiencing what it is instead of being told what it is.”
Whereas Mr. Maysles is confident enough in his skill as a filmmaker to let the simple juxtaposition of images and sounds convey his meaning, Mr. Moore interposes himself between subject and viewer, in effect telling the viewer what to think. It’s the difference between using a scalpel and a butcher knife during a delicate operation.
The problem is, Mr. Moore’s butcher knife is far more profitable than Mr. Maysles’ scalpel. Three of the six highest-grossing documentaries ever made were crafted by Mr. Moore. His movies also are undeniably entertaining and humorous; even those who disagree with the man often find themselves carried away while the movie rolls.
His technique, however, is ultimately self-defeating. If the documentary is meant to fulfill the promise of objectivity, all sides must be represented on the screen and given a chance to defend themselves. But why would a subject — be it an individual or a corporation — agree to appear in a film when the form itself has been subverted and any pretense at objectivity has been abandoned? Thanks to Mr. Moore, objectivity is no longer seen as the ultimate goal of the documentary. Score-settling and propagandizing are the order of the day.
This doesn’t much hurt filmmakers like Mr. Moore; he’ll make his point regardless of access. The real victims are directors like Mr. Kenner, filmmakers who are truly interested in exposing new information instead of reinforcing preconceptions.
Public discourse suffers as well, as a once-crucial stream of information is closed off and a once-magisterial form of filmmaking withers on the vine.
• SONNY BUNCH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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