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Film Docs In Sight

Documentary Is Not Fiction!

Film still from <i>Army of One</i>. This documentary features Sara Miller, a soldier who enlists in the U.S. army soon after 9/11. Directed by Sarah Goodman, 2003. Distributed by Redstorm.
Film still from Army of One. This documentary features Sara Miller, a soldier who enlists in the U.S. army soon after 9/11. Directed by Sarah Goodman, 2003. Distributed by Redstorm.

The 2005 documentary season kicked off with more of an outbreak than a bang. On January 2 the FX Channel ran Smallpox, a two-hour narrated fiction film constructed exactly like a BBC or Discovery current-affairs documentary deconstructing a smallpox epidemic that, according to its somber, objective voiceover, began in New York City in April 2002 and went on to kill 60 million people worldwide. Both actors and real professionals were “interviewed” playing or simply being FBI agents, scientists, and the like. The ubiquitous Al Sharpton had a couple of sound bites as himself commenting on race riots that erupt in the streets of New York after the outbreak. While stock footage of 9/11 illustrated the threat of terrorism, other clips of riots and the like were “repurposed,” that is, put into a narrative representing events that never happened. There were even fake news broadcasts using real local NYC reporters and pseudo-covers of the U.K. Guardian. The credits revealed that the production had the cooperation of the NYC Office of Emergency Management and other agencies—making it, one supposes, like an extended PSA. Yet, given that the film was made by a cutting-edge British production company, the final product was actually informative, well done, and, as one would expect, dramatic.

Using documentary techniques in fiction films is nothing new, of course. Peter Watkins’s early 1960s BBC production, Culloden, reconstructed minute by minute the famous Scottish battle with a “bumpy, journalistic grain and realism;” and more recently, Bloody Sunday fastidiously reconstructed from all angles the infamous shootings in Derry, Northern Ireland, as if vérité doc cameras were following all the action. What makes Smallpox different is that, rather than utilizing vérité camera styles or producing a comedic faux documentary à la Zelig, it represents a deconstruction and reconstruction of a genre that is ideally part of the historical record.

 World Heavyweights Champion Jack Johnson before his fight against Jim Jeffries, Reno, Nevada, July 4, 1910. Photo from Brown Brothers.
World Heavyweights Champion Jack Johnson before his fight against Jim Jeffries, Reno, Nevada, July 4, 1910. Photo from Brown Brothers.

But historical record and the need to tell a good story are often at odds. For to tell a good story in a film, you need visuals. Such is the case with Touching the Void, a film that may be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary this year. It is a film that wholly reconstructs the amazing story of two mountain climbers and is based on a best-selling book of the same name by one of the climbers, Joe Simpson. Even though it’s a reconstruction of a true story, and it’s an effective one at that, who really knows if Simpson is telling the “truth”? If a tree falls when no one is around… . In other words, even though recorded footage can be taken out of context, the visual record does attest to some kind of tangible proof that something happened and can, therefore, qualify as documentary. But the invocation of “documentary” is being used increasingly as a marketing mechanism. Assisted Living, a film opening this month that professes to have started as a project that “pushes the line between documentary and fiction,” remains a fiction film with some nice images of a real place. So the question then becomes, what should be called documentary? Fiction films generally have more publicity, clout, and money and will continue to get that without being called documentaries. It’s fine to cannibalize any form, but let’s not make documentary into fiction.

The promotional website for <i>Smallpox</i>, courtesy of
The promotional website for Smallpox, courtesy of

Black History Month on PBS (for more information, check All of you who have been meaning to catch documentary programming on PBS should take special note in the cold winds of February, when POV and Independent Lens show a number of new and older films around African Americans and race. While there still might be reruns of Ken Burns’s Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, you can definitely start with Shola Lynch’s Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, premiering on February 7, followed by Charles Burnett’s Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property on February 10, a film that promises an innovative approach to dealing with the history of the leader of the famous 1831 slave rebellion. On February 17, Stanley Nelson’s A Place of Our Own uses rare home movie footage to discuss a little-known black middle-class vacationing spot on Martha’s Vineyard that has existed for generations. Other films include Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew and an encore presentation of Strange Fruit, a film whose narrative centers around the Billie Holiday song.

Army of One
(January 26 to February 1 at Pioneer Theater)

Sarah Goodman’s incisive and compelling film follows three young people who join the U.S. Army in the wake of 9/11. The film portrays the conflicts, misconceptions, dilemmas, and harsh realities that come with joining the military and which are a far cry from the lines fed by well-funded recruiters. Goodman scored access to basic training and follows the individuals and their families and significant others in a way that reveals with empathy the noncombat military experience. Goodman managed to capture scenes of frustrated testosterone and disillusionment that are difficult to forget. Screens with Qaeda Quality Question Quickly Quickly Quiet, a short that does quite a fine editing job of Bush’s “axis of evil” speech.

The movie poster for <i>Assisted Living</i> (2005). Photo © Economic Projections.
The movie poster for Assisted Living (2005). Photo © Economic Projections.

Assisted Living
(opens February 4 at Angelika Film Center)

Written and directed by Brooklyn-based Elliot Greenbaum, Assisted Living is a fiction film shot in the geriatric facility that Greenbaum worked in for years. Yes, it uses real and sweet elderly people in the facility as extras, and there’s some interesting and nice imagery here. But the confusion is why it even talks about documentary as part of its construction. While it might have started out as a documentary (and surely Greenbaum had a lot of access), the remnants of that form are present only in beautifully shot B-roll and a few snippets of interviews.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2005

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