If we want documentaries to get better, we need to stop giving them a free pass

Thursday July 25th 2013

You might remember a little over a month ago when I returned from Sheffield Doc/Fest and wrote this piece arguing that documentary filmmaking was in a bit of a rut. Well, along with everything else I write here, that piece was eventually indexed on Rotten Tomatoes, at which point I was surprised to discover that a lot of the films I’d maligned (specifically Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and Blackfish) were in possession of dazzlingly high Tomatometer scores.

There were two possible explanations: either I was being unnecessarily harsh on these films, or the ‘critical fraternity’ was being uncharacteristically forgiving of documentary itself. Earlier this week I watched the 2008 festival hit Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father and got my answer.

The film’s a horribly made, morally hysterical and frustratingly simplistic true-crime story, told in the form of a letter from director Kurt Kuenne (pictured above holding an award that cannot possibly be for filmmaking) to the son of his deceased best friend Andrew. Like so many in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time documentaries, it’s a fascinating story ineptly told. Or at least thats’s what I — and the tiny handful of critics who didn’t help bolster its 94% Tomatometer score — think.

Skim through a few of those glowing appraisals and you’ll find that many barely mention the film, instead describing at length the particulars of its emotive subject matter. Where documentaries are concerned, this seems to be common practice among critics — the logic presumably being that a fascinating story ineptly told is still a fascinating story. Similar concessions are not made for fiction filmmaking: try as I might, I can’t remember any of Tony Scott’s films getting a pass on the basis that runaway trains are undeniably dramatic.

I figured it would be a worthwhile exercise to take a more scientific look at the critical response afforded to documentaries, and chose as my test sample the Tomatometer scores of the 32 docs released theatrically in the UK since January. The results are pretty damning:

Film RT Score
McCullin 100%
Jiro Dreams of Sushi 99%
The Punk Syndrome 100%
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God 98%
Side by Side 95%
Fire in the Blood 100%
The Road: A Story of Life and Death 83%
Caesar Must Die 91%
Trashed 87%
Babeldom 83%
Michael H. Profession: Director 100%
The Spirit of ’45 68%
Reincarnated 30%
We Went To War 100%
First Position 94%
Fuck for Forest 50%
Chimpanzee 74%
Village at the End of the World 100%
Beware of Mr. Baker 98%
The Stone Roses: Made of Stone 70%
Fire in the Night 100%
I Am Breathing 100%
The Act of Killing 98%
The Battle of the Sexes 88%
Stories We Tell 95%
Venus and Serena 76%
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer 77%
Les Invisibles  100%
The Moo Man 79%
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks 95%
Springsteen & I 90%
Blackfish 97%

That Snoop Dogg documentary must have been really, really awful.