For whatever reason, I seem to have been watching a lot of documentaries lately, and I’m becoming increasingly aware that, by and large, my reaction to the genre is a shrug and an “It was okay, I guess.” I’ve seen so many good documentaries, portraits of fascinating people telling fascinating stories … and, yet, I’ve seen so few great documentaries.
I think this probably reflects my own biases when it comes to cinema; my preferences trend away from narrative and character (which tend to be the primary focus of most docos) and towards emotionality and stylistic innovation. When I think of the handful of non-fictional films I would confidently regard as capital-G Great, most fall into three loose categories. There are the films that use a small story or society as a synecdoche to reflect upon wider societal trends or injustices – from the Sydney Film Festival, Sherpa and (the not-quite-great) Breaking a Monster meet this definition, while my favourite doco of all time, Paris is Burning, is a perfect example. Other great documentaries reveal the fragility of the fiction/non-fiction divide – think Stories We Tell, arguably The Thin Blue Line and Close-Up (which itself is tenuously defined as a documentary, but let’s not split hairs when that ambiguity is inherent to these kind of films anyway). Finally you’ve got the rare documentary that eschews the genre’s conventions – y’know, archival footage, talking heads, the occasional re-enactment – in favour of aesthetic excess. The recent Kurt Cobain memoir, Montage of Heck, is the best example of this, holding true to Cobain’s life in its method as much as its matter.
Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, opening in Australian cinemas next week after appearing at the Sydney Film Festival, would seem to have a lot in common with Montage of Heck. There’s the abundant similarities between the subjects, of course – each wildly successful, perhaps generation-defining musicians who died at 27 after battling with the challenges of fame and drug abuse – while Kapadia also promises a less conventional approach to the doomed musician documentary. As with his breakthrough success, Senna, the director avoids traditional talking heads entirely to build a story entirely from archival footage, creating a narrative by overdubbing interviews over a mix of home video, media clips and occasional photographs.
Except where Montage of Heck felt revelatory, Amy comes across as insipid; it’s overlong and underdeveloped, maintaining your interest through the brittle tragedy of Winehouse’s life but little else. I haven’t seen Senna – or any of Kapadia’s earlier features – but if this is anything to go by, his understanding of cinematic grammar is sub-par. Talking heads are overused, sure, but they’re commonplace for plenty of good reasons. Cinema is a visual medium, so even a quick appearance of the person talking – before switching over to archival footage again – is much easier to follow than a seemingly endless series of titles reminding us of who we’re listening to. It doesn’t help that Winehouse’s archive – or whatever Kapadia had access to, anyway – isn’t especially expansive. We spend two minutes staring a set of photographs from a photo shoot that tell us very little, while attempts to add resonance – like, say, showing a scene of Winehouse walking away from her friend at the same point in the narrative that friendship disintegrates – fall flat.
The biggest issue with the lack of talking heads, though, is that it compromises the skeletal structure that Kapadia tries to flesh out in Amy’s back half. The film’s focus seem to be less about understanding Winehouse – her famously autobiographical songs do a far better job than the footage that surrounds them – than about assigning blame for her death. That blame is spread out somewhat; the mainstream media is lambasted for their ghoulish fascination with Winehouse’s decline … which rings a little untrue when that’s where the majority of Kapadia’s footage comes from. But the primary culprit, according to the film, is Amy’s father; she spent the majority of her post-fame life surrounded by enablers, Amy contends, and he was the main offender. This seems entirely plausible – particularly when he turns up to his daughter’s beach hideaway with a reality TV crew in tow – but these accusations are left implicit. Give us an interview with Mitchell Winehouse. Let us see his reaction to these questions, the look in his eyes. Give us something more than a macabre mining of a poor woman’s life that tut-tuts at other’s for being fascinated with the misery it portrays.
You don’t need innovation to tell a story well, necessarily. This year’s Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? – which was just added to Netflix – isn’t especially original in its presentation, sticking to time-worn conventions as it chronicles the life of a truly magnificent woman. Much of the film is given over to Simone, who passed away in 2003 – she narrates the film, her notes tell her story, her songs provide rich emotion. She’s as much a revolutionary as a musician, of course, and her passionate involvement in the civil rights movement is as much a focus as her music.
Undoubtedly, Simone is a great woman – one of the greats. But What Happened, Miss Simone? doesn’t attain greatness. The sheer immensity of Simone’s life overpowers the film; director Liz Garbus has clearly had access to much more extensive material than Kapadia had, and she uses it well, but this is simply not a story that can be told in under two hours. The weight of Simone’s songs, her politics and her troubled life – a life of abuse, a life of mental illness – is too much for those slender 101 minutes to bear. What Happened, Miss Simone? tells an amazing story of an amazing woman, but never quite establishes enough of a point or enough of a clear narrative to amaze itself.
Alex Gibney’s Scientology exposé, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief – out now in Australian cinemas – is undoubtedly an excellent example of investigative journalism. The facts and firsthand accounts collected in the film present a complete – and often shocking – portrait of a manipulative, profit-driven organisation who attack all dissenters with militaristic zeal. The simple fact that a film like this was able to get into cinemas without being bogged down in decades of litigation feels almost miraculous. But detailed research and a remarkable story don’t a great film make.
Going Clear isn’t bad, I should clarify. But Gibney is a better researcher than director. The presentation – lots of clumsy, over-dramatized re-enactments – feels beneath the material. And the film only intermittently passes the “Why am I watching this instead of reading it?” test; yes, Paul Haggis’ voice is lovely to listen to and, yes, the absurd footage of a Tom Cruise-centric Scientology celebration is worth the ticket price alone, but for the most part the visuals don’t add a whole lot to the story being told.
That “Why am I watching this instead of reading it?” test was wholeheartedly cribbed from Mike D’Angelo’s review of Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ Oscar –winning documentary on Edward Snowden. I pretty well concur with D’Angelo’s take on the film – which was just released on DVD in Australia – in that it lacks a strong purpose after it concludes its riveting midsection, where Snowden, scurried away in a hotel room with Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, plots out the best way to release sensitive NSA data and prepares for the obliteration of life as he knows it.
Nonetheless, of the documentaries I’ve written about here, Citizenfour comes the closest to greatness. Yes, it tends to feel a little like a TV feature in its final minutes, and, yes, anyone who followed the story as it happens will already be well aware of many of the facts detailed therein (though its reminders of the extent of corporate complicity in America’s invasive espionage is truly frightening). But the film primarily succeeds as a provides a portrait of Snowden on the cusp of being world-famous; he’s a real person, articulate and awkward in equal measure, but he’s also someone aware that his experience of anything approach normality has ended for good. Citizenfour doesn’t feel inauthentic, like Amy, nor rushed, like What Happened, Miss Simone?, nor extraneous like Going Clear. Perhaps it’s not quite a great film, but it’s certainly an important historical document.