The best way to begin is with a gun. We don’t need to see it, but we need to know it’s there. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to convince an American that one is nearby. Start with murky fragments of a city skyline, lights piercing the falling night. Then a disembodied voice speaks as if the story has already begun, providing basic exposition: Dallas, October, Thursday night. A blue-eyed man, hair combed over the front of his head, says, “It’s as if I was meant to be here.” His head turns slightly, he purses his lips the way one does when they’re not quite finished speaking, but we move on. (All editors know that when an interview subject gives you a cliffhanger, you take it, but if he doesn’t, you can make one yourself by cutting a little tighter than you would have liked.) To generate an artificial pause, the film cuts to a red emergency light. The police, we now know, are involved. Already we’ve accounted for at least one gun. A new man in an orange prison jumpsuit appears. A gun and a crime, then. He tells us that he took a pistol and a shotgun, and we cut away from his face to an artist’s rendering of a revolver, spinning slightly in space. When we return to the imprisoned man, he continues narrating how he broke into a neighbor’s home and stole a car. Little has been given to us in the way of story, but much in the way of dread. One evening in Dallas, a man who is now an inmate was involved with the police and a firearm. The viewer is already racing ahead.
The opening of Errol Morris’s 1988 film The Thin Blue Line is a masterpiece, avant-garde in the old sense of the term. It blazed a trail that much of documentary filmmaking has since followed: the brooding repetitious strings of Philip Glass’s score, the unraveling of a crime, a miscarriage of justice, interviews interwoven with reenactments. Eventually we learn that Robert Wood, a Dallas police officer, was shot during a roadside vehicle stop, and the state investigation had resulted in the wrongful conviction of Randall Adams. Over the course of Morris’s own investigation, he not only uncovered the wrongful charge, but extracted a confession from the murderer. When the film was snubbed for an Oscar nomination, fellow filmmakers balked, particularly when it came out that the screening committee had not even finished watching the movie. (Michael Apted, director of the acclaimed series Up, called it “one of the most outrageous things in the modern history of the Academy.”) Even better for a film’s legacy than being lauded in its time is being thought of as insufficiently rewarded.
Three decades later, a large segment of popular prestige nonfiction, not to mention the “trashier” fare, is effectively sketches after Morris. True crime has roots that extend beyond the advent of motion pictures, but Morris elevated it, just as Truman Capote once did with In Cold Blood. It wasn’t quite journalism, but Morris’s investigation did help free someone who had nearly been executed for a crime he did not commit.
With The Thin Blue Line, documentarians, the perpetual do-gooders of the film world, were gifted a reliable formula: pulp fiction with a hint of social justice. True crime has by now so outpaced every other documentary genre that, last year, Morris tweeted an apology: “I’m sorry for ‘The Thin Blue Line.’ You solve a murder mystery and then people think that’s all documentary should do.”
Over the last three decades, true crime standouts have laid track for the arrival of a broader documentary surge. In the past, the genre had a ceiling of popularity and profitability. Michael Moore occupied a league of his own; Fahrenheit 9/11 remains the only documentary to have topped $100 million in domestic box office sales, a feat accomplished just shy of 800 times by fiction features. In terms of market share, the entire documentary field typically hovers under two percent of the industry’s total yearly gross. Still, in 2018, the nonfiction films Free Solo, RBG, Three Identical Strangers, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? each grossed over $10 million. In historical terms these were massive hits, especially considering that none of them were nature documentaries. That they all came out during the same summer indicated that audiences might have, at long last, begun to turn towards documentaries.
At the following year’s Sundance Film Festival, Netflix decided to test that theory. The company paid $10 million for Knock Down the House, Rachel Lears’s film about four women running progressive campaigns in Democratic primaries. Distributors told Deadline that, according to fuzzy industry math, a purchase price that high would necessitate around $75 million in global grosses. Netflix, famously, does not play the box office game. The company was banking on its subscribers’s growing demand for documentaries. They made a good bet. Parrot Analytics, a media data company, reported that from 2019 to 2020 demand for documentaries outpaced every other genre on streaming services. Parrot also estimated that the number of available documentary series had increased by 63 percent over a two year period, while viewership was up by 142 percent. Boom times are here.
Documentaries are too diverse to grasp at a glance, but certain patterns are developing as producers and directors chase the profits and large audiences that seemed nearly impossible only a short time ago. Now, the genre’s explosion in popularity threatens to limit popular understanding to a select few dominant forms. Outside of nature and music documentaries, which have long been successful, the tabloid is in vogue. Many of the most popular documentaries follow close on the heels of splashy events — cult investigations, suspicious murders, scams and grifts, celebrities rising and falling. These stories are often strung together with talking-head interviews whose subjects are narrators and analysts, telling us what they know, what it means, and how to feel.
As the critic Noel Murray has noted, the speed at which current events now become documentaries recalls “the network ‘special reports’ of old, when ABC, NBC, or CBS would turn over an hour of prime time to take a look at some much-talked-about story.” This trend crystallized when Netflix and Hulu nearly simultaneously released documentaries about the Fyre Festival debacle, less than two years after the last partygoers evacuated the island. (Hulu reportedly rushed to finish its version when word spread that Netflix was on the verge of releasing its own.)
And sometimes, the documentary itself becomes the news. The popular 2015 HBO miniseries The Jinx guided the viewer along an investigation into the unsolved murder cases in which multimillionaire real estate heir Robert Durst was a longtime suspect. Recreations in the style of The Thin Blue Line run throughout the series, which at times feels like an episodic version of the film — except instead of trying to free someone from prison, the show was making a case for prosecution. Although its methods were cribbed, the series was praised for its artistry; NPR’s television critic wrote that it “felt like the birth of a new TV genre.” The Jinx hit all the right beats at the right time, which isn’t easy when you’re working from reality. In real life, we tend to lose the plot.
Durst was arrested the day before the release of the series’s bombshell finale, in which he appears to confess to the murders. Off camera, he is heard saying, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course,” an instantly infamous closing line that earned the show ever more rapturous reviews and two Emmys. Esquire declared that it would “likely be remembered as one of the most jaw-dropping moments in television history.” Hyperallergic later called it “The Thin Blue Line on steroids.” The Observer declared that the filmmakers’ “quest for the truth… found it, and found it spectacularly.” According to HBO, more than a million people watched The Jinx’s finale.
That could have been the last of it, but in 2019, a new document came to light during Durst’s murder trial. The filmmakers had turned over the raw production audio, and the full transcript revealed that the smoking-gun quote did not really exist. The filmmakers had re-ordered his words and removed other sentences in between, splicing together what had potentially been two disparate thoughts. Amid twenty rambling sentences on a hot mic, Durst may have made some kind of confession, but it was certainly not nearly as clear as the show had made it seem. Critics viewed this as a grave transgression, and journalists saw an engineered quote meant to gin up drama and deceive viewers. (The New York Times headline read, “As Durst Murder Case Goes Forward, HBO’s Film Will Also Be on Trial.”) For filmmakers, radical audio edits like this one are routine, even though the ramifications for their subjects tend to be less severe. It was a clear breach of journalistic ethics, but none of the men behind the film were journalists. The two camps were not really speaking the same language.
The New York Times began the Trump era with the nearly Nixonian slogan “the truth is more important now than ever,” and journalism’s “just the facts, ma’am” ethos became an anchor for those who felt buffeted by torrents of alternative facts. Democratic politicians moved in lockstep to pivot from a near-decade of crackdowns on government leakers to support for dogged journalism. The heat of this moment was peculiar, given the frequency with which the preceding administration had used the Espionage Act to prosecute just that kind of activity. But there wasn’t time for everyone to get on the same page about what exactly journalism was or even what constituted the good or bad versions of the endeavor. The whole field had been conscripted into a fight.
The series finale of The Jinx aired in the spring of 2015, not long before Trump descended his escalator and launched his campaign. Soon after, the American liberal media would be thrust into a years-long frenzy about the nature of, and the need to defend, truth in a supposedly post-truth era. Journalism was cast as an antidote to the tossed-off lies flooding the airwaves. Documentary, with its aura of educative power, is easily slotted into this narrative, but its practices have never aimed to produce verified facts in the same way.
In July, Variety announced its inaugural “Truth Seekers Summit,” a “first-of-its-kind summit honoring the power of storytelling and the pursuit of truth.” Co-hosted with Rolling Stone (and celebrating the simultaneous launch of a new documentary vertical for Variety and a new Rolling Stone section devoted to investigative journalism), the announcement advertised a keynote speech by Errol Morris, in addition to “panels from the documentarians behind Allen v. Farrow, Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer and more.” Meanwhile, Variety will also introduce a new “Truth Seekers” award to honor “iconic documentarians or journalists.” Entire practices, histories, and methodologies are collapsed in that “or.” In the popular imagination, fiction is made up, and documentaries are real, and it has been a good time to buy into such a binary — the surge in documentaries coincided with a gnawing need for settled and verified truth, but documentary film can’t really sate this desire. At the form’s best and worst, its accounts are searching rather than definitive. Journalists sometimes make documentaries, but the field is larger than their work, and at the level of craft it has an entirely different set of priorities.
Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review in October 2020, Danny Funt, a senior editor at The Week, bemoaned the recent boom in documentaries that failed to prioritize “sound reporting” over entertainment. Funt is largely concerned with the celebrity documentary, and the ways in which powerful people have begun to exert control over their images; what concerns him is the turn away from objectivity, which he defines as editorial independence from the subject. “The best journalism is engrossing, but the most entertaining documentaries aren’t necessarily journalism,” he writes. Many things, entertaining or otherwise, are not journalism. (Funt reserves kind words for Serena, Ryan White’s film on the tennis player’s 2015 season, because White assured him in an interview that Williams doesn’t “give a shit what people think about her.” This makes little sense, as Ryan White is the kind of filmmaker, Funt explains, that stars ask to make films. Naturally, an early cut was screened at Williams’s agency, WME. Whether or not she personally cares how she is portrayed, she has a team that’s paid to.) Funt contends that films like The Last Dance, ESPN’s series on Michael Jordan’s final season as a Chicago Bull, or Hillary, a biographical portrait of Hillary Clinton, are too compromised by their subjects-cum-producers. They are the opposite of journalism, which, for Funt, is advertising.
Although the two are intertwined, it doesn’t quite make sense to think of documentary, especially its Trump-era surge, as an outgrowth of journalism. Most of the earliest motion pictures — depicting workers, trains, dancers, galloping horses — qualify as nonfiction. Only after it was swallowed by Vaudeville and the nickelodeons did the distinction between different kinds of cinematic images even become meaningful. Debates about truth and deception have value, but they obscure the fact that documentaries have always been more akin to essays than articles. It would be hard to hold up an essay as proof of anything at all, except perhaps consciousness. They are dramas of a mind, or often several, learning, searching, and making things cohere. Trying to relate the problems the booming documentary field faces to the supposed ethical commandments of journalism, as Funt does, obscures a bigger issue: most viewers are not taught to comprehend and evaluate documentaries on the terms by which they are constructed. Those who have never been in an editing room are often unaware of how moving images, frighteningly adept at emotional manipulation, actually function. Anyone who has made a film, borne the agony of a rough cut screening, tinkered with minor changes (or sometimes none at all), and then received confused feedback is aware of a simple truth: moving images are evidentiary, but all the evidence is circumstantial.
In my work as a documentary editor, my greatest hurdle is merely piecing together something coherent out of a mass of recordings that do not, on their own, attest to very much at all. The first pass of an edit is often devoted to building rudimentary scenes that follow some kind of film grammar without much concern for whether they are proving a particular point. There is no real reason to believe that a shot of a woman looking to her right followed by a shot of a man crossing a road means that the woman was watching the man, except that this is the convention. It is a useful one, though. A strong enough look can direct the viewer’s attention almost anywhere.
What is more difficult to parse — at least without access to a filmmaker’s hard drives — is how much of a documentary relies not on what you’re seeing, but on what you’re hearing. In recent years, experts warned that “deepfakes” — AI-assisted video manipulation in which somebody’s face would be convincingly grafted onto another body — had the ability to potentially destabilize societies. Someone, anyone with a computer and time could make a head of state declare war or engage in some compromising activity. As I read these concerns, I thought about how many dialogue edits in documentaries already go unnoticed.
“Frankenbiting,” as it is known among editors, has been making people say things they never said for a long time. In my experience, the process is most frequently employed to save screentime. Most people speak circuitously, filling a conversation with half-finished thoughts, gestures, and plenty of “you know?”s. In documentaries, unlike in our daily lives, dialogue is edited for concision: I remove the pauses and ums, cut unnecessarily repeated words. I make people say what they mean. This typically requires some kind of b-roll to play over the top in order to patch over the cuts. (As a rule of thumb, I tend to assume that when a documentary cuts away from a speaker on screen, there are probably some words or sentences elided.) There is no cinematic equivalent to paraphrasing, no visual cue like an ellipsis to inform the viewer that something has been left out. Direct quotes and doctored ones sound the same unless you’ve spent a great deal of time toggling between frames, listening to slightly clipped breath or the unnatural inflection of an “and” inserted where originally there was none.
Of course, some people do just speak with strange cadences, which can make it hard to be certain whether something has really been changed. In the opening of The Thin Blue Line, the speaker says, off-screen, “This was Randall Adams.” To my ear, the slight catch in the speaker’s breath and the use of b-roll indicates that there was probably a cut between “was” and “Randall.” The cut may have removed a stutter, or, as is common, they never got the interview subject to say who she was talking about directly. “Randall Adams” may have been pulled from one sentence, “this was” from another. Most people would read this edit as harmless — just a matter of circumventing a lack of direct narration. But there are more blatantly unethical versions of dialogue editing, where meaning is not clarified but created. The recent outcry over the use of artificial intelligence to generate Anthony Bourdain’s voice in the documentary Roadrunner largely focused on whether it was ethical to deceive viewers into believing that the man had said something he had only written. It may have been a blatant example of sonic editing, but it was hardly different in kind from what documentary editors do all the time. If you record someone talking long enough, and if you are unscrupulous enough, you can make them say almost anything.
Vérité documentaries all have the same subjects: the kind of people who say yes to being in a documentary. The desire to be recorded, examined and reconstructed is a peculiar one, but less so if you’ve got ambition or an election to win. The politician has long been a favored subject. Politicians are powerful and cagey, prone to preening and, if they’re any good at their jobs, capable of commanding a room. Popularly known as liars, politicians relish the opportunity to cash in on the form’s presumed virtues and progressive bonafides. The pipeline now runs both ways: the Obamas have pivoted to new roles as media moguls with an eye for nonfiction, whereas Georgia’s Jon Ossoff made the leap from an executive documentary producer to U.S. Senator. But the most professionally advantageous position is in front of the camera. The “intimate access” that many films trumpet implies that the viewer will get to see who their subjects really are, even though most know that intimacy and honesty are not always related. What the films tend to do is fix a certain representation in public memory.
Robert Drew’s 1960 film Primary, which centered on the Wisconsin primary contest between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy, casts a long shadow over American documentary. Its rapturous reception overseas helped launch Direct Cinema, a documentary tendency born of newly available lightweight equipment that gave practitioners the ability to work without studio crews or interference. Primary’s camera crew alone (Albert Maysles, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker) would go on to become giants of 20th century American documentary. The film employed a new kind of proximity to its subjects and relied on closely observed scenes as they played out, rather than narration, title cards, or reenactments. Not long after its release, Drew and his celebrated camera crew sat for an interview about the project. There is some tension as the men try to explain exactly what they had done. Drew was adamant that they were reporters creating “a new form of journalism,” though he was the only one with a real background in reporting. When asked if they believed that the “personality of the filmmaker” must recede as much as possible to get towards some objective truth, though, Drew felt that the issue of objectivity was often misunderstood. “Hasn’t begun to be understood, in fact, in motion pictures at least,” he said.“The filmmaker’s personality is the most striking thing you ever see about the final result.” Drew’s team did not understand themselves to have created a transparent screen between the viewer and reality. They were instead revealing something about themselves — their taste, interests, and predilections — and using the footage to do so.
Primary is now remembered as a film about JFK, but at the time, Drew was a believer in the “fairness doctrine,” an FCC policy that required broadcasters to present “balanced” coverage. Consequently, he made sure that both Humphrey and Kennedy had equal time on screen. The enduring images, however, are all of the young phenom from Brookline, most especially the shot of the future president wading through a packed hall. The camera is held high so that you see the crown of his head, but the real subjects are the members of the crowd, their eyes bright with the fanatic’s zeal. Without even seeing Kennedy’s face, you get the sense that he is at least a rock star, if not a prophet. We tend to remember how Kennedy outshone Nixon in the first televised debate, but he had already done it once before, to Humphrey. Drew tried to be fair to the candidates, but cinema isn’t fair. It gravitates to stars. In the edit room, it is hard to justify cutting away from a shining face.
In the twenty-first century, the election documentary that looms over the others is Marshall Curry’s 2005 Oscar-nominated Street Fight. Curry does not hide his sympathies. The film made a celebrity out of then-Newark city council member Cory Booker, even as he failed to unseat the city’s mayor. In the beginning of the film, as an anonymous uniformed man is seen telling Booker that he is not allowed to campaign in the hallways of a public housing complex, the director remarks on how many “forces” there are against him. It is unclear whether this man has some relationship to these “forces,” but the suggestion is powerful enough. Once Curry tells you there are forces at work, you search the frame, listen intently, seeking evidence.
Street Fight was followed by a spate of other similar documentaries, including Knock Down the House; All In: The Fight for Democracy, a history of voter suppression framed as a portrait of Stacey Abrams; and Philly D.A., an eight-part PBS series that premiered this past April closely documenting the office and personality of progressive Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. All three seem to capitalize on a liberal appetite for uplifting political content in the Trump era. By the time Knock Down the House came out, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had already defeated Joe Crowley and become a star for the electoral left. The film might have been less rapturously received if she had not won, since the other three women in the project all lost their races in the 2018 election cycle. But, as Street Fight showed, losing in a nationally distributed documentary is not necessarily a bad thing if the filmmakers are on your side. Before turning to Ocasio-Cortez’s victory party, the movie returns to one of its subjects in Missouri: Cori Bush. “It was the old guard versus the progressive, new guard,” narrates a newscaster soundbite. “Many of you called for change after Ferguson. It does not look like that is happening.” Bush dabs at the edges of her eyes, her face beginning to twist. Her head drops and she rocks back and forth. It is as sympathetic a portrait of defeat as could be drawn. Two years later, and a year after the release of Knock Down the House, Bush ran again and defeated the same man who had once beat her by nearly twenty points.
It might be easy to say that Street Fight or Knock Down the House are so in the tank for their subjects that they stray into manipulation. Each film is clearly aligned with a political and social vision that mirrors that of its subject. Even Primary falls into this trap at times. In one scene, the film cuts from Kennedy giving a rather mundane speech about the future to rapt faces in the crowd. Had the film cut from the candidate to a man checking his watch, one might not have thought Kennedy a great orator at all. What one witnesses is not exactly proof of Kennedy’s greatness, but of its effect on Drew, Leacock, Maysles, and Pennebaker.
With Trump at least temporarily offstage, it is unclear whether truth will maintain the same level of purchase on the public’s imagination. For a time, it was a useful byword, a way to express opposition to the administration’s mendacity. In turn, it was good business for those who touted their ability to disclose what was being hidden by all the lies. But what documentaries capture, in the indexical sense, is a pattern of thought more than the matter of reality. Thinking of them as such demands a different kind of attention, less reliance on fact-checking and more on form, argument and affect. The point and pleasure is, as Elizabeth Hardwick said, “the drama of opinion.” History is culled, constructed and put to use. But facts are offered only in the barest sense.
The documentary exists because some people are compelled to make the misshapen mass of experience recognizable. Recognition raises too many questions: who is doing the recognizing? What do they need to know to do so? What is to be done in the aftermath of all this sight and cognition? Invoking “ethics” is a shortcut to answering these questions, but they are more fruitfully thought of as political instead. Whether one should maintain editorial independence from a subject has everything to do with who the subject is, who the filmmakers are, and what each is trying to do. The ethical answer, the one that cocoons directors from a responsibility to the world as it is and as it could be, is that distance must always be maintained so that viewers can somehow trust that they are not being lied to. But lying is rarely the problem. Viewers tend to suffer from misunderstanding. If a Farsi speaker talks to a person who only understands English, the English speaker is not really being deceived. Bridging the gap between them is a matter of language, intention, and, if one is lucky, solidarity.
Barbara Kopple’s landmark labor film Harlan County, U.S.A. would, by many standards, fail some tests of critical distance. Bessie Parker, one of the women involved in the strike that forms the basis of the film, said in a later interview, “I can remember hiding that mic so Barbara could get the courtroom scene because they would not allow her in.” The scene in question shows Bessie refusing to apologize for her actions during the strike. It’s a stirring moment, but with the knowledge that she intended to be recorded, it is easy to see that she is not only giving testimony; she is performing for the camera, and through it — through Kopple and her crew — she is speaking to the viewer.
Is the film showing something real, then? It is, because it is about the kind of labor militants who would do such a thing. “I knew what I was doing because that’s what I wanted to do,” Bessie tells the judge. “For once I was able to take the offensive instead of coming down here to take a step backwards to try to defend what we did. What we did was right, and we all know that.” Parker’s “we” included her fellow workers, and it dared the judge not to include himself. It probably also included the people she knew were peeking through a door to film her speech and the people who would later sit in a theater to watch her give it. The bosses were the only people she was excluding. It’s an aggressive film, and opposition to its politics could, if one so desired, be rerouted through a demand for greater authenticity, whatever that would entail. But what Parker said in that courtroom is what all documentarians tell themselves, whether they are aesthetes, entertainers, radicals, liberals, stooges, or liars. What we did was right. We all know that. We just never say what it was that we did.
Blair McClendon is a writer, film editor and filmmaker. He lives in New York.