Documentary Diversity and Public Media

Pat Aufderheide, author of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction, recently blogged Katy Chevigny’s MediaRights blog essay, “Assessing Success,” which looks at the implications of the continued ascendancy of the documentary over the last decade. As Chevigny observes, documentary is confronting many of the contradictions inherent to the era of digital production and distribution in that documentary films continue to attract wide audiences, and with lower production costs, barriers to making documentary films have diminished to some extent. And political, or perhaps partisan, documentaries appreciate a newfound power to influence public policy as we saw with Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth. At the same time, lower production costs increase competition between filmmakers, potentially fragmenting the documentary audience in new ways.

Chevigny helpfully defines two categories of documentary: entertainment docs that focus on famous people, competitive events, unusual behaviors, eccentric characters, or cute kids, and political docs that promote a partisan political agenda.  In fact, I’d rename the latter category as partisan documentaries, in order to differentiate these films (Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, Outfoxed, and Expelled, to name a few examples) from films that may be “political” in ways that are less connected to electoral politics and that often provide far more subtle meditations on the human condition.  As Chevigny observes, “smaller” and “artier” documentaries face a difficult challenge in that they

have a more difficult time today justifying their existence, waving the flag of art over the subtle ideas they explore. Intimate without being sensational, these films are examples of the work of artists taking a humanist approach to their documentary subject matter.

The Cinema Eye Honors Awards were one notable attempt to address some of these concerns in their focus on the craft of documentary, but Chevigny is right, I think, to argue that we need to find distribution models that will protect documentaries that focus on “the side stories of life” even while we take advantage of the “truth-telling” power of documentary in a hotly contested election season (something that seems desperately missing in network news coverage of the election).

To address Chevigny’s questions, Aufderheide calls for a renewed effort to support public media such as PBS, and I’m certainly inclined to agree with her.  Aufderheide points out that public media, such as the PBS series P.O.V. and Independent Lens, are among the only resources that have regularly supported docs that explore the human condition in subtle ways.  The summer season of PBS’s documentary series P.O.V. (video preview), which features Chevigny’s own Election Day, is certainly a testament to the diversity of voices working within documentary and the ability of public media to provide an outlet for these voices, a point that I think is worth emphasizing. It’s also important to note that not all affiliates carry these shows at consistent times, making it difficult for those of us without DVRs to watch the programs at convenient times, something I ran into in Atlanta a few years ago when the local PBS affiliate refused to show Bill Moyers’ NOW (carrying many of these docs on streaming video obviously helps).  I’m not sure I have much to add here, but I do think that the upcoming season of P.O.V. looks incredibly promising and that the series–and public media in general–is certainly deserving of our support.

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