the candler blog

Criticizing Documentary Subjects

Link, Movies

Christopher Campbell makes an excellent point for the Documentary Channel’s Official Blog:

Just as too often doc audiences laugh at a film’s subjects, it’s also too often that critics and other writers focus on the mental state of real characters. And of course it hurts the subjects’ feelings, as we saw recently with Errol Morris’s Tabloid. […]

It doesn’t matter if any of those responding are obvious attention seekers or if the subjects are seen by the majority of deserving or fitting the judgments and opinions. I just don’t think this stuff belongs in a film review. But then, reviewing documentaries is a very tricky task, and I at least understand why some critics aren’t always clear on what’s appropriate to focus on.

I said it’s an excellent point, though not one I necessarily agree with.

I’ll admit I haven’t seen any of the films in question in Campbell’s piece and I’ll further concede that no film writer is more plugged into doc culture than he is (at least no one I’ve ever read). Still, his stance seems a bit harsh. How can critics stem their opinions because it will hurt someone’s feelings?

Documentary subjects are real people with real feelings. However, when their lives are put on screen they become part of a film, one that can be like dissected, judged and, yes, criticized like any other. The onus, I would argue, is on the filmmaker to craft a character and a narrative. The subjects themselves could be completely different from who the filmmaker chooses to show us, and that’s why critics have a right, and perhaps even an obligation, to judge who and what they see onscreen.

Personal attacks should never be a part of criticism, but in documentaries we are not seeing the actual person who is at the center of the film. Instead it is a record of some facet, some period of their life, and it is very much shaped by the filmmaker’s perspective. When a critic opines one way or another,it is a judgement against the film and its maker.

Of course things get messy when a person’s life is thrown up on screen. In such cases, I think it’s best to turn to the filmmaker and question what went wrong. Not to his or her critics.

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