I caught The King of Kong at the weekend and I really enjoyed. It’s a fantastic underdog tale set in a fascinating subculture that really deserves to be seen. However, the movie was beset by claims after the fact that it had been somewhat unfair to Billy Mitchell, the reigning Donkey Kong champion who found himself cast in the role of villain. While fictional movies take liberties with their characters all the time, I can’t help but wonder what sort of standard should apply to documentaries. They obviously require some basis in fact, but to what extent is possible to be entirely fair and objective in bringing any subject to screen?
Fictional characters can be complex. The can live on long past a movie’s two-hour runtime, festering in a viewer’s subconscious as we attempt to piece together rationales, excuses and motivations. However, I’d suggest that – as a rule – most fictional characters are several orders of magnitude simpler to comprehend than any real-life people. Writers and directors have a page limit or a runtime in which to build up a fictional character from scratch, and to create a facade that might be convincing enough to create the illusion of depth, or even some semblance of it.
Documentarians have the opposite problem. Instead of constructing a fictional character from the ground up, they have to whittle away at subjects that actually exist and condense the essence of a single character into a relatively short runtime. So they have to make sure to capture the heart of that person within a very narrow window. There’s always going to be the question as to whether they should recut the footage to emphasis what they deem important, and whether that is unfair to the person being covered. Undoubtedly there’s a lot of stuff omitted from any given documentary that might colour the audience’s reception of a particular individual.
However, I’m inclined to believe that the medium and the style of the project has to be taken into account. Producing a two-hour documentary on any subject from video games to the health service, is never going to be a comprehensive examination. It isn’t going to be stored in libraries with reels and reels of audio conversations catching every word publicly uttered by any given individual. If you want to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then there are archive resources available for you to explore. They can be found on-line easily enough, and this is the era where that information is readily to hand. It’s unreasonable, I’d argue, for any viewer to expect a full history of a given topic served up in a single documentary film.
It’s more feasible for a director to serve you up their own sharp observations, pieced together as best they could be, in order to give you an idea of what they experienced in following their subject. Condensing the facts of a three-month shoot in close proximity to a subject is nearly impossible, so it seems fair that viewers may have to settle for an attempt to capture and serve the feeling behind it all. Billy Mitchell may have done things slightly differently than we saw in the film, but he still said those things he said in the film, and he was still as remote and detached from his challenger as the movie made him appear.
I’ve always subscribed to the idea that documentary films work best when treated as arguments rather than statements. I don’t go to documentaries to be informed of the raw facts. I go because I want to be convinced – it’s a chance to look at how a film-maker sees a particular event, and to see whether it lines up with the version I might have expected, or if it’s something new. Sure, there are documentaries like Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man that tells stories we might not know about, but even those stories are told from a certain perspective and with certain preconceptions.
The documentarian isn’t just objectively capturing what happened – if they did, they wouldn’t edit down footage and interviews – they are trying to convey a sense of what happened, as seen through a particular viewpoint. No documentary is ever entirely neutral on its subject matter, despite how it might claim to be. Even in researching the material, the film-makers undoubtedly reached a conclusion that they are sharing. Even the very act of deciding what material is and isn’t relevent can be seen to support one particular perspective of events at the expense of another.
I find the best way to react to films like those produced by Michael Moore is to treat them as arguments. They are clear political opinions, articulated with great skill and sophistication, built around the idea of convincing any audience to adopt a clear stance. Moore picks the facts that support him, and ignores those that don’t. There’s no way to call that “objective” while keeping a straight face. Moore is perhaps the most obvious example, but I’d argue that films like Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth do the same sort of thing: they put a particular agenda in front of the viewer, and it’s up to them to decide to accept or reject that viewpoint. It’s obviously more apparent with politically themed documentaries, but I’d make the argument it occurs across the board.
So, that’s how I look at documentaries. I don’t think it’s ever truly possible for a documentary to be completely objective – level-headed in handling its subject, perhaps, but not entirely objective. I’d argue that they function best as an illustration of how the film-maker in question sees the world, not as a statement of how the world actually is.