I wanted to pen some thoughts on tendencies in documentary filmmaking that I recently have been noticing lately and thought it was thought-provoking enough to express. The reality of authorized documentary films and unauthorized documentaries has both its appeals and downsides, challenges and circumstances, and potential and limitations. Before we dive into all such corollaries I want to make clear not just my terminologies in using concepts like ‘authorized’ and ‘unauthorized’ but I also wanted to expound on why such distinctions occur in documentary-style approaches and all modus operandi that allows documentary film projects to be completed year in and year out. On this latter notion–I believe it is vital for the strength of documentary film storytelling–should it withstand the test of time–to make clear and aware what the boundaries are in subject matter and documentation. Such distinction can make or break a film based on accessibility production teams have to work with and the clear expression toward nuance that elevates films to its highest level achievable. Audiences and marketing strategies in distribution also can resonate with film pieces when the line is drawn toward authorized and unauthorized films. In other words, audience members can anticipate what they are getting into as they enter a movie theatre or click their V.O.D. app for the selection of a particular documentary–authorized or not.
Now back to my terminologies and how I am using the concepts of what is authorized and unauthorized. Authorization–pure and simple–is when the subject(s) in and of itself has been given the green light for a production team to utilize any and all elements to tell their film story. Green light means any and all access to the major characters involved and the signing off in access to use elements as components for a documentary film production–like photos, audio clips, historic archival footage material, and even time in for interviews for candid conversations. Authorization may even include the tendency for the subject to take part in the production of the film itself which often include overseeing the overall storyline and story arc. Such approaches may even end with a film to be completed based on the subject’s stamp of approval–the ultimate green light. This can help in distribution of the film if the subject has a big reach toward a target audience or niche community. A great example of authorized documentary films include: Tupac Resurrection and Marley. These two bio docs actually had family members of both legendary musicians take part in producing their iconic pieces. Tupac’s mother Afeni Shakur played the role as producer, and all of Rita and Bob Marley’s children were executive producers on their piece. As a result, the filmmakers were allowed authorized access to never-before-seen footage material, music/audio clips, candid, unscripted interviews, and a potential market reach to audiences once completed. On the contrast, examples of unauthorized and well-done pieces include: Lumumba: The Death of a Prophet and Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. While these works of art made by prolific auteurs were completed on the margins of access and authorization nonetheless, out came two phenomenal films that elucidated the nuances toward the powerful figures each of the film portrayed. Raoul Peck had no clearance, support, or endorsement from the Congolese government or Patrice Lumumba’s family–which I think elevated his approach to the subject. Kind of like an admirer viewing his subject from a distance dispelling the mythology of the great Congolese independence leader. Alex Gibney in much the same way was shunned from Apple, Inc. with the kinds of elements that can make for great nuance to the Silicon Valley giant years after his untimely death. Gibney’s approach was to deconstruct the life and work of Steve Jobs from those who knew and worked with him and break down rumors, allegations and stories to get at the kernel of truth and reality. Nothing short of documentary film storytelling came out wrong in the paths the directors took to tell their stories.
In the last two years 4 biographical documentaries were released that I want to make mention of in the limitation of authorized documentaries that can sometimes miss the mark–Brett Morgen’s 2015 film, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Barbara Kopple’s 2016 doc, Miss Sharon Jones! and two 2017 films–Dolores on the famed labor rights activist Dolores Huerta, and ESPN’s Ric Flair documentary, Nature Boy. What I noticed intricately in these films were the tendency of the storytellers to speak directly to an audience who very much knew the figures the film portrays which incentivized the directors to take liberties away from key biographical accounts and details of their famed subject. I think it is because of the film’s full access to subject that little unknown information was provided, too much of a touch-up on the glorifying and celebrating the figures that were conveyed occurred, and, more importantly, aspects were over-done in direction and writing. Watching Morgen’s bio doc on Kurt Cobain I was left out of the very nuance that led to the eventual suicide of the musician. Details were ignored to the psychology of the complicated personhood that made Cobain who he eventual became–a loner teenager, quaint musician, and depressed young adult. While the stylized rendition of Cobain’s story were done superbly in Morgen’s documentary film portrait as a complimentary fallback to artistic expression and the celebrating of it, in the end such a treatment took the place of a potential strong and profound narrative. In Kopple’s approach to the biographical account of the dying R&B/funk singer–Sharon Jones–began toward the end of her career and unraveled backwards leaving audiences puzzled in piecing her biographical story together. We get her struggle and we applaud her resiliency but we want to know more about what made this star special and the character that evolved through the years. Here, the case of authorization limits how these two narratives can be told and expressed in unique dimensions and critical analysis–instead of just playing to the audience of fans. The documentary films–Dolores and Nature Boy seemed like mash-ups of several projects eventually construed together. In each of the documentaries both the subject of the films were interviewed more than once–Dolores Huerta herself was featured three times in different sit-down interviews–assuming her different wardrobe and location of the interviews represented a different setup altogether. As a result, the subject’s commentary in the numerous interview soundbites overshadowed the scope of the subject in the film’s story through-lines limiting how deep and intricate the narratives were told. A lot of nuance were left out of Nature Boy which in the end parlayed too much on the wonder and mystique of the famed wrestler. The best bio docs that resonates for me is when all mystique, suspense, and wonder is either suspended or lifted from one’s biography as to get to the bare bone of who a person is and then coalesced in the story’s denouement. Two films who did a marvelous job at this tendency while employing a significant approach and style in authorized, green-light access–were the 2016 Oscar winner Amy, the 2017 Oscar winner ESPN’s and Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America, and John Scheinfeld’s John Coltrane 2017 documentary, Chasing Trane. Nothing was left out in the storytelling process. Nuance was accentuated. A story where no head-scratching moments, or confounding twists were involved. I believe Nature Boy and Dolores were done with, frankly, too much access–perhaps, as a respectful gesture to maintain the reputation of the subject. On an aside, there is certainly room to raise the inquiry of films’ authorization and how it affects bio narratives on figures who are alive compared to those that are dead. Nevertheless, biographical films should be free in telling an expository narrative with appeal and gust for insight if not, enlightenment.
So, again while authorized documentaries and unauthorized documentaries have both its upside and downside for filmmakers it is imperative for films to undergo thorough research beforehand to come up with both a framework and game plan for their approach and delivery on their subject for their documentary film. This can buttress the relevancy of the topic of the doc. Such thoroughness in pre-production can help a film come full circle and add to the reason why so many documentaries are what it is in today’s diversified film markets–both thorough and engaging works of art. While we, artists, aim for perfection in our works making the perfect documentary is a mirage. Instead, the final outcome for a completed documentary film project should be whether production teams maximize what they were given and allowed access to. Beyond money and prestige of the production of the documentary and the subject(s) involved, taking advantage of access in small and big ways can deliver documentary films to higher levels of resonating art and thorough products of entertainment and learning.