People are complaining that Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss” isn’t telling the whole story about the convicted murderers it portrays. Herzog has long eschewed the idea of “truth” in his documentaries and for the better I would say. This bugs people. Says L.V. Anderson at Slate:
Whatever Herzog’s reasons for leaving the existence of a key witness out of Into the Abyss, it’s clear—as it always has been—that Herzog is an artist, not a journalist.
I would argue that a documentary is telling a story based upon something that has happened, but that there are many stories one can tell about an event. Moreover, the most journalistic story might not be the best story. The first rule of a documentary is to be a good film. If it is not well-made, it is not good regardless of its subject. For instance, as an environmental scholar and an environmentalist, I try to keep up with the latest environmental documentaries. Last week, I watched “Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution.” This was pretty awful, despite its message. The film chronicles one French village committing itself to serving organic food, especially in the schools. But almost the entire film is just shots of kids eating organic food in school cafeterias, parents sitting around talking about it, and scenes from a UN conference on food spliced with scary music and graphics telling us what horrible compounds have infected our food supply.
This is an important story, but it’s not a film. It’s just boring.
Of course, most people disagree with me here. I watch a good number of documentaries and it is always interesting to see how my reactions compare to those who, say, write reviews on IMDB. For instance, Jennifer Baichwal’s latest documentary, “Act of God,” chronicles the stories of people struck by lightning. She lets them tell their stories the way they want to tell them. The experimental musician Fred Frith closes the film with a 5 minute improvisational guitar piece, which is his way of telling what happened to him. Baichwal’s films often revolve around difficult art and this was a challenging but fascinating way to think about the subject. But many viewers have disdained this documentary because it doesn’t present the science behind lightning. Some of the reviews at IMDB and other sites are interesting to read for this reaction. People hear “documentary” and they want a TRUE accounting of the events. But the best documentarians challenge the entire idea of truth.
And that’s why Werner Herzog’s documentaries are so great (better than any of his feature films since the early 80s). “Grizzly Man” is the most famous example. There are many unanswered questions. How did Treadwell get all that great equipment? Did Herzog know Treadwell beforehand? What’s with the bizarre editing that makes the coroner’s bit look so staged? Did he really listen to the tape of Treadwell’s death in front of his ex-girlfriend? A lot about this film makes no sense, but it’s glorious for several reasons, including because it so clearly demonstrates its 2 unhinged and opinionated narrators, Treadwell and Herzog.