Documentaries used to be the film world’s poor relation—glamourless and terminally earnest, a noble but marginal pursuit. Like medicine or homework, they were good for you. These days, though, what was once confined to the fringes has moved into the spotlit center of popular culture. The Sundance Festival generates as much buzz about docs as feature films, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine continues to pack theaters (grossing nearly $30 million worldwide), and three TV networks—Sundance, Trio, and PBS—have recently announced the launch of new documentary series. “There was a time when everybody wanted to write the great American novel or be in a rock band,” says Lois Vossen of ITVS, which produces PBS’s new program Independent Lens. “Now we’re in a stage where everyone wants to be the great documentary filmmaker.”
The Sundance Channel had planned to start an all-documentary network, but thanks to the soured economy, they’ve put that scheme on ice. Instead they’ve assembled a new weekly programming block called “DocDay,” which kicks off next month with a one-hour special recapping the year in documentaries. Sundance will then run docs from noon to midnight every Monday, anchored by a number of impressive TV debuts, including Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki’s persuasive The Trials of Henry Kissinger (March 3), which played at Film Forum last year, and Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Inner Tour (March 31), about a group of Palestinians touring Israel, which tied for No. 7 in this year’s Voice film poll.
Meanwhile, fledgling arts channel Trio has chosen documentaries as a way to aggressively define themselves in the ever more cramped cable-TV landscape. Their nightly prime-time series 9 Sharp features U.S. TV debuts of docs with a pop-culture twist, such as the entertaining five-part conspiracy-theory documentary made by journalist Jon Ronson, The Secret Rulers of the World, broadcast this week (February 17-21), and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (March 9), a film about ’70s filmmakers that just premiered at Slamdance. Trio president Lauren Zalaznick, who spent many years at VH1 developing shows like Pop-Up Video, believes these programs are cool enough to be the linchpin of her channel.
So how did documentaries trade their dowdy reputation for mainstream chic? Many people credit HBO’s generous budget, marketing savvy, and eclectic mix of sexy (Taxicab Confessions) and somber (The Carpet Slaves: Stolen Children of India) with making the notion of a “hot documentary” more than an oxymoron. Over the last decade, almost every other cable channel—from Bravo and IFC to Court TV and Oxygen—jumped on the bandwagon as digital technology made reality filmmaking cheaper than ever before. But nonfiction television runs the gamut from infotainment to cinema verité, and most of the stuff you see on cable doesn’t bear much resemblance to classic documentary work à la Frederick Wiseman. As the Sundance Channel’s Paola Freccero points out, “A lot of channels use it as a brand-defining platform for themselves. There’s a formula that people come to recognize on Discovery or A&E’s Biography, and that formula works for them—it’s a comforting place for viewers to go to get the information and entertainment they want. There really isn’t anywhere in the U.S. television landscape that gives you totally formula-free nonfiction filmmaking.”
Unless, of course, you invoke those three ominous letters: PBS. Back in the Mesozoic era, before Hoop Dreams and The Real World and J.Lo at Sundance, PBS was pretty much alone in its commitment to screening serious documentaries on television. “We like to say PBS was the original Independent Film Channel,” Lois Vossen of ITVS chuckles. Her organization has been producing documentaries for PBS series like P.O.V. and Frontline for 13 years, and now they’ve been given their own series on public television. Independent Lens will alternate seasons with P.O.V., airing on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. for 29 weeks of the year.
Since ITVS will continue to produce content for other PBS shows, Vossen says they’ll have to squash the temptation to keep all the best stuff for Independent Lens. “There’s definitely a tendency to want to do that, but certain films really are better for P.O.V. or American Experience, and the more films that get on other shows, the more slots we have for other ITVS projects.” Somehow they’ll have to hold back enough sensational documentaries to make Independent Lens more than just a B-list version of P.O.V.
Judging by the starting lineup, Independent Lens looks quirky, uneven, and entertaining. Chic Angela Bassett introduces each show, as if to reinforce the series’ pleasurable intentions. Jamie Meltzer’s Off the Charts, which ran last week, balanced amusement and empathy as it burrowed into the eccentric world of the song-poem industry—amateur poets send their scribblings and money to a distant post office box, then hack musicians make bizarre songs out of them. One of the highlights: Caglar Singeltary, a young man from Elmira who worships Annie Oakley, showing off his kung fu moves to the tune of his oddball masterpiece, “NonViolent Tae Kwon Do Troopers.”
In coming weeks, the series will screen an eclectic mix of personal and social commentary. On the light side, Nancy Kelly’s Downside Up (February 25) offers a somewhat flaky view of North Adams, Massachusetts, the post-industrial town where she grew up, which has been gradually gentrified by the arrival of Mass MOCA, the new art museum. Heather Courtney’s Los Trabajadores is much stronger—a quietly wrenching story about migrant workers trapped in Austin’s booming economy who take control of their day-labor center to prove their good intentions (March 25). Best of all is Strange Fruit, Joel Katz’s stellar film about Billie Holiday, the iconic song, and its historical context (April 8).
After so many years supporting documentary filmmaking when no one else could be bothered, it must be frustrating for PBS to watch gimlet-eyed cable competitors swoop in on their territory, just as the art form is being embraced by a mass audience. John Wilson, PBS’s co-chief program executive, responds gamely: “I’m OK with it, because what can I do? And also, it raises the bar and allows these filmmakers to find sustenance, because PBS alone cannot fund or schedule the vast volume of work that’s out there. But I’ll quickly tell anyone that PBS is where they should be, if only because PBS is available on every television set in America.” He also points out that no other channel does grassroots community outreach the way shows like POV and Independent Lens do, dedicating staff and Web sites to reach the right viewers and create awareness of the issues surrounding their documentaries.
Despite all the talk of a documentary boom, “the kind of stuff that Independent Lens specializes in, the cable channels just don’t touch,” says Thom Powers, whose film Guns and Mother will appear as part of Independent Lens in May. Vossen emphasizes that their mission remains very different from other networks and cable outfits: “We’re not in it for ratings or money, we’re peddling ideas. Using public media as the public airwaves to bring forward issues that may not be popular or easily digestible, that deserve more airtime than they get on the nightly news. It’s about using television as a tool for social discussion.”
“It’s a good time to be a documentary filmmaker because there’s an appetite for it,” says award-winning documentarian Liz Garbus (The Execution of Wanda Jean). “On the other hand, because of the reality-television boom there’s the expectation that documentary films can get produced for next to nothing, which really is not true for a film you might spend a year and a half or even three years on.”
Many filmmakers are skeptical that a boom exists—if the art form is really so popular, why is production funding still so hard to come by? Lots of cable outlets buy and broadcast finished documentaries, but only a handful produce them—even HBO funds just 35 or so originals a year. Which means that an independent director scrambles to raise the $150,000 or more needed to make the movie, but may only get a tiny fraction of that back in acquisition fees from the Sundance Channel or PBS. Garbus, who has worked with half a dozen cable channels, says that sometimes it’s possible to pitch a suitable idea to a network that pays overhead—finding the youth angle for MTV, as she did with her film The Travelers, or tapping into the women’s market at Lifetime, as with her doc Different Moms. But it’s also possible that commercial concerns will press too hard on younger filmmakers, squeezing out some of the maniacal passion and proselytizing spirit that has characterized earlier generations of documentarians.
Even so, lots of would-be Maysles continue to prowl the backwoods with their digital movie cameras, hoping to make the Great American Doc. Independent Lens was deluged by 400 proposals to fill only 29 slots, and Powers says that the Full Frame Documentary Festival in North Carolina received 700 submissions this year. “I’d be surprised if I heard from 10 percent of them ever again,” he says. “There’s exciting activity but there’s also a lot of dross—people who will find out that it’s not as easy as it looks. Even with digital technology, it’s still really hard to make a good, compelling documentary film.”