Documentaries Hit the Multiplexes:
From Super Size Me to My Architect and Beyond
Try to imagine a friend calling up and saying the following line even three years ago: “Hey! Let’s head to the local multiplex cinema to see Super Size Me, you know, that documentary about a man who almost dies after eating at McDonald’s for a month.” A feature documentary playing in the local multiplex rather than on television and about overeating fast food rather than a Ken Burns–styled “quality” docu about the Civil War or neglected African American athletes of the past?
But the answer is yes, and the scene has changed remarkably in the past few years as Americans really have entered a new era of moviegoing. Filmmaking characterized by the documentary has become so interesting that we want to buy tickets and popcorn and head for the multiplex rather than rent the dvd and stay home.
Look at what happened last year. Yes, the most prominent docu of the past year was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). A straight-on attack of President George W. Bush’s presidency—starting with the confusing confirmation of his first election to the White House and continuing through his handling of the 9/11 crisis and his subsequent war on terrorism—Moore’s film angered many but was applauded by many others around the world (a twenty-five-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival!) as it became not only the largest grossing box-office documentary in American cinematic history but one of the top ten grossing films of the year.
In an era when Hollywood has tried consistently to focus on a few megabudget blockbusters a year, hoping to reap Titanic-like profits, many of these films have been almost complete box-office flops, including Alexander, Troy, and the host of terrible Christmas comedies the studios churn out. The actual truth is that the moviegoing public has, as always, been open to surprises, including films by independents (Maria Full of Grace and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, for instance), foreign films made on small budgets but with good stories (think of New Zealand’s fine Māori tale in Whale Rider a year ago), and, most recently, theatrically released documentaries that catch our eye because of their unusual topics or outspoken approaches.
This trend doesn’t mean that every independent project makes it to the big screen. Of the several thousand projects submitted to the Sundance Film Festival for this January’s screenings, only 120 or so will find distribution beyond festivals. But in the past few years we can point to powerful documentaries that have done surprisingly well around the world on the big screen, such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, which as critic Roger Ebert points out is not so much an attack on McDonald’s as a pointed look at all of “fast-food America” (in his review Ebert speaks of his successful effort to lose eighty-five pounds in the past few years!).
Other “surprise” theatrical documentaries include Jacques Perriri’s Winged Migration (2003), which has the simple point that birds fly south in the winter, but what holds our attention is the amazing footage of these flights around the world. More recently, Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect is a personal search by the illegitimate son for his lost (and deceased) father, Louis Kahn, over twenty-years after the famous architect’s death. No dramatic film with famous actors could do better than such a “true story” in showing the complexity of not only father-son relations but, as many critics noted about this “sad” but engaging film, human life itself. The year 2003 also brought us Stone Reader, the remarkable “home movie” of Mark Moskowitz tracking down an author he had enjoyed many years before and finding out he never published a second book. This personal odyssey takes him across America until he finds the author, Dow Mossman, in Iowa, as a day laborer who has been forgotten by the world. Who could imagine a more loving tribute to the power and importance of reading and readers? Again, this has nothing to do with big-budget Hollywood special effects and stories of guys with guns blowing things up!
Equally as amazing in terms of seemingly unlikely subjects for a multiplex cinema screening was Jeff Blitz’s 2003 film Spellbound about the yearly national American spelling championship held in Washington, D.C. Tracking the lives of a handful of local winners, the documentary is full of joy and heartbreak as we encounter a cross section of American society, ranging from poor Mexican American families in Texas to Kansas farm families and Asian families as well. Of course, Michael Moore’s previous works count as well, since he has been a pioneer in theatrical documentaries since his Roger and Me became the first widely released cinematic documentary in 1989.
In some sense, I see this recent development in America as a “catching up” with what has been an ongoing tradition in other countries. Let’s just take New Zealand as an example. Of course to say “New Zealand” immediately brings up Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but New Zealand has a strong national cinema tradition that includes excellent documentaries often released theatrically. On my first visit to Down Under in 1996, my wife and I were urged to attend a documentary on New Zealand women in World War II called War Stories made by filmmaker Gaylene Preston. Not only were we thoroughly fascinated by the seven women (five white and two Māori) who told their stories in the film, but we were amazed that the theater in downtown Wellington was sold out! Preston divides her career between making theatrical documentaries—her latest on breast cancer is titled Titless Wonders—and feature dramas and comedies, including her recent film with Sam Neal, Perfect Strangers.
One of my favorite films of last year was a documentary from Bulgaria that I hope will be released in the United States this year. I saw the film last July as I was serving on the Jury of a fine film festival in Croatia, the Motovun Film Festival. The film by Adela Peeva is entitled Whose Song Is This? (Chia e tazi pesen?). Peeva’s own introduction sets the scene for this amazing film about how people in each nation of the Balkans hold onto their unique cultures:
In a nice little restaurant in Istanbul, I was having dinner with friends from various Balkan countries—a Greek, a Macedonian, a Turk, a Serb, and me, a Bulgarian. There I heard the song whose story is told in the film. As soon as we heard the song we all started humming it, each of us in their own language. Everyone claimed that the song came from their own country. Then we started a fierce fight—whose song is this?
Peeva takes us on the road to each country, and after visiting Turkey, Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia, she returns home to hear from her own nation that they will “hang her from a tree” if she ever says the song is not Bulgarian! And they are serious! Not a word is said in the film about “politics” or “religion,” but people from each country are passionately convinced the song is “theirs.” By film’s end the punch line becomes extremely powerful as we learn the song is actually an ancient Jewish tune and thus belongs to none of the countries claiming it!
Words can’t express what it is like to watch such a documentary with people from different countries who are immediately caught up in this “struggle” as they watch “real people” expressing themselves. Of course, I love good fiction films as well, be they comedies, dramas, or thrillers. But I do think it is an important sign of the times that beyond the world of “reality tv” and Hollywood blockbusters, there is space for passionate documentary filmmakers to tell and share their stories with a theatrical audience around the world.
University of Oklahoma
Andrew Horton is Director of Film and Video Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of eighteen books and award-winning screenplays.
“From the September-December 2005 issue of World Literature Today (79:3-4), pages 68-69. Copyright © 2005 World Literature Today.”