Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Case Study in Effective Documentary Filmmaking

Let's start by being completely honest.
Documentaries are, by nature, shamelessly manipulative. Cheap tactics are inevitable when one is attempting to make a point via celluloid. Effective documentary filmmaking is defined by the adroit manipulation of emotionally charged images, sounds, and words. How else is one expected to get one's point across?
There are, however, limits to this manipulative style that can be crossed.
You think you know where I'm going, don't you? Breaking news: this is the first and only time I'm going to mention Michael Moore in this blog post. Moore is held as a pariah of "everything wrong with liberals" by the majority of the populace, but his films work. He may spend his time preaching to the choir, but he does it well.
No, I'm here to illustrate my documentary-related points through critical examination of two films that attempt to shed light on the same subject: Religilous and Jesus Camp. One is a brash, terrifying example of filmmaking guaranteed to speak to both sides of the political spectrum; the other is good for giggles, but not for winning converts.
Let's start with Religilous. This film was dead on arrival, as far as clear, concise filmmaking is concerned, because of the baggage it brought with it: Bill Maher is, by profession, a stand-up comic. His job is to be funny. While this is all well and good, and provides for an entertaining cinema experience, a man whose first priority is laughter cannot realistically create a useful documentary. To change another person's mind through documentary, you have to treat your subject with respect. What Christian will watch Religilous, a film that plays fast and loose with facts and accuracy while holding up religion everywhere as reason for mirth, and feel that they've been shown something that needs to be changed? I'll give you a hint: it's a relatively small number, and it rhymes with hero.
The humor, however, is not my major bone of contention. Bill Maher simply cannot leave well enough alone. A competent documentarian allows his or her footage to speak for itself. Notice how Bill Maher inserts unnecessary, almost-cruel jokes into standard footage. For example: the scene in which Maher is meeting a Mullah in a mosque, and his phone rings. A skilled filmmaker could have used this footage to make a point about the clashing of ancient beliefs with modern-era sensibilities. Instead, we get some ham-handed fake texts, which, if I recall correctly, involve something along the lines of "kill the infidels, lol." How very droll. How compelling.
Throughout the film, Maher speaks and speaks, always cast in the light of a non-theistic saint, and then juxtaposes himself with interviews of people caught off-guard by Maher's bullying tactics (the interviews with the Orthodox Jews, in particular, rankle me). And the ending. God, that ending. Maher throws away his comedic tone in favor of a subtle-as-a-hammer montage of violence set to roaring opera music, claiming that religion must be destroyed in order to achieve peace. Where in the documentary has Bill Maher shown any evidence for this? He's adept in exposing the various hypocrisies and foibles inherent in any religious adherence, but he fails in trying to grasp a more global message. Overall: Religilous is amusing, but condescending, uneven, and unlikely to change any minds.
Which leads me to Jesus Camp: hands down, the most terrifying film I have ever seen. Is there any narration? Are there stand-up comics smirking to themselves? Are there montages of worlds colliding? No. The filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, simply play the footage they've taken from the titular camp, and finish the film with a debate between the camp's organizer and a radio personality. Every so often, statistics regarding born-again Christians, homeschooling, etc. are shown on the screen. That's it. There's no overt moralizing. Just footage of kids going to camp. But show this film to anyone but a fanatic (this includes moderate Christians), and you will get a response. Indeed, because of the uproar caused by this documentary, the camp it studies has been closed indefinitely.
The key to Jesus Camp is that it has faith (no pun intended) in its footage. The filmmakers feel no need to throw in jokes, montages, or long, self-driven monologues. They present reality (or, admittedly, the reality they choose to convey), and assume that the public will make the right decision.

The conclusion? An effective documentary relies on footage, not outright manipulation. Find something real: don't attempt to create an altered reality as viewed through your own rose-colored glasses. I'm looking at you, Bill Maher.

Am I being to hard on Religilous? Is Jesus Camp not as scary as I think? Let me know.


  1. I think that Bill Maher knows he's not winning converts, not any real believers, anyway - he's calling out to atheists and agnostics, and it's effective in that scope. He is an entertainer first, and his comedy is intentionally offensive. He was trying to make a blatantly atheistic film, to make a point that atheists aren't a fringe group. Basically, it's a ploy for attention, and it does its job.
    Religilous is more of an editorial, while Jesus Camp is an expose (it won't let me add the accent thingy, but you know what I mean).

  2. I agree. However, for the purpose of concise argument, I have to stand by the idea that most documentaries, specifically politically-minded ones, aim to change minds, or at least cause doubt. Perhaps I shouldn't look at Religilous as a documentary, per se. It's a two-hour long in-joke. Though that's not necessarily a bad thing.

  3. I have only seen Religilous, though I am curious about Jesus Camp. I basically agree with everything you said, especially the ending part. He never actually made any points about religion causing violence, but rather that religion made people throw away common sense and logic. Although the latter argument may, to Maher, seem to obviously lead into the former argument, it doesn't necessarily and he never really makes the connection. Of course, I thought Religilous was hilarious and knew not to take it seriously. If Maher really wanted to make an argument against religion, he should have found people who could actually argue--instead, Maher targeted the people who were most likely to make religion look like a circus act. Also, his argument was that ALL religion was bad, even though he only looked at monotheism, and didn't even touch on Eastern religions like Hinduism. So in conclusion, I agree that he didn't really make an effective documentary, but rather a funny, cruel skit with real people. Nonetheless, I wouldn't mind giggling at it again.

  4. Definitely true. I suppose that's the fault here: I tried taking Religilous seriously. ...Some.