Innovations in Documentary II

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), by Michael Moore, represents a watershed in documentary film history. On one level, having earned almost $200 million, including ancillary revenue, it is the most commercially successful documentary of all time. Earnings rivaled the vast majority of dramatic films made in 2003. On another level, however, the film demarks the adoption of dramatic-entertainment values as opposed to the educational-informational values more often associated with the documentary. Fahrenheit 9/11 was certainly not the first documentary to do so; Moore's film was simply the documentary that garnered the most attention for doing so.

Other areas of the media, particularly news broadcasts on television, have softened their approach to the news. They, too, have adopted "entertainment" values. Simultaneously, TV drama and a segment of the feature film industry have adopted "information-documentary" values: witness reality TV and the rise of a documentary approach on shows such as "Law and Order" and the CSI series.

In this chapter our interest is this trend toward entertainment values in the documentary. Is it a new trend? Is it a progression or a regression? To contextualize these questions, it's important to acknowledge that the documentary has flirted with entertainment and dramatic values from the outset. If we use Dziga Vertov's Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Man with a Movie Camera) (1929) as the antithesis of dramatic values in the documentary, we note that Vertov's film has no main character in the traditional sense, that there are no antagonists, and that there doesn't seem to be a plot, only a slice-of-life approach to a day in the life of a cameraman and a day in the life of a city.

Vertov represents the classic cinéma vérité sensibility that reemerges in direct cinema in England, in the candid eye series in Canada, and in the American work of Fred Wiseman and the Maysles brothers. But other visions of documentary emanated from the work of Robert Flaherty and John Gri-erson, working in the same era as Vertov. In the case of Robert Flaherty, a romantic vision was applied to Eskimo life in the Arctic. In Nanook of the North (1922), Nanook heroically makes his way in spite of the hardships of securing food and shelter in the world's harshest environment. Grierson, too, plied his heroic humanist agenda to labor relations and to the delivery of the mail, in Night Mail (1936). In each of these films, dramatic ideas are used to enable the documentary subject.

The stakes as well as the dramatic techniques employed become more evident in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1934) and Frank Capra's Why We Fight series (1942-1944). In Riefenstahl's film, Adolph Hitler is the heroic main character who arrives from somewhere above the clouds to save his nation. The same Adolph Hitler is the principal antagonist in Capra's Divide and Conquer (1943). Capra uses Riefenstahl's own footage as well as newsreel, even Hollywood, film footage to illustrate what a duplicitous bad guy Hitler really is.

Alain Resnais used a dramatic strategy to juxtapose 1954 Auschwitz (color) with 1944 Auschwitz (black and white) in his Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955). The raw footage itself was sufficiently shocking—the conflictual strategies hardly seemed necessary. The same can be said for Marcel Ophul's Chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity, 1969), in which the juxtaposition of the Vichy government's behavior toward its Jews was in stark contrast to the nationalistic resistance claims made by French politicians post-World War II.

By the late 1980s, however, particularly with the work of Errol Morris (The Thin Blue_Line, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.), the use of dramatic strategies in the documentary became more novel and appealing to documentary makers. Morris principally used a protagonist or antagonist model in his films. In Mr. Death (1999), holocaust deniers, including Mr. Death, are the antagonists. In Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (2001), the four main characters are nonconformists in an increasingly conformist world. In The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara, McNamara is a protagonist who is his own antagonist.

Similarly, in Grizzly Man (2005), Werner Herzog investigates the death of Timothy Treadwell, a wildlife preservationist killed by a grizzly after spending 13 summers among the bear population in Alaska. Here the conflict is man vs. animal, or man, advocate of animal life, or, to put it another way: Friend or food—what is the nature of man in nature? Herzog structures the film as an investigation into this relationship, and what he concludes is that Timothy Treadwell and the grizzly saw the relationship differently and therein lays the tragedy of Treadwell. And by using the chronology of the relationship as the plot, Herzog is able to create the conflictual tension that plot always brings to the goal of the main character.

This use of plot as a shaping device is rarely as powerfully used as it is in Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans. The film relies on the protagonist-antagonist relationship as well as on a plot. The main character is definitely Jesse Friedman, a teenager when he is sentenced to go to jail as a pedophile, having been found guilty of abusing children in the basement of his home together with his father, Arnold Friedman. Ostensibly the children (boys) were there to be tutored in computer and math skills by their teacher, Arnold Friedman. The antagonist is Arnold Friedman, the main character's father. The plot is the accusation of child molestation, the investigation, the trial, and the impact of these events on the Friedman family.

Director Jarecki clearly sympathizes with Jesse and believes he is innocent, even though Jesse, along with his father, is sentenced to significant jail time. Jarecki is also interested in the impact of the events upon the Great Neck, New York community in which they took place. From the point of view of the narrative choices and editing style, Jarecki has treated Capturing the Friedmans as a thriller.

Another example of a documentary film structured as a thriller is Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect. The film begins with the director discovering, at the death of his father, the architect, Louis Kahn, that the father had two other families (two other wives and two other children). As the youngest of all of Kahn's children, Nathaniel sets out to find out who his father, was personally and professionally. In the course of his investigation, he and his audience learn a great deal about Louis Kahn. We learn he was one of the great American architects of the 20th century. We also learn that he is utterly unorthodox in how he has conducted his personal life. Aside from structuring the film as an investigation into a mystery, Nathaniel Kahn poses as the naive narrator of the investigation. By doing so he is attempting to dramatize the sense of surprise and wonder at each revelation. By assuming this pose, Kahn lightens what might have become heavy, even tragic, in the unfolding. The pose lightens the tone of this documentary, and by doing so, Kahn moves us away from realist interpretation and judgment of his father. The alternative, creative tolerance, is the upshot of Kahn's narrative choices.

Jeffrey Blitz's documentary Spellbound (2002) has launched two dramatic films and a Broadway musical. Rarely has a documentary spawned as much emulation. Spellbound follows the lives of eight diverse American teenagers as they move from the regional, to the national spelling bee competition. And so, there are eight main characters, each humanized and individualized. And there is a plot—the regional competitions and the national competition. Clearly there can be only one winner, but the pride of each of the families in their children is so strong that it outweighs the disappointment of the seven who have lost the competition. Blitz has managed to make each of these main characters a winner in their own right. Spellbound abounds in dramatic values. One of the students is the local genius in his small rural school. Only his size protects him from the taunts of his classmates. A Hispanic girl, the child of Spanish-speaking illegal immigrants, is proud to be the "educated" child in her family. Each of these children faces challenges in their own environment. Again, the drama doesn't emanate from the competition alone.

Each of the films discussed so far has dramatic and entertainment values unusual in a documentary film. But to capture the sense of crossover between the documentary and the drama, the rest of this chapter focuses on two films about the same subject—the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games. This tragedy is the subject of Kevin MacDonald's 1999

documentary, One Day in September. It is also the subject of Steven Spielberg's 2005 drama, Munich.

Let's look at the dramatic film first. Although Munich focuses on the aftermath of the massacre, the presentation of the massacre itself is the baseline for all that follows. An Israeli assassination team is organized with its goal to kill not only the assassins (three survived the day of the massacre), but also the Palestinian planners of the massacre. The revenge killings take place principally in Europe, but there is at least one attack in the Middle East. In the course of those assassinations, half of the Israeli team is killed, and, in the end, the leader of the team refuses to carry on. He joins his wife and child in Brooklyn, where the film ends inconclusively.

From the point of view of the narrative choices Spielberg makes, he is clearly opting for documentary-informational choices as opposed to dramatic-emotional choices when it comes to the main character, the antagonist, the use of plot, and the story form or genre he uses to frame the narrative. Let's begin with the main character, Avner (Eric Bana).

If we contextualize the Spielberg approach to the main character, we note the heroic nature of an ordinary main character in Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) in Jaws and in John Miller in Saving Private Ryan, or the heroic nature of an outsider in the young boy (Henry Thomas) in E.T. the ExtraTerrestrial or in Oscar Schindler (Liam Neeson) in Schindler's List. In every case, the main character becomes a reluctant hero. That is not the case of the Avner character in Munich. If anything, Avner's commitment at the outset not only softens but, over time, he also questions the mission to which he has been assigned. He is reluctant, but he is certainly not heroic by the end of this narrative.

Turning to the issue of an antagonist, we find a similar outcome. In Saving Private Ryan the German, who Miller's patrol spares, ends up cruelly killing the Jewish member of the American company. He is the vicious face of Naziism, just as Amon Goeth is its face in Schindler's List. Each of Spielberg's films has a definite antagonist, human or otherwise, with the exception of Munich. In a situation where we would expect a Palestinian antagonist, there is no such character. In fact, Spielberg humanizes two of the Palestinians to be killed, one with a daughter and the other with his impassioned speech about the Palestinian cause. There is tragedy in Munich, but no clear antagonist.

Turning to the plot, the assassination of the assassins and their planners, there is no rising arc here. Although the early assassinations have a powerful sense of revenge, this softens over time. The last visualized attempt at assassination actually fails and it is clear by the end that the mission is incomplete. There is no climactic battle (Saving Private Ryan) or clear resolution (Jaws) to the plot. Consequently, as in the case of the main character and the use of an antagonist, the use of plot in Munich has been intentionally muted. The reason is not unclear—Spielberg intends Munich to be a meditation on vengeance. Does an eye for an eye work for political goals? Spielberg's answer is clearly "no." Consequently, Spielberg uses the docudrama as the story form of choice in Munich. Rather than telling a story of vengeance and power, Spielberg seems more interested in examining that pattern of political behavior in the Middle East and in challenging its purposefulness. Using the docudrama allows Spielberg embrace realism without relying on pulp or pop dramatic effects to make his point. Although the result may disappoint fans of earlier Spielberg films, it is clear that by embracing "documentary-educational" goals, Spielberg is trying to wean his audience from the facile answers that so often emanate from the simplification of political issues when they are framed by dramatic considerations. Clearly Spielberg is looking to change the paradigm and to present a serious, thoughtful meditation on the intractable history of the Middle East in the 20 century.

One Day in September is Kevin Macdonald's documentary treatment of the single day at the Olympics in Munich when the kidnapping and killing of the Israeli athletes occurred. Aside from the detailed treatment of the events of that day, Macdonald includes contemporary interview material with the Dutch wife of one of the victims and the Israeli daughter of another victim, plus interview material with the sole surviving Palestinian who participated in the massacre, as well as a number of the Germans who participated either as police or government officials that day in September. And also interviewed is the Israeli sent by Mossad to represent Mossad's interests at the site of the kidnapping and, later, at the airport where the Germans attempted to rescue the hostages.

Macdonald begins his documentary by introducing the site, Munich, of the 1972 Olympics. Thirty-six years after the 1936 Olympics that Hitler used to glorify the new Nazi Germany, Germany would now use the 1972 Olympics to show how the country had changed consequent to the end of World War II. Problematic was the decision to have unarmed security people at the Olympic village, rather than a trained security force. After giving the background of the fencing coach and the wrestling coach, both having been child Holocaust survivors who emigrated to Israel after the war, Macdonald contextualizes the significance for these men to return to Germany as free men, as equals to their German hosts.

Having given the victims a human face, Macdonald proceeds with the events of that fateful day. He begins by describing the Olympic village and how the Palestinian team gained access to the village (a subterfuge orchestrated by the Eastern German authorities). The narrative then proceeds with entry into the first Israeli apartment. There the injured wrestling coach is forced to take the Palestinians to another apartment, that of the wrestlers, who he feels might be able to overwhelm the Palestinians. And so, the Palestinians gain entry to two apartments, those of the coaches and of the wrestling team. In the ensuing struggle, two of the eleven Israelis are killed (not at the same time). The body of the wrestling coach is dumped off of the apartment balcony and in this way the world is informed that the kidnapping has taken place. A ransom demand (the freedom of 200 Palestinians from Israeli jails) is made.

What follow is Israel's refusal to negotiate and the efforts of the Germans to negotiate with the terrorists. Israel offers to dispatch a team to rescue the hostages, but Germany refuses. There are no trained German military personnel to deal with the circumstance that has arisen. Naivety and surprise characterize the German response throughout the day. Olympic officials decide in spite of events that the Games should continue. The hostage-taking has nothing to do with the events. Media reportage of the events of the day falls to Jim McKay, a network sports commentator. Occasional audio of Peter Jennings, reporting for ABC News, is also included.

The deadline passes three times as negotiators secure an extension. By the third time, Olympic officials, under pressure, decide to suspend the games in the face of the crisis. A deal is struck to transport the Palestinians and their prisoners out of Germany to an Arab country. The deal is a ruse to get the terrorists and prisoners out of the Olympic village and to relocate them to a place where a rescue will be attempted. The ambush site, however, is staffed by too few snipers, and the German volunteer force aboard the plane intended to overcome the terrorists votes to abandon the plane minutes before the terrorists arrive by helicopter at the airport and awaiting aircraft. Without communications equipment, without experience and knowledge of the terrorist numbers, the Germans do not effect a rescue, and although five of the terrorists are killed, it's not before all nine Israeli hostages are murdered. The rescue attempt has failed. Within 3 weeks, the German authorities make a deal to get the three surviving terrorists out of Germany. They are never put on trial. Two are consequently killed by an Israeli assassination squad. Although it's unstated, the age of global terrorism began that September, 1972, in Munich. Now, more than 30 years later, it's more global than ever, and far more lethal.

How does Kevin Macdonald rely on dramatic strategies in his editing choices of One Day in September? How does he deal with his main character? Macdonald chooses the two coaches, the fencing coach and the wrestling coach. Both men will die in the attack, but, although each is a victim, it is their love of life that Macdonald embraces. Each of these men was a very positive person who changed lives, especially the lives of their families. And it is the families of each man, the wives and the children, who represent the men in the film. By approaching the main characters in so personal a way, Macdonald deepens our emotional connection with the victims. It takes their deaths out of the political realm and very much makes One Day in September a personal story.

Turning to the antagonists of One Day in September, one would expect that the antagonists would be the terrorists who killed the eleven athletes. I didn't find this to be the case. Instead, Macdonald surprises us. It is the German authorities responsible for the conduct of the Games and for the safety of the athletes who are the antagonists. Not far behind is the Olympic Committee, who continually tries to wash their hands of the event of the kidnapping and massacre. By doing as he does, Macdonald points out that nations have political responsibilities for the safety of guests and of their own citizens. When the three surviving terrorists are flown out of Germany, even the Germans interviewed are embarrassed by the moral implications of their government's actions. And so MacDonald has framed events in a very personal way. The hosts have let down their guests and that has led to a tragedy that continues to resonate throughout the world. East-West, Arab-Israeli, new Germany vs. the old Germany—each is sidestepped to tell this story in the most personal, emotional manner possible.

Turning to how Macdonald has used the plot, the events of that tragic day, he treats the events as a thriller. Although we who are watching know the outcome, Macdonald's introjections of options and opportunities suggest that events did not have to turn out the way they did. And by using the overlay of indifference from athletes and Olympic officials to those events, Macdonald implies the age-old maxim of anti-Semitism. Would these events have occurred if the athletes had been another nationality rather than Israeli? His implication is unmistakable: in Munich, there is the wish that Israelis and Arabs handle their own problems—anywhere but here. And that, too, becomes part of the tragedy of the events of that day.

Macdonald uses plot as dramatically as Costa-Gavras does in Z and as Alan Pakula does in All the President's Men. The result is that Macdonald's use of dramatic strategies makes his film, in spite of its horrific events, entertaining, whereas the documentary strategies Steven Spielberg adopts in Munich make his dramatic film less entertaining and more "documentary-educational." These two films capture an important trend—the movement of the documentary toward the dramatic film, and, conversely, the movement of a segment of the dramatic film industry toward the documentary.

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