- Reviewed by
Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski, eds. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2013. Paper, 600 pages $34.95
What makes the new and expanded edition of Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski’s Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video so engaging is that each essay (whether from the original text, produced in 1998, or added later) provides academically sound insights not only on thirty-one different films, but also about their directors and how their production exposes, on many levels (professional, political, and personal), the identities of these great cinematic anthropologists. The book, when discussing feature-length documentaries, mockumentaries, reality television programs, or what would generally be considered avant-garde cinema, successfully recognizes both the theoretical significance of the films as well as the directors’ agendas, a major component of the filmmaking process that often gets lost in conversations about “non-fiction” cinema.
As the editors state, “We argued in 1998 that interest in documentary was the most intense it had been since the 1930s. Things have changed only to the extent that documentary has become even more popular and controversial as we write this in 2013” (xxiii). Grant and Sloniowski’s re-boot, then, is being released at an opportune time. With more and more being written about the subject, with more directors having an easier time producing film projects (independently or otherwise), and with universities offering more documentary production courses, Documenting the Documentary is certainly relevant, and this reviewer would go as far as to say, necessary.
The incorporation of new material into Grant and Sloniowski’s text is quite seamless. Along with previous articles on such classics as Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty, 1922), Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955), and Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967), among others, students and scholars can benefit from new essays on Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935), Culloden (Peter Watkins, 1964), La glaneurs et al glaneuse (Agnès Varda, 2000), Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005), and Borat (Larry Charles, 2006). A most welcome addition to this text is Paula J. Massood’s essay on Spike Lee’s masterpiece 4 Little Girls (1997), entitled “The Politics of the Documentary Interview,” which attempts to disprove the consensus that Lee’s first foray into documentary film lacks the cinematic flare that is generally associated with his historical or fictional films. Employing [End Page 46] keen skills of textual analysis, Massood convincingly argues that the film is very much like his others, in that 4 Little Girls includes “a focus on African American history, a reflexive style, and an unmistakable directorial presence” (476). Each essay, placed chronologically by film, follows a similar pattern, which makes the entire work easy to maneuver through. At times, individual essays are a bit convoluted, most especially if the writer is addressing a film that would be considered by some as more avant-garde than documentary. For example, Catherine Russell’s article “Subjectivity Lost and Found” on videographer Bill Viola’s I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like (1986), is less than successful at unraveling the confusion and complexities associated with finding one’s own identity, whether personal or ethnographic, in the specific medium of video documentary work. But even in those instances the essays are well researched, sophisticated, and worthy of further discussion.
With a book like Documenting the Documentary, one always wonders why certain films or directors were chosen over others (some notable omissions include all of the films directed by the Maysles Brothers, Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994), Harlan Country U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1977), Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004), Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1994), and When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996)); the book, in other words, is very much a sampling rather than an inclusive overview of the great documentaries throughout the years. Bill Nichols, in his perceptive introduction, states that documentary “is the form of cinema that is most closely bound to the real world, to actual personal and collective problems, hopes, and struggles, it is understandable...