What’s Up, Documentary?

Impersonating a Power Ranger
Impersonating a Power Ranger

The other evening I watched the documentary Heart of the King. Have you seen it?

Do you watch documentaries much?

Are you a fan of Elvis?

I’m not a huge Elvis fan. I don’t dislike him either though. His story is interesting and I’ve sung along to some of his songs. But I love documentaries about the odd things people do. I love Marwencol, Grey Gardens, Man on Wire, In the Realms of the Unreal, Confessions of a Superhero, American Scream, Make Believe, Bad Writing, and Best Worst Movie. Those are the ones that come to mind. Thank goodness for Netflix.

The thing with any documentary is how much of it is real. For example, after I watched Make Believe, I googled it to find out more about the kids in it. I was curious about what their lives were like post-doc. I came across a review that pointed out how several of the young people knew each other before the World Magic Competition. The documentary gives the impression that they met at the competition.

Well, I still recommend the documentary, but it speaks to how editing influences story. No one on the film said the kids were meeting for the first time. But you’d be forgiven for thinking it, and thinking that might influence how you see the kids’ relationships. Not greatly in this case, but you never can be sure how much the filmmaker is manipulating your perspective.

In Realms of the Unreal the filmmaker caused a bit of a stir for the way she treated Henry Darger’s art and writing. I love the film, but some people took issue with the man’s art being animated and a young girl’s voice reading passages from his stories. Should she have taken such liberties with a dead man’s work?

What should a documentarian show and what should be left on the cutting room floor? In the Heart of a King documentary about Elvis impersonators, this is an important question. There’s a conversation caught on film where a couple of the people make racist comments. It starts with a young man says that Elvis did more for the country than Martin Luther King.


The conversation goes downhill from there.

Now, the young man saying that was never going to come across as enviable or anything. The film isn’t kind to him in many ways. But I read a review of the documentary in which the reviewer thought that part should’ve been cut.

I can’t quite decide. Does the filmmaker need to protect the subjects from themselves? You go into someone’s life and develop trust, supposedly. But if you’re going to be a racist, is anyone obligated to help you hide that fact? The filmmakers must have had hours of film they didn’t use. For all we know, worst things were said.

Some people accused the Maysles brothers of exploiting the Beales in Grey Gardens. (The film about the documentary is terrific too.) It shows certain aspects of the women’s lives and exposes their odd, perhaps embarrassing lives.

Should filmmakers do that?

At the end of Heart of a King, the filmmaker admits to staging certain shots. He took one of the impersonators out to a cornfield. The guy had never before been to a cornfield. He instructed the brother Elvis impersonators to hug in a moment when they wouldn’t have hugged on their own.

I thought it interesting that the filmmaker was honest about that. The reviewer of his documentary thought that bit couldn’t been cut too. But I think part of the film is really about the filmmaker, and how he shapes the narrative of other people’s lives.

How much do you trust a documentary? I had this conversation with my ten-year-old son recently. He was watching a documentary about UFOs. The film definitely meant to prove alien ships have been to earth, and the interviews and information in the film make a good case. But as I pointed out to my son, the filmmakers never, not once, speak to anyone who disagrees with their premise. They have no one who can offer other explanations for their proof.

“If they were truly confident in their conclusions,” I said to my son, “they could handle talking to someone who disagrees with them.”

At the end of the Elvis documentary, I felt uneasy. The subjects of the film were not people I’d want to meet. At all. Ever. And it was hard to shale the feeling that someone should have stopped these people from embarrassing themselves. If that is what they did. They followed their dreams after all, and that’s not a bad thing. They aren’t hurting anyone by being Elvis impersonators. Maybe the embarrassment says more about me.

Do you have any favorite documentaries? How honest do you think a documentary filmmaker can be?

And is making a documentary that different from writing a blog? I mean, yes, a film cost buckets more money and involves more people and so on, but a documentary chooses a topic and presents that topic to the world–in the way the documentary wants that topic seen. A blogger chooses a topic and presents that to the world in the way the blogger wants that topic seen.

Kind of even like a facebook post.

And we all know people are selective in what they put on Facebook. Because of Facebook, you might think certain people are much happier than they really are. Or in the case of Elvis impersonators less racist.

2 thoughts on “What’s Up, Documentary?

  1. Editing can hugely influence the way a story is shaped. That is why, I think, the skill in editing is to make sure that the writer’s voice is enhanced rather than changed. It’s the same with the news. It’s often manipulated and used as a tool of propaganda.

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