Documentary's Peculiar Appeals
ONE OF THE most affecting movie sequences I have ever seen is the opening of Robert Gardner's documentary about India, Forest of Bliss (1985). In it, an extremely emaciated and very bedraggled-looking mongrel is set upon by a pack of more-robust dogs. The lone mongrel tries to run away, but the pack catches it and brings it down. The mongrel whimpers and cowers submissively, but the pack attacks it relentlessly. Finally, the poor brute rolls over on its back in what is pretty obviously a plea for mercy. Still, the other dogs bite and tear at the hapless creature, evidently meaning to kill it.
Even in a fiction film, seeing an event like this would be profoundly disturbing. Seeing it in a documentary, I found it practically unbearable. I was literally nauseated. I wanted to turn away. And yet, because this was a documentary, I felt an even stronger compulsion to watch. Even more than that, I wanted to intervene. I wanted to pick up a rock and throw it at the dogs that were so viciously attacking one of their own kind.
This is an example of the peculiar power of documentaries. Fiction films obviously engender strong emotional responses as well. Compared to fiction films, documentaries tend to be boring and unengaging. And yet, when documentaries do produce strong responses, as this sequence from Forest of Bliss did in me, there is something special, something uniquely compelling and affecting, in their impact. To explain that is the purpose of this essay.
In everyday English, the word appeal has two general meanings that are quite distinct. One is “attraction” or “to attract, ” as in “the dynamic professor has extraordinary appeal to students.” It denotes the power of arousing a generally pleasurable, sympathetic, or emotionally engaged response in onlookers. The second meaning is “entreaty” or “to entreat, ” as in “the beleaguered professor appealed to his unruly students for cooperation.” This denotes an plea for help or a favor or for special attention and sympathy from others. By and large, the first kind of appeal is something one has; the second kind is something one makes. Documentary can be defined, in simple, pragmatic terms, as that kind of movie in which the first kind of appeal—the attraction to viewers—is intimately tied to the second—an entreaty to viewers.
Take, for example, Ken Burns's The Civil War (1990)—a kind of recipe text for the whole spate of historical documentaries that now air regularly in the United States on PBS, the History Channel, and Arts and Entertainment. As movies go, The Civil War is pretty dull: an endless series of slow pans and zooms over still photographs and languid shots of empty erstwhile battlefields. There's no narrative through-line to speak