Pepita Ferrari’s 2008 documentary on the insights of the documentarian’s craft, Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary, is a solid effort. However, despite its nature, Capturing Reality never does what it celebrates in the works of others: it fails to innovate and explore every way that true stories can be told. In fact, Ferrari’s 97-minute film consists of the talking heads of about 40 documentary filmmakers, interspersed with 150 or so scenes from their films.
Aside from the pedestrianism of the enterprise, the reality is that very few of the clips shown in Capturing Reality actually articulate the points made by the featured filmmakers, among them such notables as Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Albert Maysles, Jennifer Fox, Peter Wintonick, Jessica Yu, Kevin Macdonald, and Nick Broomfield. Compounding matters, in spite of the disparate nature and styles of these documentarians and their films, Ferrari seems to lack the ability to even attempt a more profound analysis of the multifarious documentary-filmmaking process. This is not to say that her film is poor – it isn’t, for its content gives plenty to ponder on. The problem is that its presentation is so bland that little of what the filmmakers say will have an impact beyond that of a rote lecture.
Rather than the standard talking head segment, it would have been interesting to see, say, Herzog or Broomfield in the editing room, talking about a future film and why they will cut a scene one way or another. Ferrari could then segue into the discussion about truth, reality, and manipulation that is Capturing Reality‘s best moment. That’s when the name of Michael Moore is unleashed; some of the other documentarians not only take umbrage with the idea of there being no manipulation, but show considerable envy at the success of Morris and Herzog, sniping about Morris’ creation of a faux office in Gates of Heaven, or Herzog’s concoction of a faux minor tic in his main subject in Little Dieter Needs to Fly.
The problem with those comments is that none of them really addresses the fact that documentaries are not really concerned with truth, but with reality vs. fiction. Many people confuse truth with reality, and given this film’s title it would have behooved Ferrari to explore the very difference between reality and truth that so many of the interviewees declaim.
The two words are not synonyms. Truth requires an act of volition whereas reality does not. If I am wearing a blue shirt, that is reality. If you say to me, “Dan, you are wearing a blue shirt,” that is a truth. Reality doesn’t care if it is noticed or not, but a truth always requires an act of notice. Paradoxically, reality is sometimes best captured via “falsehoods,” such as those Herzog and Morris employ. What separates a propagandist like Michael Moore from Errol Morris and Werner Herzog is that Moore is not even aiming for reality; he is simply pushing an agenda, even if one that may contain elements of truth.
When Kevin Macdonald talks about making Into the Void, wherein reenactments constitute the bulk of the film, Capturing Reality turns over to the special effects, sound, and technical aspects of documentary filmmaking. At that point Ferrari’s film picks up the interest level because, frankly, too much of it is wasted upon mediocrities preaching about whatever philosophic or political ax they have to wield when masters like Herzog, Morris, and Maysles had far more to offer.
For instance, Jessica Yu, whose 2004 documentary In the Realms of the Unreal chronicled the debauched life of psychotic, unpublished hack author Henry Darger, shows why Capturing Reality needed to stick with the masters instead of the wannabes: In the Realms of the Unreal is larded with hyperbole that ultimately provides no insight into Darger’s warped mind or into why Yu obsessed over this character who, by all rights, should have been sucking on his toes in a mental institution. Yu’s idea of a story is merely anything that interests her, and in watching Capturing Reality it’s instructive to note the solipsism by which these filmmakers operate.
It is little wonder that documentary films have fallen into such banality in the last decade. Yes, more people make these films than ever, but more make bad documentaries than ever as well. This is because, like Pepita Ferrari, they pick poor subjects to film; they do not use their craft to enliven those subjects; and they follow their own compulsions – so as to satiate their own picayune “visions” – instead of material that will interest and inform a wide audience. [Photo: Werner Herzog.]
Though not a bad film, Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary is not a good one, either. Had Ferrari paid more attention to details such as story, editing, visuals, scoring, then it might have hit the mark. As is, Capturing Reality is a wannabe – which happens to be a reality all too real in this art form.
© Dan Schneider
CAPTURING REALITY: THE ART OF DOCUMENTARY (2008). Dir.: Pepita Ferrari. Cast: Kevin Macdonald, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, Jennifer Baichwal, Eduardo Coutinho, Joan Churchill, Nick Broomfield, Patricio Guzmán, Werner Herzog, Jessica Yu, Scott Hicks, Albert Maysles, Errol Morris, Hubert Sauper, Peter Wintonick.
Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary image: National Film Board of Canada