Confession and performance also come into play in my favorite documentary of the year, Tom Berninger’s backstage doc/familial reckoning Mistaken for Strangers, wherein the lost-soul director is given the opportunity to work as a roadie on his brother’s band The National’s tour and ends up making a personal, painful, and hilarious movie that’s less like Don’t Look Back than a particularly sharp episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. That transformation ends up as a part of the film itself; with the aid of his brother and subject, the director reaches a point where he realizes his film can be anything he wants it to be, and he winds up with something uniquely confessional and unexpectedly powerful.
It’s easy to arrive at that point with these diverse subjects, the logic goes, but a more straightforward, news-doc approach is required for aggressive, activist documentaries with points to make and moviegoers to educate — and the commonness of that thinking is perhaps why so many critics have gone nuts for CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras’ account of Edward Snowden’s leak of NSA documents detailing surveillance programs around the world. That’s a giant topic, but the surprise of the picture is how intimate and personal it is, primarily due to the filmmaker’s place within the story: she was the contact point for Snowden, hooked in to his actions via encrypted messages, in the room with the whistleblower as he walked through the documents with Glenn Greenwald.
As a result, much of the film is spent in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel, Poitras’ camera capturing those explanations and strategy sessions, a procedural detailing logistics, conferences, and conversations. There are no expert talking heads to provide (unnecessary, I would argue) context; there are no jazzy charts and graphs to explain it all to the (presumably) slower folks in the audience. The only such images come in a quick-cut montage of illustrations within the leaked documents, and they’re solely that — illustrations. The most powerful and informative graphics in the film are the mesmerizing images of encrypted messages from Snowden to Poitras, which fill the screen with impenetrable numbers, letters, and symbols, before clearing away to reveal the truth underneath, a powerful metaphor for Snowden’s actions (and the film itself).
Back in 2003, the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr slammed one of Poitras’ earlier films for being “too cinema-verité to provide the context viewers need,” and one could, I suppose, lob the same argument at CITIZENFOUR. But within the current climate of spoon-feeding documentaries, it feels like a breath of fresh air. Poitras assumes some knowledge of the Snowden affair — probably correctly, considering the audience that will most likely seek out her movie — and doesn’t presume to be the definitive or final word on it. Her style is, yes, rooted in the tenets of the “direct cinema” movement that sparked the modern documentary style; its earliest practitioners didn’t make the same presumptions as today’s filmmakers about the limitations of its use. Robert Drew’s Primary didn’t need to dwell on exactly what was at stake in the 1960 election, nor did his Crisis need to explicate fully the lead-up to Alabama’s school desegregation battle. He (and fellow journeymen like Pennebaker, Leacock, and the Maysles brothers) assumed some familiarity, and didn’t want to waste precious screen time that was better spent on the footage no one else had, in those rooms, behind closed doors.
It’s not that every single worthwhile documentary must be formally groundbreaking; some of my favorite nonfiction films of the year (Whitey, Finding Vivian Maier, The Internet’s Own Boy, Life Itself) are fairly traditional, stylistically speaking. But the mold is starting to set, and it’s important for filmmakers — narrative and documentary alike — to remember that there’s never only one way to tell a story.
And with that, allow me to tell you what you can do to make a difference, starting with a visit to this website…