I’m not a fan of the documentary mostly because the great majority of the ones I’ve seen are stodgy, tedious and/or boring. Sure, there are a couple of docs that have bowled me over like the gritty film Dark Days, the Oscar-winning The Times of Harvey Milk and more recently The Secret World of Haute Couture, but most just don’t interest me.
There are, however, two excellent, recently released documentaries that made me realize why most others fail: because they don’t appeal to my generation, the MTV-watching, iPhone-owning youngsters with the attention span of a pine nut.
The first of the two is Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, a documentary film on steroid usage in America that owes much of its greatness to its coverage of a sensitive topic with humor and pathos without seeming overwrought. The movie enhances its coverage of the subject with witty graphics and the pace never seems to slow, though it has an almost two-hour running time. The film has an impressive 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, an indication that it is better than the average doc.
The second is VH1’s four-part series Sex: The Revolution, one of the channel’s ongoing Rock Docs features. The documentary is not as titillating as its title suggests. Rather it approaches the subject matter with a rock star attitude while maintaining a high level of informativeness. The doc is full of talking heads, of course, but they are cool talking heads relaying information and experiences without the haughtiness seen elsewhere. Sex, along with its sister doc The Drug Years, take topics that can be found in most textbooks and present them in a way that makes viewers feel invested in the subject without being tawdry or talking down to the audience.
Sicko by filmmaker Michael Moore is another equally compelling documentary. Moore’s methodology and style may be suspect, but his film put a human face on the serious issue of health care in America. I’m not much of a crier (last time was my graduation from college), but as I watched American citizens who had long been unable to afford essential medical procedures finally receive appropriate care in Cuba, I felt the tears begin to flow. It speaks to the power of the medium that it provoked such an emotional reaction. Now if only all documentaries could do the same…