This should apply to all documentaries, but will probably only apply to the good ones.
It is almost pointless to try and say what qualifies a film as a documentary or not because there are so many arguments and factors. In the first chapter of Sander’s book, a good point is made: What makes An Inconvenient Truth more a documentary than United 93? Now, I have never felt the latter a documentary in away way, and I’m sure there are not many who do. But the point remains, this shit comes up and if someone is very good at B.S. and a convincing speaker, they may very well argue anything could or couldn’t be a documentary.
Something I am starting to notice in the documentaries I like the best (Thin Blue Line, Page One) is the role of the director. The director is the creative force in control; God, if you will. As a class, we pick on Michael Moore a lot because frankly, he is unethical and his movies are very entertaining, but pieces of shit as documents. But instead of thinking about how much I don’t like what he does, I starting thinking about what others do well and why it’s different and then it hit me:
The director needs to step away.
This will not apply in all cases. In film (or art, in general) NOTHING applies in all cases, but in most of these documentaries I hold in the highest regard, the director is not present. He is the chief observer and the relayer of information. But the quality of the film is better when it is presented in the view of the subjects. Always. Interference is a huge issue in documentary, because it doesn’t always imply Flaherty asking a dude to eat a record, it could be unintentional manipulation of editing or questioning. Moore is the epitome of interference and manipulation, and while Morris recreates scenes from footage that does not exist, he leaves the story and the character to the actual characters/subjects interviewed.
Documentary and film in general will always be up for debate, but I’m noticing more and more this claim seems to ring true. Even essay films with directors narrating and dictating the story require them to draw from what they have observed, not what they have contrived.