Say What Happened: A Story Of Documentaries

Nick Fraser

Faber & Faber, £20

I was surprised to discover, when asked to list my favourite films, that a substantial number of them were documentaries: When We Were Kings, WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Grey Gardens, Shoah (though “favourite” hardly works for Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour archaeology of the Holocaust),The Fog of War, Harlan County USA, Hoop Dreams, Hearts And Minds, Town Bloody Hall, The Last Waltz, Silvered Water, Man On Wire, Little Dieter Needs To Fly...

It’s equally fair to say that some of my absolutely least favourite films are also docs. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth has always seemed mannered and insincere, even if its conclusions are unarguable. And I find Fahrenheit 9/11, in fact anything by Michael Moore, shallow and dishonest, a violation of the basic rules of journalism that should guide any documentary maker, whose duty is – with or without overt bias or ideology – to “say what happened”.

The line comes from a late Robert Lowell poem, in which he asks for the poet, or indeed any moral agent, to “pray for the grace of accuracy” and aspire to Vermeer’s attention to heightened realism. Lowell came out of the same literary generation as the pioneers of the New Journalism, who blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction (or showed that it was blurred in the first place) and placed themselves squarely in the action they described. You wouldn’t see Nick Broomfield’s boom mic in shot if it weren’t for writers like Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Truman Capote and George Plimpton. The name most obviously missing from that list is Norman Mailer, who Al Alvarez once described as the most outsize fictional character since Moby-Dick. It occurs to me that Mailer actually appears in two of the docs listed above, as a fight fan in When We Were Kings and as the token Male Chauvinist Pig in Town Bloody Hall. For all his many faults, Mailer examined the debatable land between “fiction” and “non-fiction” (which do need the scare quotes now) with considerable courage. He made documentary novels like The Executioner’s Song and Oswald’s Tale; he also made strange, virtually unscripted films like Maidstone, which show “what happened” either without much, or with total – depending on your point of view – directorial control.

Why do we like documentaries? And why have they seemed to dominate our viewing in recent times? The carefully provisional title and the prevalence of question marks in Nick Fraser’s book suggests he doesn’t have a complete answer, but as an experienced producer, who created the BBC’s Storyville strand, he is well-placed to ask the right questions. His partial answer, which comes late in a book which finds him musing on his own experience of docs rather than offering a theory about them, is that they give us “the frisson of the real”. Elsewhere, he suggests that they are simply good for us, like castor oil after a rich diet of fantasy.

There is some definitional stuff in the first chapter, and it’s easy to miss its implications. “Good docs appear to wrest a degree of coherence from the contingent mess of life, but when we finally leave them, we must be aware that the ordering was wholly provisional.” A little bit further down, he extends the idea of suspension of disbelief to say that we must tell the truth, as we believe it to be, but also remain prepared to abandon that truth (inconvenient or otherwise) when we have to. “What other way is there of staying alive?” This is close to Joan Didion’s “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” and to the astonishing ending of Mailer’s most fictive, Fitzgerald-like novel The Deer Park, which invokes not the world of Hollywood, but “the real world, where orphans burn orphans, and nothing is more difficult to discover than a simple fact”.

Here’s the rub. We watch documentaries knowing them to be fictions, too. No CGI, maybe, but plenty of contrivance. When my son and I watch (or rather, sing our way raucously through) Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, which purports to be a simple concert film (The Band’s last night together), what we love best are the palpably contrived interview spots. Robbie Robertson, taking his role as exec producer very seriously, even does his own retakes and plug-ins. That’s maybe a mild and innocent example. In Grey Gardens, Little Edie performs for the camera, but so unselfconsciously that we recognise her whole life, and that of her mother Big Edie, has been performance.

Put When We Were Kings, Leon Gast’s film about the “Rumble in the Jungle”, alongside Michael Mann’s Ali, starring Will Smith. One is a documentary (quotes implied); one is a feature film. And yet how do we separate the “real” Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest actor of the 20th century, from the Hollywood A-lister who works out and beefs up for real in order to give the role credibility. Ali was always playing a part; Will Smith is almost always just himself – that’s the definition of a star. Fraser unfortunately doesn’t make the comparison, though he has much to say about When We Were Kings, rightly pointing out that it isn’t just a film about boxing, but about power, spectacle and negritude.

When it comes to orphans burning orphans, there is no more poignant and terrifying story than the one told in the 1995 BBC series The Death of Yugoslavia, on which Fraser was (less hands on and visible than Robbie Robertson) an executive producer. He tells the story of being hugged by Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who brokered the Dayton accords, who tells him that every staffer sent to the Balkans was instructed to view the series. In Holbrooke’s view it is “the best factual series” he’s ever seen on television, and it’s hard to argue with that. It’s also a stark warning of the fate that awaits a neo-nationalist, populist Europe.

But there’s a problematic word in there. Werner Herzog, a major presence in Fraser’s book, turned away from fictional film-making to the documentary style that culminated in Little Dieter Needs To Fly. A good book on Herzog’s thinking is Eric Armes’s Ferocious Reality, but Fraser nails the key points, leaning hard on Herzog’s own belief that “facts” are an illusion; in one of his most notorious statements, he says that if facts were everything, then the Manhattan directory would be the book of books.

This isn’t a history of documentaries, though it goes right back to the work of the Lumière brothers and right up to the Maysles brothers, taking in most of the major figures in between: Robert Flaherty, Marchel Ophüls, Humphrey Jennings, Leni Riefenstahl, Barbet Schroeder, Barbara Kopple. DA Pennebaker, Jeremy Isaacs, Norma Percy, Leslee Udwin. Not a linear history, and not a glorified listicle, either. These are the musings of a man who has thought deeply about his medium and how it affects us, which is far more deeply than we realise.