By Leslie Fields-Cruz

Are Documentaries an Art Form?

A few years ago, I was sitting in my office watching a rough cut of Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. There was well over an hour of footage, but I had allotted myself only 20 minutes, because that was all my schedule had available. Two hours later, I jumped from my desk and told the BPM staff, “We have to support this!”   

Like some of you, my initial introduction to the documentary form was in elementary school. My teacher would wheel in the film-projector cart, press the button, and the familiar “clip, clip, clip” of the spinning film reels would begin. I’d hear the Voice of God narrator, see a title card, some images with a VOG narration droning on and on, and then zzzzz ... 


Back then, I didn’t consider documentary film an art form. Was I too young? Possibly. Were the stories dull? Not always. Were the docs shown in schools simply not visually or aurally exciting enough to capture my full attention? Probably. Documentaries have come a long way since then. No doubt  because so many filmmakers have opted to apply the many technological advances emerging in their field to make their projects more compelling for the viewers. My spirited reaction to the rough cut of I Am Not Your Negro has recurred with other documentaries BPM has supported over the years. Not only because the stories are interesting and compelling, but often the visuals are so captivating, my eyes can’t leave the screen. The soundscape may awaken my aural senses and heighten the stakes at just the right moment. Or perhaps a certain camera angle defines a character ever so clearly. It might even be a montage edit that lays bare the despair of a community. Sometimes, it is all of these elements.


Morgan Neville recently admitted to using artificial intelligence to recreate celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s voice in his latest documentary, Roadrunner, prompting criticism that he violated journalistic ethics by not disclosing that detail in the credits. On one hand, I understand why Neville used AI. If technology is available that advances your story, why not use it? For the record, I believe Neville should have disclosed his use of AI in the film, but documentary is art and makers who approach the genre only as a vehicle for journalistic storytelling, without fully grasping its role as a visual art form, are destined to make films that put viewers to sleep. 

What do you think? Is documentary an art form or just a longform version of the news? Let us know via social media. 

Meanwhile, here are two other items worth sharing:

The NYC Artist Corps submission portal is now open for the third and final grantmaking cycle. If you’re a NYC resident who’s got an idea for a public engagement project related to your work, this is your last chance to apply. A $5K grant could be yours by summer’s end. Go here for details.

Our friends at Firelight Media have invited the BPM network to join them this Thurs., July 29, for their Beyond Resilience event, at 4 p.m. eastern. The program features a free virtual screening of Dilsey Davis’ documentary short, Now Let Us Sing, followed by a livestream Q&A. Go here to RSVP.

By the time you read this post, I’ll be away on vacation. Have a spectacular August!


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