Documentary and Film Criticism: An Editorial

This was written and submitted in 2020 to the editor of an Iranian film magazine called Cinéma Vérité, at his request.

A few thoughts about documentary films and film criticism, recapitulating some ideas recently expressed in a brief online interview with the Cinéma Vérité International Film Festival in Tehran:

All documentaries have certain fictional elements, just as all fiction films have certain documentary elements (e.g. by being documentaries about the actors and places that are filmed and the times when they were filmed). In Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, which most people regard as a “pure” documentary, we now know that the woman purported to be Nanook’s wife was in fact Flaherty’s girlfriend, whom he enlisted to play that part.

An excellent illustration of this principle is Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa’s recent U.S. feature A House is Not a Home: Wright or Wrong (2020), which I was privileged to be involved with, as a documentary subject, assistant, and advisor. I grew up in a house designed for my family in Florence, Alabama, by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is owned today by the city, which is now a museum open to the public. Mehrnaz, who already recounted the story of her life in Tehran and Chicago through Jerry Lewis clips in Jerry and Me (2012), explores in this case the issues of what it means to live inside a work of art and how this might divide as well as unite members of a family, seen through the experiences of her own family in Iran and the U.S. as well as my own — and her film, which begins as a “pure” documentary, ends up, in my critical judgment, as a fiction film about my mother, informed by Mehrnaz’s emotions and memories of her own mother. I would argue that as viewers, this is the way we tend to view films privately and semi-consciously, regardless of their subjects — as reflections of our own lives.

For me, film criticism is an intervention in the public discussion of films, and one that should aspire to be neither the first word nor the last word uttered about those films but a contribution to a shared social activity that ideally expands and broadens the possibilities of  a discussion. This is what I’ve tried to do here.

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