Why are several documentaries released on the same subject? | Documentary films
VSCurrently on extended release in theaters and already award-winning, Fire of Love, Sara Dosa’s stunning documentary about the shared relationship and career of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, is the surprise indie hit of the summer. But Dosa is not the only director to have been inspired by the extraordinary audacity of the Kraffts.
In 2016, Werner Herzog released his documentary Into the Inferno, which sparingly included excerpts from preserved reels from the couple’s extensive collection. The meat of that film followed current volcano expert Clive Oppenheimer, now tapped for a science advisory role on Fire of Love, which draws more from the Krafft archives in its all-vintage storytelling format. In Dosa’s film, the most fearless home movies ever made gain new vitality in their combination with Miranda July’s narration. Indeed, the inclusion of July is the primary factor that distinguishes Dosa’s functionality from a second Documentary on the Herzog volcano, The Fire Within, which also focuses solely on the Kraffts and uses much of the same footage. Without Oppenheimer’s guidance or a US distribution deal in place, Herzog’s lookalike film, which debuts months after Fire of Love, has been all but relegated to obscurity.
Movie geeks will sometimes amuse themselves and each other by bringing up examples of competing movies, coincidences (or quirks of industry trend research) that result in two movies with roughly similar storylines taking place around the same time: A Bug’s Life and Antz, Armageddon and Deep Impact, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite. Although lately a lot more redundancies along these lines are on the non-fiction side of the movie world, and they rarely have that whimsical sense of randomness in their overlap.
Over the past couple of years, there’s been a preponderance of twin documentaries offering alternative angles on the same subject, an odd spike driven by the tricky logistics of archival filmmaking. As the range of the past documented in moving pictures continues to expand, documentaries relying on unearthed private footage and reels found somewhere in a vault have proliferated, in some cases leading to overcrowding. And while off-screen justifications for dubbed projects often concern questions of license and legality, the questions they raise about artistic perspective and blind points of view can be enlightening on their own.
Rather than sharing a fascination with a pet subject, most of these one-on-one outings instead derive from a race for relevance between those struggling to put their finger on the pulse first. Cultural commentary site The Ringer produced a much-loved podcast about the 1999 Woodstock music festival debacle in the summer of 2019, which they later adapted into the even more popular HBO miniseries Woodstock 99: Peace. , Love and Rage for summer 2021. Netflix decided to get a slice of the action and hastily ordered its own version, Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99, to debut this summer. Because the HBO doc pretty thoroughly covered the sociological significance of an event that escalated into violent chaos due to an undercurrent of chauvinism in the nu-metal zeitgeist, the Netflix equivalent forgoes to bird’s-eye analysis for on-the-ground detail, offering little but the opportunity to spend more time immersed in a sickening footnote of music history.
An even starker contrast emerged from the Dueling Fyre Festival docs, simultaneously pieced together by Hulu (Fyre Fraud) and Netflix (Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened), then released the same week. Each had their own ‘in’ to gain access, with former scam boss interviewing Billy McFarland for a hefty cash payout while the latter teamed up with festival digital marketing company FuckJerry to get into their hoard of sequences. On both sides, this choice implies an ethical compromise then confirmed by the framing of the finished work: the version approved by FuckJerry largely evades the role of the company in the quagmire and its concealment, while the production implied by McFarland offers him a platform (and payment) with the rope to hang himself.
By its very nature, non-fiction cinema involves a subtle negotiation over who gets to tell a story, and the tiniest differences in one-on-one documentaries lay bare the concessions and limitations inherent in this process.
No documentary occupies a position of absolute objectivity, and difficult decisions about acceptable imperfections must be made, hopefully with transparency and good intentions. Ben Berman attempts to address the issue with The Amazing Jonathan Documentary, incorporating the appearance of a rival film crew also seeking to portray a sick comedian-magician as a plot twist. While working on his Anthony Bourdain film Roadrunner, director Morgan Neville declined to interview Bourdain’s longtime girlfriend Asia Argento on the understanding that her attachment to the film might alienate more of the other participants.
Dubbed documentaries allow viewers to explore the path not traveled and see how behind-the-scenes methodology can have a tangible effect on content by placing their points of comparison side-by-side – although sometimes the sheer volume of releases can itself even be morally questionable: The endless documentaries of the media’s invasive treatment of Britney Spears have raised questions about whether the documentaries themselves do the same.
If the assembly line producing documentaries on the hot topic of the day keeps growing – this year it’s GameStop’s short film on which at least two documentaries have been made, and next year it will be something else – then non-fiction cinema may soon resemble news media, offering varied shots and letting the audience sort through the disparities. In this saturation of viewpoints, all we can do is weigh the viewpoints, and try to triangulate the midpoint where the truth tends to hide.