The response to Weiner shows us (yet again) that the greater the access to a subject, the more likely a documentary is to be lavishly praised . . . no matter how problematic its politics.
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Though a nomination for Best Documentary Feature had been expected by Oscar prognosticators, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary Weiner, an insider look at Anthony Weiner’s cringeworthy 2013 campaign for Mayor of New York City, was snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This came as a surprise in light of all the other accolades recently bestowed upon it: among them, a Best Documentary nomination from the BAFTA Film Awards, a Best Feature nomination from the International Documentary Association, and an Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary nomination from the Directors Guild of America. Since its first screening, Weiner has garnered acclaim for the filmmakers’ seemingly unbridled access to what was a closely watched, tabloid-ready campaign. That this access winds up providing an up close and personal view of its subject’s second “sexting” scandal and political coup de grâce has impressed audiences all the more.
This past year brought a slew of other documentaries with remarkable access as well, including Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist, Sonia Kennebeck’s National Bird, Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst’s Amanda Knox, Alex Gibney’s Zero Days, and Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. This is not a coincidence; while access has always been a major asset in documentary filmmaking, the ante has been appreciably upped in recent years. From Errol Morris’ gobsmacking interrogations of Fmr. Secretaries of Defense Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld (in The Fog of War and The Unknown Known, respectively) to Laura Poitras’ epoch-making CITIZENFOUR, in which we get the Snowden revelations from the horse’s mouth and in real time, wow factors in terms of access help set individual films apart in the documentary marketplace. In fact, while moderating a panel entitled “The Truth Sells: New Opportunities in Documentary Features” at a 2015 Producers Guild of America event, Discovery Channel executive John Hoffman stated that access could be thought of as the “currency” in the world of documentary film. It’s “what we are always in search of as programmers,” he said. Weiner’s grosses help explain why: it was one of 2016’s top documentary openers. Access is valuable in and of itself, but it helps sell tickets too, which is a big deal when you bear in mind that nonfiction films don’t usually do boffo box office.
For Weiner’s filmmakers, though, that all-important access was neither especially hard to come by nor without its ethical conundrums: Kriegman was a senior aide to and then a chief of staff for Weiner during his time in the House of Representatives. Unsurprisingly, this dual relationship between the subject and one of the documentarians has created some controversy. As reported by the New York Times, Weiner claims to have allowed the filmmakers in because he “felt a degree of loyalty” to Kriegman and “envisioned a movie that would have a much happier ending, ideally starring Mayor Weiner and First Lady Huma [Abedin].” In addition, according to him, Abedin, his now-estranged wife and the vice chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, did not grant the filmmakers permission to use footage of her. “[Kriegman and Steinberg] violated the agreement not to use her,” he says in the report. “They didn’t have a release. She had to grant permission, which she didn’t.” The film’s counsel/spokesperson disputes this claim in the report, and Abedin has not commented publicly on the matter. There were also accusations that the final version of the film removed scenes included in earlier cuts that show “Clinton’s team [pressuring] Abedin to immediately cut ties with Weiner, fearing the scandal will hurt the secretary of state’s bid for the White House.” Kriegman and Steinberg have denied this, and, as it happens, the final cut does include a scene that the Hollywood Reporter describes as having “an implication that Abedin opted not to join Weiner on election day on the advice of someone named Philippe [Philippe Reines served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State under Clinton and is the likely person referenced].”
Hypocrisy has been a concern as well; Kriegman and Steinberg draw attention to a news media farcically preoccupied with sensationalism, but it’s an open question whether or not their film is itself all that high-minded. “The problem is that Weiner tells a fully expected story, leveraging laughs out of the politician’s pre-mocked predicament, and shaping near-silent appearances by Abedin into a sympathy-courting foil,” writes Eric Hynes in his review for Film Comment. “While the surrounding media make hay with such ready-made simplifications, the filmmakers do much the same.” Slant Magazine critic Christopher Gray echoes this, saying that the film “never discovers a greater purpose beyond its undeniable sideshow appeal,” and “often threatens to succumb to the same brand of schadenfreude reporters and the public did.” In her Washington Post blog, Alyssa Rosenberg elaborates on this point, noting that “our smugness about Weiner proves how quick we are to toss out our objections to invasions of online privacy and pry into other people’s marriages when we have the opportunity to polish our self-righteousness and satisfy our own vulgar curiosity.” She adds: “the more I learned about the making of Weiner, the more culpable I felt as a consumer and a critic.”
It’s not clear if any of this influenced the Academy: despite the high premium that documentarians generally place on ethics, Kriegman and Steinberg’s film has nonetheless received widespread praise within the community, hence many of its other awards and nominations. To be fair, some of that expressed admiration has come with qualifications. For example, at this year’s Cinema Eye Honors, where Weiner was a nominee for Outstanding Feature, host Steve James (director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters) asked those in attendance, “Who among us wouldn’t have killed for access to that story? Incredible access.” But he also quipped, “It makes me wonder what compromising photo [Kriegman and Steinberg] had of Weiner to be able to blackmail him into being in this film.” Additionally, on Twitter, Robert Greene, director of last year’s Kate Plays Christine and Filmmaker-in-Chief at the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, called Weiner’s epigraph “the greatest in documentary history” before observing that “a tiny sound edit” is “so unethical I’m going to teach it in class next semester.” But for the most part, from its premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival (where it received the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary) to its high profile in the Oscar race, the film has been riding a relatively undisturbed wave of acclaim. The level of access to its subject and the undeniable appeal of that seem to have overridden any bones of contention.
So there remain many salient ethical questions about Weiner for documentarians, critics, and audiences to ponder. These include but are not limited to: “Does this film actually have anything to tell us, or is it just empty titillation?”, “Is rubbernecking art?”, and “What is the difference between tabloid journalism and direct cinema?” There is a more basic, pressing, and general question, however: “Is access really so dazzling and vital that it should cause us to overlook everything else about a film?” The phrase “everything else” here encapsulates not only things like the ethics of production, but also a film’s politics. One consequence of the kneejerk veneration of access is that it has a profound effect in this regard: when a film is showered with accolades, it is a tacit endorsement of not just its technical and storytelling aspects, but also its political positions (implicit or explicit). There may be those who would dispute this notion, but it’s doubtful they would agree that documentary films are or ought to be glowingly reviewed and copiously rewarded in spite of questionable politics. It seems likely that when a particular film is roundly celebrated, those applauding are either comfortable with its politics or haven’t examined its ideological underpinnings very carefully at all.
In the case of Weiner, not only is the film’s idealized version of its subject’s career as a public servant more than a little problematic, but scant attention has been paid to this aspect in reviews and commentaries. Speaking to NPR last May, Kriegman said that he and Steinberg felt Weiner “embodied this sort of ethos of being a happy warrior for the progressive left . . . he was brash, he was aggressive, he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.” Accordingly, the film sets its tone during the opening credits with footage from the well-known House Floor speech in which Weiner vehemently shamed Republicans for their opposition to the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. From there, as Eric Alterman notes for The Nation, the filmmakers eschew any real policy discussion in favor of showing their subject “wildly waving flags at parades of one kind or another, showing support for everything from Israel to LGBT rights to the hodgepodge of ethnic groups that populate New York’s boroughs,” and “talking about his endless supply of ideas to save New York City for the middle class.” What’s more, Weiner does not include anything that might challenge its neat and tidy depiction of a “happy warrior for the progressive left.” For example, nowhere in the film will you find any discussion of his vote in support of the invasion of Iraq, or House Floor speech advocating for the war (in which he said, “I find it astounding that some suggest that because there is no smoking gun we ought not act” and “In some degree or another, preemption has to be part of our national defense”). Nothing on Juan Cole’s list of the “10 Things Anthony Weiner Did That Were Worse Than Storing Hillary Clinton’s Emails on His Computer” turns up in the film either (including his legislative attempt to “outlaw the Palestinian delegation at the United Nations and kick them out of the United States”). Documentarians have to decide which particular aspects of a story to tell and which not to tell, of course, but the political caricature presented in Weiner is facile in the extreme.
Kriegman and Steinberg’s film is hardly the first case of a documentary with incredible access that somehow managed to avoid having its politics scrutinized too closely. In 2015, for instance, Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land enjoyed a reception quite similar to Weiner’s, collecting an Oscar nomination, three Emmy Awards, the Directors Guild Award, and a George Polk Award. Executive produced by Kathryn Bigelow (of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty fame), the film mesmerized audiences with its embedded look at two militia groups, the nativist extremist Arizona Border Recon and Mexico’s Autodefensas. But in a spot-on critique for the Los Angeles Review of Books, historian Kenneth Maffitt admonishes the film for its ill-advised comparison of these groups, arguing that it “conflates two issues at the border – illegal immigration and the drug trade – without specifying any connection or separation between the two.” He acknowledges the director’s intention to avoid making “a policy film,” but points out that his “failure to contextualize his images, provide essential information for the audience, or develop a point of view are serious problems that will result in many viewers drawing some of the same conclusions they are likely to draw from [a narrative film like Denis Villeneuve’s] Sicario about limitless Mexican corruption and anarchy, American innocence, and the nobility of masculine, violent resistance against the cartels.” Maffitt further adds that “in its implicit blanket critique of the Mexican government and its sympathetic treatment of border vigilantes,” Cartel Land “endorses – if less explicitly [than Sicario] – the punitive philosophy and militarized border of the US national security state.” Moreover, during the film’s release, Heineman did himself no favors by saying things like “when I started filming, I thought I was telling this very simple story in the sense of a classic Western.” Even though he went on to elucidate how his understanding changed over the course of production, this begs crucial questions about the quality of research that went into preparations for the film.
If the rhapsodic responses to Cartel Land and Weiner are any indication, it may be time for documentary filmmakers to discuss access the way it has been in other media. For example, in journalism, news organizations regularly struggle with its troublesome aspects: arrangements made to secure access often preclude imperative and hard-hitting questions. While some feel that even compromised access is indispensable, others disagree. “Why do media organizations need to have cooperative access agreements with politicians?” Glenn Greenwald asks in a recent piece for The Intercept about President Donald Trump’s off-the-record meeting with media figures before his inauguration. “Just report on and investigate what he says and does. Don’t agree to ground rules that limit or subvert your ability to report aggressively. Don’t turn yourselves into vassals in order to be granted access to the royal court.” While the problems of access are often distinctly different for documentary filmmakers than they are for journalists, we should be no less forthright in our own processes of self-examination and assessment. Have we allowed ourselves to become so astonished by access that we’ve begun to neglect our critical thinking? Have we indeed trained ourselves to prize access at the expense of everything else, including ideology? Do we need to more robustly define what good work in the documentary medium looks like?
Perhaps Weiner’s being passed over for an Oscar nomination in spite of its enviable access will initiate some productive conversations about documentary “currency.” This unexpected development is an invaluable reminder that, as sought-after as it is, access alone does not necessarily equal documentary excellence. As a matter of fact, historically, even documentaries without any significant access whatsoever have had an enormous impact on the form: Michael Moore’s mold-breaking Roger & Me, for example, took the filmmaker’s inability to get a sit-down with General Motors Chairman/CEO Roger Smith and mined it for, among other things, rabble-rousing and revenue-generating comedy. It behooves documentary filmmakers, then, to do more than simply chase and show off their access; we need cogent, carefully considered, and impactful works of nonfiction cinema. Perhaps it was precisely this that Werner Herzog was getting at when he famously and cryptically said: “Give us adequate images. We lack adequate images. Our civilization does not have adequate images. And I think a civilization is doomed or is going to die out like dinosaurs if it doesn’t develop an adequate language for adequate images.”
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All images are from screenshots from the film’s trailer, freely available on YouTube.