I've been watching quite a few documentaries recently, and it has made me think a bit about what makes them effective. In the style of the old 'compare and contrast' essays we all had to write at school, I was thinking about the differences between two programmes I've seen in the past few days: Time Machine and Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Time Machine featured computer reconstructions of physical processes which happen over a very long time scale, like glaciation, plate tectonics and the formation of the Grand Canyon. The visuals were stunning1, but the narration was terrible. It was awash with terrible puns (when they showed a kangaroo, you just knew they were going to say, "we need to JUMP BACK in time...") and Every. Word. Was. Emphasised. It was so unnecessary; the graphics were mesmerising on their own, and the narration should have provided additional information rather than bludgeoning us with how amazing it all was. It was one of those occasions when I wished that I could selectively remove the narration from the audio, leaving the music and images.
As a complete contrast, 'Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus' was a perfect documentary as far as I'm concerned. The film maker (Andrew Douglas) kept out of the way, and we were guided around the hidden parts of the Deep South by Jim White (a really excellent musician). He told us about growing up in the South after his family moved there from California, and they let ordinary people talk about their beliefs and their stories as they drove around in an beaten-up old Caddy. This was interspersed with wonderful images of bayous wreathed in mist, moss-draped forests, trailer parks and truck stops, as well as performances — in situ — by other artists like 16 Horsepower and The Handsome Family.
You really got the atmosphere of the place, and came away with the strong impression that The South is a place of extremes. Jim White said that you either turn to Jesus or end up in prison — there's nothing in between. In many ways it was a very sad film. There were some interviews at a prison, and one man told the story of how he was a roofer, earning $300 a week with a lot of back-breaking work. Then he slipped in to dealing in drugs and found that he could make $5,000 a week, without "bustin' his ass". He was sentenced to 120 years, while child molesters get 6 months. A writer called Harry Crews also told some great stories about the superstitions that he grew up with. His mother taught him that when you kill an opossum to eat, and get rid of the guts and the eyes, you have to put the eyes face down in the hole when you bury them. That way, when the 'possum wakes up and comes to kill you in revenge ("and it will", he added menacingly), it will bury itself deeper and deeper, instead of digging to the surface.
In short, Time Machine made something that was intrinsically interesting dull and irritating, while Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus made something I wouldn't have thought I would be interested in fascinating.
1 And more interesting than you might think; I loved seeing India breaking off from Pangea and hurtling northwards before crashing into Asia and forming the Himalayas from the crumple zone. You don't expect continents to hurtle anywhere, but they do if you have the right time frame.