Robert Greene’s critically acclaimed films include Bisbee ’17 (2018), the Sundance award-winning Kate Plays Christine (2016) and the Gotham Award-nominated Actress (2014). He has edited many others, including Her Smell (2018), Golden Exits (2017), Queen of Earth (2015) and Listen Up Philip (2014) by Alex Ross Perry and award-winning documentaries such as Approaching the Elephant (2014). Robert was an inaugural Sundance Art of Nonfiction fellow in 2015. He writes for Sight & Sound and is the Filmmaker-in-Chief at the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri. Bisbee ’17 begins its theatrical run at Film Forum from September 5.
If viewers, funders and filmmakers cared about all the things I care about in nonfiction film, then every social-issue docbuster would look and sound like Daniel Dencik’s Expedition to the End of the World. This is a film about our relationship to the natural world (a planet where ice is rapidly melting because we really fucked up, in case you were unclear) but it never emphasizes the statistics of our impending doom at the expense of curiosity, remaining frisky, funny and gloriously cinematic throughout. This is a movie that reclaims the noble idea that documentaries can be about Big Important Things, and it provides another great example of why information-transfer is not cinema.
Here is the plot: a collection of scientists, artists and thinkers travel to the Arctic on a giant boat and hilarity ensues. The film opens with a super-serious, History Channel-like character introduction scene that seems cheesy at first, but is quickly revealed to be totally badass (by way of a glorious heavy-metal music cue). Then we get maybe the funniest image I’ve ever seen in a documentary, involving a gawky artist and a shotgun, which was almost certainly staged for comic effect. From this point forward, it’s clear we’re in the hands of an irreverent comedian-adventurer in Dencik, who was startled, moved and invigorated by the experience of traveling with this motley crew, and is eager to share the insights he brought back.
We see the exotic, endangered landscape through the eyes of the geniuses on board: the geologist, the sketch artist, the marine biologist, the philosopher, and so on. It’s like the greatest cocktail party ever, set on a massive ship parked next to the origin site of (potential) human extinction. The camera is present at each sensitive step on the adventure. Expedition to the End of the World is thoughtful, striking, visually sumptuous and riotous.
I don’t think I need to say much more. Everyone should see the film in a theater. But now please allow me the indulgence of explaining why a film like this matters.
In the past decade or so we’ve seen a battle erupt for the soul of documentary, a battle between films that insist on the clear delivery of information and films based on the observation of messy reality. If this sounds needlessly Miltonesque, that’s fine. I just watched Expedition to the End of the World and I’m feeling thoughtful and that everything has a lot of meaning (because that’s how this film makes you feel). Anyway, there’s a battle going on. It’s about aesthetics, money, audiences, art, social progress and what a nonfiction film can or should be.
On the one side you have the info-documentaries like Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth or Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish or Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. Films like these can be very good or just terrible, but they all share a basic trait: the filmmakers generally seem to feel that the information contained within their movies is so important that it must get to the public as unencumbered as possible. That means Entertainment! Fast cutting to keep hold of an audience that resists education like naughty schoolchildren; stats in graphics to make the people Aware; no gorgeously pretty images so they’re not distracted by art; emotional music to make them feel feelings they recognize from real movies, etc. The basic goal is to transfer the Big Important Subject in the catchiest container to get the message to as many people as possible.
These films are funded because they have easily understood loglines and cover very necessary subjects. If you don’t fund Bill Haney’s The Last Mountain, you are basically harming the world through your selfish inaction. Audiences, meanwhile, have been trained to feel very good about themselves when they watch these films, and therefore huge numbers are possible. At the other extreme you have films like Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq’s These Birds Walk, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters, Jehane Noujaim’s The Square, AJ Schnack’s Caucus — movies about socially or historically relevant subjects that favor ambiguity, mystery, subjectivity, and the capturing and structuring of cinematic moments to create a deeper understanding of a specific place, a time, an issue and the people caught in the chaotic swirl of history happening. These I strongly prefer.
In many ways, all nonfiction films have some relationship with social awareness. I believe that movies are both acts of expression and acts of communication. A film as radical as Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana can be seen as an attempt to examine the foreign “other” to form a deeper sense of empathy and shared humanity between those watching and those onscreen. It might as well be playing on Immersive Globalization Day at the Clinton Global Initiative. The desire to shake up the world and make it better is an honorable (if complex) one. The business of making movies is so rabidly egocentric that we need the noble goals of some filmmakers to provide at least some balance for cinema culture.
The issue with the info-transfer films is that they are infantilizing and they probably don’t work. SeaWorld is a bad company that does bad things but when they attack Blackfish for using “false and emotionally manipulative sequences” to tell us why orcas should no longer be held in captivity, they’re basically right. Movies are usually great when they’re “emotionally manipulative,” but when their subject matter is Big Important Things, that approach can become problematic and can needlessly harm the reason for making the movie in the first place, which is to bring greater awareness to a real issue. SeaWorld is just saying that the filmmakers made a movie. This isn’t exactly high criticism, but it might stick.
Meanwhile, Daniel Dencik in Expedition makes me feel a deeper connection to our world in peril. This is an adventure film, as the website tells us, but it’s also a movie about the nature of human curiosity. It sidesteps the info-driven, didactic approach in order to get to grips with our profoundly complex relationship with nature. It has heavy metal music, comedy and pathos. It offers cinema in a field where films are often no more than collections of facts. Climate-change films are particularly irritating because they so often fail when we, in a world on the brink, most urgently need them to succeed.
There are plenty of films that know they must be cinema before they can change us. Think Laura Poitras’ work or Josh Fox’s Gasland. Expedition to the End of the World is one of those films. It’s also just fucking great, even if it inadvertently reminds me of how many documentaries aren’t.