Discovery Docs: A New Wrinkle in Non-Fiction Film

From the first movies shown to theater audiences in 1895, such as the Lumiere brothers’ mundanely titled but no less thrilling (at the time) Workers Leaving the Factory and The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, documentary film has had discovery on its mind. Though not commonly termed documentaries until the 1920s, most movies through the budding industry’s first decade were snippets of unvarnished reality that brought the everyday world, or exotic foreign lands, to startling, unprecedented life.

The first feature-length documentary, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), for all its Eurocentric ideology and cinematic sleight of hand, was concerned with rediscovering, through creative re-enactment, the traditional Inuit way of life. Training the ethnographic lens on their own “tribe,” Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, in the cinema verite classic Chronicle of a Summer (1960), sought to penetrate the political unconscious of contemporary Parisians at a pivotal historical moment.

Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1986) and Michael Moore’s Roger and Me (1989) combined the personal and the political to illuminate hidden pockets of the New South and the Rust Belt, respectively. Most spectacularly, Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988) not only revealed but altered reality in its expose of a miscarriage of justice that led (twelve years after his conviction) to the release of a man falsely accused of murdering a police officer.

In the last few years, a number of high-profile films have emphasized the discovery element of their real-life investigations to such an extent as to warrant a new subset of documentary altogether. Rather than rewriting history or chronicling well-known figures, topics, or events, these “discovery docs,” as I call them, are works in which the filmmaker searches out, stumbles upon or reclaims forgotten, lesser known or marginalized figures, generally in the arts.

Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) forecast the trend in its portrayal of the life and work of an obscure Chicago janitor, Henry Darger, whose posthumously discovered, self-illustrated magnum opus, Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, has become one of the most celebrated examples of outsider art. Darger’s manuscript was found shortly after his death in 1973, however, leaving a three-decade gap between its revelation and the film’s recounting, thereby attenuating the filmmaker’s role in the discovery process.

Not so with Arnon Goldfinger’s The Flat (2011), about the Israeli filmmaker’s on-camera probe, triggered by a letter he finds among his recently deceased grandmother’s possessions, into his Jewish grandfather’s contact with an SS officer during the Nazi period. Since then, discovery docs have achieved critical mass, and cultural cachet, thanks to the past two Oscar-winning documentary features: Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugarman (2012), about the rediscovery and subsequent comeback of singer-songwriter Rodriguez; and Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013), about the spotlighting of a group of previously unheralded backup singers to pop music headliners.

In continuing the trend—Clint Burkett’s Steve White: Painting the World with Music and John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier (both 2014)—have also harked back to In the Realms of the Unreal by emphasizing not only their subjects’ extraordinary and comparatively (in Maier’s case, completely) unknown talent but their extraordinary lives and personalities as well.

Steve White, a pre-release currently making the festival rounds, is an ode to a recently deceased Southern California singer-songwriter-painter who, while a late-blooming one-man-band sensation in Europe and Asia, remained a relative cipher in the U.S. until his trailer-court neighbor, filmmaker Burkett, bumped into him at a party. In lifting the veil on White’s musical genius, Burkett also uncovered a gifted artist and quicksilver character whose kaleidoscopic back story had taken him from a childhood in Southeast Asia to a “white boy’s” variant on the blues that was as much Mekong as Mississippi delta.

The double-barreled discovery of artistry and idiosyncrasy in Finding Vivian Maier is arguably the most astonishing of all the discovery docs. White’s accomplishments, like those of Rodriguez, the backup singers, even the disreputable ones in The Flat, while undervalued or under-prosecuted, had not been kept totally under wraps in the subjects’ lifetimes. Maier’s thousands of photographs hadn’t seen the light of day, much less public exposure, while the reclusive artist was alive. And though a similar fate befell Darger’s work, while his manuscript has been marginalized as “outsider art,” many of Maier’s photographs are viewed as unqualified masterworks. How her photos were unearthed—in a box at an auction, with no notion by the recipient of what was inside—also trumps Darger’s manuscript’s discovery by his landlord. Most incredible of all the incredible “findings” in Vivian Maier—again trumping those in Darger’s film because of the greater wealth of material—is the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma of her hermetically sealed personae.

Enough said, however, about these and the other discovery docs broached here, as one of the greatest joys of this new twist on the hoary art of non-fiction film is the journey of discovery audiences get to take, along with the filmmaker-explorers but on their own as well.


VincentBrook teaches documentary history at UCLA and is the author or editor of five books, most recently Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles and Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen (both 2013). He served as a documentary consultant on Steve White: Painting the World with Music.

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