Documentary Film and the Power of Empathy


I’ve mentioned previously that one of the things I enjoy most about attending good film festivals–besides the concentration of quality films–is the way in which watching a lot of films in a short period of time will allow works to be in dialogue with one another. When watching one film, the proximity in time to viewing another film can prime the imagination or the intellect, allowing insights to flow to the surface. Or, to use another metaphor, it can frame themes and add depth to topics that reach outside the film and help us to contemplate not merely how any particular film works as a self-contained statement but also how it participates in helping us mediate and negotiate the questions and issues that make up our lives. Continue reading “Documentary Film and the Power of Empathy”

Owning the Weather (Greene, 2009)


If one proverbial mark of a good narrative film is three good scenes and no bad ones, one way to gauge a documentary is whether or not it is capable at some point or another of making you sympathetic to multiple perspectives. It’s not that I want to always end in the mushy middle, but if an issue is complex, then I expect my thoughts about it to develop as more information is brought forward.

Really skillful documentaries (or at least ones I like) have a tendency to trust that you are following the arguments and add nuance to them rather than simply hammering home the same point over and over again. One of several pleasures about Robert Greene’s documentary reviewing the history and current state of weather modification (or “geo-engineering”) is how often you’ll be thinking something in response to one of the talking heads, only to have someone else in the film raise that very point.

There is a difference, though possibly a subtle one, between balance and fairness. The former is too often lazily approximated in the mass media by giving the microphone to first one spin doctor than another from the other side. The latter involves building the sort of ethos where the viewer or reader really believes you are going where the story is leading–that you are following a train of thought to its conclusion, rather than shaping a series of interviews around a conclusion you’ve already reached. Greene’s documentary certainly has a point of view, but unlike many documentaries about polarizing topics, it doesn’t communicate contempt for its subjects or viewers who might see things a little differently. The result is a film that is thoughtful in the best sense of the word.

Forgetting Dad (Minnich, 2008)



I guess the easy and critically lazy way to dismiss documentaries about the filmmaker’s own lives is to call them “personal” films. Environmentalism and political activism are what’s hot (no pun intended) in documentaries right now, which, while not bad, does tend to make it hard for films like Forgetting Dad (and The Queen and I, about which I will have more to say on Wednesday) to get much attention. [As if to to underscore this point, the festival award winners were announced while I was writing this post: Burma VJ, Unmistaken Child, Oil Blue, and Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech were the big winners. All fine films, I’m just saying…Durham wears its political identity on its sleeve and were I a documentary film maker, I would certainly take a message home with me about what sorts of films will get me not just a screening but an award.]

There is a difference, though, between social activism and humanism, particularly in how they value the individual. Minnich’s film may be about something that happened to him (as opposed to a nation of people across the ocean or a globe of people all at the same time), but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have applications for us.

One week after Minnich’s father was in a car that was rear-ended in 1990, he began to lose his memory. Or at least he claimed that he did. There seemed to be little medical evidence to suggest why he couldn’t remember, and some observers suggested or openly stated that Richard Minnich was using the car accident as an excuse to drop out, start over, and leave his cares and responsibilities (including his family) behind.

To the extent that such a film stayed strictly on the level of detective story culminating in a definitive answer, its application and interest might be limited. Minnich is wise enough to probe his own feelings and to question not merely his father’s possible motives for doing what he did but his own for needing to know. The study of family dynamics works anagogically as a commentary on issues as diverse as divorce, loyalty, and forgiveness and metaphysically as a comment on the nature of faith and evidence.

When I teach Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love in my literature classes, I often approach it as a means of illustrating the power that metaphors can wield in the way we understand the spiritual realm and our experiences of it. The prevalence and predominance of the father analogy in the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures when talking about God means that our relationships with our fathers have an immense influence on the ways in which personally and culturally we envision God. That is fine when the cultural images and understandings of fatherhood are positive ones, but Julian understood that these metaphors can often be a stumbling block when our personal experiences of fathers are not those of constancy, loyalty, or provision and so appropriates maternal images from Psalms and Jesus’s proclamations not as a proto-feminist statement but as a reminder that metaphors can’t adequately describe God, they can only point very generally in “His” direction.

I found Minnich’s film deeply spiritual even though he does not directly invite or request such an anagogical reading. Still, while his quest for particular medical answers and relational explanations is personal, the longing for wholeness and permanence that is driving it is as universal as it gets. Forgetting Dad is a beautiful, melancholy, and deeply compassionate film that reminded me of a portion of St. Francis’s prayer:

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;

to understand, than to be understood;

to love, than to be loved.