Discourse on Documentaries, Part I: War and Sheep

In Films by Brock Bourgase

Complex criteria are employed to evaluate documentaries, even more than other genres. Is a documentary judged based on the story or cinematography and direction? The best documentaries showcase a bit of both but a film about a controversial and enthralling issue can surpass a tiresome topic filmed with more craft.

Restrepo is a shocking film, chronicling an American platoon’s fifteen month tour in the Korengal Valley. The Korengal region is one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan, on par with Kandahar and the Pashtun regions. Two documentary filmmakers imbedded in the unit film dangerous operations and mundane daily activities. The mood set is what The Hurt Locker aspired to, except this is real and without clumsy Hollywood clichés.

The film is shocking and violent. It is closer to Black Hawk Down than any other mainstream film, whether filmed on the River Kwai or in the desert between Aqaba and Damascus.  American troop explain how nothing can compare to the rush of taking fire; watching soldiers break down into tears when they learn that a comrade has been killed in action seems more real than anything conceived by screenwriters. Many of those interviewed on camera speak of the difficulty readjusting to their lives back home. Seeing the skirmishes as they happen, the viewer easily understands their emotions.

Nevertheless, it remains problematic to assess the filmmaking. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger mostly film what they see using hand-held camera (what they see as they are running for cover) and there is not much editing. Yet the two record a critically important without bias with much more intensity than WikiLeaks. ****

Sweetgrass is slow and subtle but compelling nonetheless. Ilisa Barbash Lucien Castaing-Taylor film a summer of sheep as they graze on public lands. This traditional ceased in 2003 and this documentary captured clash between tradition and today. There are some humorous scenes, such as hundreds of sheep marching down the town’s Main Street past the Radio Shack or a cowboy complaining about how the sheep always try to escape and find their way into tricky places on the mountain.

The sheepherds speak of their worry adjusting to the future when this way of life ends. The documentary is a diversion. But in the way 2001: A Space Odyssey is more insightful than The Search for Spock, it is a better work of art than Restrepo. When their next films come out, Barbash and Castaing-Taylor will likely receive more critical acclaim than Hetherington and Junger. But Sweetgrass is a merely a diversion, not a comprehensive investigation of a meaningful problem. ***