Camera Confessional: The Catharsis of Documentary Film
I’m a documentary filmmaker and a documentary film lover. I developed this love while attending the Sundance Film Festival over the years. I began attending the festival for work, and I was so taken by the experience that I began to find any excuse I could to attend in subsequent years, almost like it was an obsession. In particular, I just couldn’t get enough of the documentary films that I was seeing. So often over the years, I have found good documentary to be transcendent and inspiring in its presentation of raw truth.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about documentary film is the potential for a therapeutic and cathartic effect, not only for the subjects, but for audiences and filmmakers as well. Time and time again, the subjects in documentary films bare their souls in front of the camera, as if the space in front of the lens is a judgment free zone, or a therapy session. Indeed, when treated with care, the presence of the camera tends to have a healing emotional and psychological effect as subjects find honesty, audiences find empathy, and filmmakers discover truth.
What is this connection between confessional documentaries and the healing that so many involved seem to experience? Confession is of course a literary genre, beginning with Augustine’s Confessions and leading all the way up to more modern literary geniuses like Dostoyevsky and contemporary authors like Anne Lamott. What’s common in this type of literature is that authors strive to make public his or her innermost thoughts and feelings and work out their spiritual and psychological issues with the reader. This process of emotional healing appears to be taking place through the medium of documentary film as well. Interestingly enough, this has been going on all throughout the history of documentary film, to the point where I almost think we should have a genre category for it: the confessional documentary.
For example, in the 1970s, the famous filmmaking duo the Maysles brothers shot a documentary called Grey Gardens. For the film, they spent several months with Edie and Edith Beal, once matrons of a grand estate in The Hamptons, later having fallen into poverty and downright squalor. The Maysles had heard about a mother and daughter living in a dilapidated mansion while researching a film that they wanted to do on Jackie Kennedy Onassis. They found the two women to conduct themselves with such grace and dignity that they felt a film about their lives and their co-dependent yet loving mother-daughter relationship would be a more compelling project.
The film begins with simple, observational sequences, introducing the audience to the two women as they share music, old photos, and stories with the Maysles brothers: they were once a part of the elite class of society, but, like their decaying mansion, have declined into obscurity. However, as their time together progresses, Edie becomes more and more open with the camera, confessing that she “hates” the Hamptons, especially in the winter, and that she’d prefer “any little rat hole” in a cultural city like New York over the slow, boring life in Grey Gardens with little more than her mother and the gardener to keep her company. Gradually, it becomes clear that there is a very real sense in which Edith holds her daughter hostage, to the point where Edie seems to imply that her mother has driven away all the men in her life for fear of losing her. Yet, as Edie continues to confess her thoughts and feelings to the Maysles, it becomes clear that she still loves her “mother darling” in spite of all this, and would never abandon her for New York, and so endures the things she hates about the Hamptons for the sake of love. This act of focusing on the two women and allowing Edie in particular to showcase her quirky outfits, display her soft shoe dancing, and muse on her life turned out to be a great gift for the Beales.
In the Catholic tradition, the confession works as a kind of salve. After confessing to a priest, for example, we are told to “go in peace” and there is a sense of closure in revealing out loud in front of another person our true selves, taking off the masks that we don in order to protect ourselves against others. There is a sense in which Edie seems to experience this cathartic and healing effect through her camera confessional. There is a feeling one gets in watching the film that Edie is growing as a person right before our eyes, as she gradually makes peace with her life as it is. After the premiere of Grey Gardens, audiences did not judge but rather embraced Edie. She was eventually able to achieve her dream of having a song and dance show in New York City years later, due in part to the success of the film.
Interestingly enough, the psychological healing has a corporate dimension as well. In various Protestant traditions, for example, the congregation might engage in a public confession, which provides space for each person to reflect on their own vulnerability, humanity, and hope for a more healthy self, a better future devoid of injustice and pain, and healing. In film, a symbiotic relationship of intimacy brought about by shared narrative allows audiences to engage in a personal confession themselves as they watch the subjects make themselves vulnerable in intimate and honest ways. When the lights come up in the theater, it often feels as if a therapy session is coming to a close. The cathartic release is palpable as audiences cheer, reflect, mourn, or contemplate—often with tears in their eyes.
For example, in 2001 my former professor Kirby Dick made a film called Chain Camera. To make the film, Kirby and his producer handed out cameras to 10 high school students in a lower income neighborhood in Los Angeles. They told them that they could film whatever they wanted and left them with the cameras for a week. Then they passed the cameras on to ten more students for another week and repeated the process for a whole year.
The students ended up confessing their hopes and dreams but also their issues and problems to the cameras. In one scene, one of the students films herself in the mirror and zooms in on her stomach, and informs the camera that she used to make herself throw up, and “that’s why I have this fit body.” She then focuses on a picture of herself as a child and says that sometimes she wishes she could “go back.” She then goes into how her father left her at a young age and wonders whether or not she’d be so dependent on guys if he was still around. In watching the film, one gets the sense that so many of us have problems, issues, things that we are perhaps ashamed of or wish we could change, but deep down we are all the same. We all have fears and worries and, yes, problems, but we are all equally human.
The moments spent in the dark theater reflecting on these things reminds us of this basic reality: that we are not alone in our experience of life. There are countless others going through things that may or may not be specifically analogous to our own lives, but they are alike in kind. Tackling truth about human nature with honesty thus has a way of encouraging the audience to engage in a type of reflection not unlike the practice of corporate confession in religion.
All of this is, of course, facilitated by the filmmaker, who works to cultivate an environment of judgment-free reflective space in front of the lens, as well as honesty and empathy in compiling the interviews for viewing. Often this process results in confessional healing for them as well, as evidenced by the reports by filmmakers over the years of unexpected growth in their own lives as a result of exploring truth through documentary. For example the famous Hollywood director John Huston was commissioned as a young man by the war department to film documentaries during World War II. By the end of the war, he was suffering from depression and escapism, not being able to psychologically deal with what he had seen. In 1946 he was commissioned to make a film he later called Let There Be Light, which followed 75 American veterans in a VA hospital who, like Huston himself, had advanced post traumatic stress disorder (before that concept existed).
In the film, some soldiers have uncontrollable ticks, some cannot talk, some cannot walk, and the therapy sessions that Huston films are raw and real in a way that seem to be far ahead of their time (so much so, that the film was initially suppressed by the war department). Here again, the act of listening and focusing on the subjects honestly resulted in healing. The 75 soldiers in the film ended up coming out of the hospital with a higher recovery rate than the rest of the patients. But ultimately it was Huston himself who experienced much of the personal growth, as he was able to return to civilian life back in Hollywood and go on to become one of the great American directors. There’s an excellent book about this called Five Came Back, which has been turned into a Netflix documentary miniseries. In a later interview, Huston would describe his transformation as “almost a religious experience.” Essentially the film helped Huston process and move past the trauma of his own near death experiences in the war and the shock of seeing so many lives lost. The therapeutic effect came full circle in Huston’s case, affecting not only the subjects but the filmmaker as well.
The aesthetics of film, the dark theater, the ability to focus on the words said on screen—to think about their significance and relate those expressions to our own lives—the ability of filmic techniques like music or slow sequences to induce a meditative state, the need to focus on some of the larger questions in life through documentation, and the realization that we are not alone all allow us to essentially leave the distractions of life at the door. Perhaps this is why I find myself heading back to Sundance year after year in search of that connection, that engagement with cathartic, raw truth. Because on some level, it puts my own life, with its unique struggles, ups and downs, fears, and hopes into perspective, as though someone is giving me permission to “go in peace” as I walk out of the screening.