Everyone has an opinion on Michael Moore.
His films are radical, unabashedly liberal, profitable, and sensationalist. He’s a love-him-or-hate-him type of director, but his influence on documentary filmmaking is undeniable. Prior to figures like Moore, documentaries tended to be relegated to public broadcasting and tiny independent cinemas. But everything blew up in the early aughts, with films such as Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 9/11, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.
In a way, the profitability of these movies makes sense. They are concerned with major national issues.Their topics are simple, direct, and well-known to the American public—a far cry from the artistic approach of Jennie Livingston’s now-cult classic Paris is Burning, a film documenting the last era of New York City’s underground drag balls. Livingston’s film exposed a topic that its audience knew virtually nothing about: a group of relatively unknown people who appeared fascinating and complex just by being themselves.
Now, new documentaries are turning back to the artistic sensibilities of films like Paris is Burning, in terms of both content and aesthetic rendering. Consequently, in looking for more complex subjects, filmmakers are turning specifically to youth culture. Filmmakers are increasingly drawn to the awkwardness, energy, and honesty of adolescence.
For example, Oscilloscope Laboratories, a film distribution company founded by late Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch, released two films on Dec. 7, Tchoupitoulas and Only The Young. Both movies signal a shift toward a more complex, aesthetic-driven documentary style. When asked about what films pique Oscilloscope’s interest, Co-President Dan Berger places an emphasis not on films that are lucrative, but on films that have artistic merit. “We are, and always have been, a taste-driven company,” Berger says. “It was always Adam’s vision to be a haven for good films and good filmmakers.” This “taste-driven” model appears to be working to its advantage: Oscilloscope has released four Oscar-nominated films in four years, signaling their status in the film industry. “We like to think that we approach them [documentaries] in a unique, creative, and sensible way,” Berger says.
This methodology shows in their films. Tchoupitoulas, described in its press release as a “lyrical documentary,” chronicles a single night in New Orleans through the eyes of three young boys. The viewer is exposed to a series of dreamy images of the city, which assume an almost surreal quality as the film progresses. Save for a few bits of dialogue and some brilliant one-liners from the youngest boy, William, the film is a series of sounds and images of the city after dark. Bill Ross, who co-directed the film with his brother, Turner Ross, says, “We wanted to reflect on the ghosts that remained with us from being kids in New Orleans. Seeing adult things when we would sneak away from our parents. New Orleans presented that landscape and still does. We hoped for a kid’s perspective and got very lucky that we found the boys that we did.” The film reduces documentary to its purest form in order to capture the tension between the boys’ innocence and the debauchery taking place behind closed doors.
Oscilloscope’s other new film, Only the Young, was directed by another duo, Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet. The film documents the life of three teenagers in Canyon County, Calif., where skate culture rules, as they navigate the last days of high school. Mims says that she and Tippet were “tired of MTV ‘True Life’ shows, where teenagers are exploited only for anorexia disorders or drug problems. As teenagers, Jason was never addicted to meth, as far as I know, and I was never pregnant. We wanted to make something that was closer to our experiences, focusing on this little window in your life where your main form of transportation can be a skateboard or a grocery cart.”
Unlike Tchoupitoulas, Only the Young is more narrative-driven in its structure and aesthetic. “We wanted to make a documentary on a tripod so our audience can actually enjoy these moments without being distracted by shaky camera movement,” says Mims. “We created more of a narrative feel mostly in editing and how we chose to do our interviews.”
While the final products may appear wildly divergent, “the two films are great complements to each other,” Berger says. Both Mims and Ross note that they came upon the eventual subjects of their films by accident: The protagonists of Only the Young approached them to ask if they had lost their keys to a Jaguar. The three boys in Tchoupitoulas appeared one night on the streets of New Orleans after the Ross brothers had spent several nights filming there, looking for the perfect subjects. This spontaneity is evident in the ease with which both documentaries present themselves. These aren’t major blockbusters, but in many respects, Mims, Tippet, and the Ross brothers wouldn’t have it any other way. Both films derive from the filmmakers’ respective desires to recapture an aspect of their youths. They take us into worlds to which we wouldn’t have access were it not for their films.
The intimacy of the portraits of these young adults suggests that young people may not only increasingly be the subjects of documentary films, but also their key audience. Berger says, “It’s definitely something we noticed, for sure. In general, I think documentaries need to appeal to a younger audience, whether they cater to them specifically or not. It’s an important demographic and young audiences are open minded enough (and talk enough) to be a great proponent of a documentary’s success.”
This focus on youth, both as subjects and as audience members, heralds a new shift for the genre. But, for Bill Ross, not much has changed: “In a way, we’ve shot like this since we were kids. We would go around our town shooting people or places we found interesting,” he says. “We’ll keep doing what we’re doing."