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Ask the Hard Questions

photo: courtesy Netflix


Several friends suggested I watch "Cheer," a Netflix-produced documentary series. It's a real-time portrayl of a cheerleading team from Navarro College, a small, publicly-funded, under-funded community college in Corsicana, Texas, county population 48,000, known best for its fruitcake and its 73% turnout for Donald Trump. It's an America many of us never experience, a picture-perfect town of upended devotion—religious and athletic—that conceals exploitation and cruelty.

Within minutes of the camera rolling in a bare-bones gymnasium, we hear one of the female "flyers" say that she's had five concussions. Despite this guileless confession from a young woman clearly eager to please her silent behind-the-camera interlocutor, and her hard-driving coach, there are no follow-up questions. In fact, there aren't any questions at all. And it is only once at the end of the six-part series that the viewer hears a reporter's voice. It seems to be an accident. Perhaps the footage was too valuable to cut.

There are many situations where cinema verité (fly-on-the-wall) film-making is useful. This series is not one of them. These still young, extreme athletes, many from troubled backgrounds, on scholarship, desperate for an education, require protection as they are filmed in the gymnasium, and in their personal lives. And though the strong, female coach, Monica Aldana, presents herself as a parental, caring force, her self-promotion pervades the series without respite. She is an emblem of the dark culture of American sports that exploits its talent and demands athletic prowess for the glory of the school, the team, and the final competition at Daytona. We watch breathless and expectant as the vulnerable athletes fall onto hard wooden floors, nearly break ribs, bruise muscles, damage their backs, sob and groan, cheer despite their pain, get into trouble, leave school, head for the hospital emergency room, return to practice. Navarro College only has a 21% graduation rate. That fact is never revealed; it requires explanation.

Does the series' director, Greg Whitely, have a point of view? Does he imagine that he's created an exposé, a raw record, and that we'll come away both admiring and disgusted, able to make our own decision? I found it interesting that he was a missionary for The Church of Latter Day Saints and had made a film about Mitt Romney. Is that relevant to his ominiscient style of film-making? Are the athlete's fates in the hands of the gods? In an interview with Mashable, an online magazine, Whitely said, "I tried as best I can to remain agnostic on different themes or issues, being generous with my subjects, while also documenting in cold detail who they are and what they are going through. And I trust that by doing that correctly, themes will just naturally emerge. They'll organically come out." Well, they do. But without a reporter's commentary and hard questions, the series has no ethical center.

We're in the midst of an election year, challenging beyond our imaginations. Credible reporters asking difficult questions has never been more important. I expect such rigor from my students, from myself, and from every working writer, reporter and documentary film-maker, no matter the social media hoopla and revenue value of an entertaining subject.

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Cinema Verité Writing

I have just finished reading Jennifer Gonnerman’s “Life on the Outside,” the story of Elaine Bartlett’s sixteen-year incarceration in Bedford Hills prison for selling cocaine, a first offense under New York's harsh Rockefeller drug laws. Unprepared for release at the age of 42 into a changed world and troubled family, the book rarely strays from Ms. Bartlett’s point of view. This is empathetic immersion journalism at its best. It’s no wonder it won the National Book Award and landed Ms. Gonnerman a job at The New Yorker. The reporting is encyclopedic and the narrative so gripping I could not put the book down. Considering the discourse we are having at the moment about incarceration and rehabilitation, I’d say it’s a must-read. Some of the harsh sentencing has been rescinded, but there is more reform of the criminal justice system pending, and more still that is necessary.

“Life on the Outside” reminded me of Katharine Boo’s Pulitzer-winning book, “Behind The Beautiful Forevers,” an intimate portrayal of the shanty-town under the airport in Mumbai. Ms. Boo, an American married to an Indian national, used translators—students from the university—to capture the story. Despite the language barrier, she became close to her subjects.

The reporting and narrative methods are similar in both books: immersion reporting, third person story-telling, and an epilogue in the first person that describes the reporting process and the reporter’s role in the process. It’s an approach shared by Tracy Kidder and Alex Kotlowitz, among others. I call it cinema verité writing.

In film theory, cinema verité is sometimes referred to as “observational cinema.” The camera/director is a fly on the wall recording whatever passes before him. There is no voice-over narration or guidance for the viewer other than the way in which the director frames each shot and edits the takes. It can be informative and powerful, it can be salaciously voyeuristic, or it can be boring.

Gonnerman and Boo’s books mimic this process. They are the camera eye observing, recording and framing, deciding on what goes in and what doesn’t. And, as reporters, they do ask questions, but we don’t hear their voice at all until the end. They remain behind the camera and behind the scenes.

Does this reportorial self-effacement work? Yes, for the most part. Are there drawbacks? Yes, one or two.

By the end of “Life on the Outside” I cared about Elaine Bartlett and felt I knew her. She loved clothes, she loved her children, she was a hard worker, she loved men, she was well respected. I wanted to keep her out of harm’s way and for her most successful child, Apache, to continue to do well. In this sense, the book succeeded admirably. But when subject matter is difficult, challenging, or controversial, the absence of a narrative persona feels like a lacuna. Many questions about our criminal justice system remain unanswered, solutions and interpretation are absent. Now, more than ever, we need them.  Read More 
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