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2010: A Last Look Back

By Tom White

The first year of the second decade of the millennium began with an earthquake, continued with a volcano eruption, and ended with a calamitous series of rain and snowstorms across America. And in between, the Great Recession ground on, oil gushed into the Gulf, and the Tea Party rose up and took over the House.

And amid all this convulsion, the documentary community continued to deliver astonishing work that took us to scary and awesome places, that demanded answers and provoked more questions. This was a year of legal battles for journalistic integrity, for fair use in the digital age, and for free and open access, promotion, creation and distribution on the Internet. And this was a year of  healthy and spirited conversations about the form itself.

So as we tread gingerly into 2011, unsettled by the horrific tragedy in Tucson, yet eagerly anticipating both a fresh slate of mind-expanding work at Sundance and beyond and the concurrent cadenza-and-crescendo run-up to the Awards Season finale, let's take one final look back at 2010.

Arguably, the story of the year for us was the legal imbroglio surrounding Joe Berlinger's Crude, which inspired a groundswell of passionate support from both the documentary community and the journalism/news/media community, reaffirming documentary's long and deep history in the Fourth Estate. And while Chevron had to back down from its demand for Berlinger to turn over 600 hours of footage--the ruling over the summer qualified what was and was not permissible--the oil giant persists, having ratcheted up its demands to include Berlinger's e-mails as well.  

In another case involving a corporation and a documentary--Dole and Fredrik Gertten's Bananas!--a Los Angeles Superior Court granted an anti-SLAPP motion last November, and struck the defamation complaint filed by Dole. In addition to striking the lawsuit with prejudice, the Court ordered Dole to pay attorneys fees and costs in the amount of $199,959.25.

An article that appeared in The New York Times last week implies that both rulings--especially the Chevron/Crude one--constitute a pyrrhic victory, at best, for filmmakers. Both Berlinger and filmmaker Alex Gibney express their concerns over the post-Crude chilling effect that might impact the filmmaking process. Berlinger cites his "astronomical legal bills," while Gibney ponders what this might mean to the crucial--and painstakingly realized--trust between filmmaker and subject.

Nonetheless, both rulings do help underscore the vitality of documentary as journalism. As Berlinger said in his remarks at the IDA Awards last month, "I don't need to tell you that journalism of all forms is under assault in this country. Newsrooms are being cut back; print journalism has been gutted by the democratization of the Internet; fear of offending advertisers keeps certain stories out of the mainstream media; and the corporatization of America is a frightening and ever-growing problem, perhaps best illustrated by the Supreme Court's decision to allow corporations to flood campaign financing with unlimited funding. We documentarians are one of the last bastions of independent journalism. Whether those films show a bias or not, some of the most courageous and important reporting on real problems affecting all of us are being done by this community."

What makes documentary such a wonderfully enlivening medium is the fact that it attracts makers from such a diverse array of disciplines--broadcast and print journalism, fiction film, still photography, radio, theater, painting, sculpture, psychology, medicine, law, etc. And these multifarious roots make for a dynamic art form, one whose very parameters vis a vis the pursuit of the truth are sometimes challenged, sometimes called into question by practitioners and viewer alike. Take two of the most talked about docs of the year--Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop and Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's Catfish. Both films gained renown and notoriety for provoking questions in some camps about their veracity and authenticity. They both fared well at the box office, earning over $3 million, according to And, not that it's box-office poison to do so these days, given that nine docs passed the $1 million mark in 2010, they both coyly avoided mention of "the D-word."

But Banksy's film was the more acclaimed of the two--and by far the most honored: According to AJ Schnack's blog, Exit Through the Gift Shop has thus far garnered 27 awards, prizes and nominations from critics, audiences and the filmmaking community alike. Despite, or perhaps because of, the purported ambiguities in the film, viewers were more than willing to embrace it as a Banksy project, one that in this case takes the conventions of the documentary template and subverts them in a way, thereby contextualizing documentary as it ought to be contextualized--as an art form, subject to its own questions and its own boundary-pushing.

Two of the more venturesome documentary festivals--CPH: DOX and IDFA--come, fittingly, towards the end of the year, when we're all looking ahead to what's next. As Harriette Yahr writes in December 2010 online Documentary, "When [artistic director] Tine Fischer agreed to take on the position of director and help shape the festival into the gem it is now, she did so under one condition: that documentary gets defined as broadly as possible, and explored in every corner." For IDFA's part, its DocLab showcases some of the most exciting multimedia/multiplatform work around.

Just before Christmas, the FCC released its long-awaited ruling on Net Neutrality. The federal agency declared that Internet service providers could not pick and choose which items get preference as they travel the Internet, and that broadband providers would be prohibited from blocking access to lawful content. This means that keeping the Internet accessible and open for independent filmmakers helps foster and sustain the kind of innovation cited above, as well as maintains a robust resource for information, communication and distribution.  

So, as the peals of New Year bells grow fainter by the week, we salute the crusading artists and artistic crusaders who helped make 2010 a year to inspire the rest of us to keep fighting and foraging in 2011. I leave you with a couple of lists that give you a more quantitative snapshot of the best of 2011. First, courtesy of, the top ten highest grossing docs of 2010. I include Jackass 3-D-hey, it's nonfiction...but I did include an asterisk next to it...


1) *Jackass 3-D                                       $117,194,668

2) Oceans                                                $  19,442,319 

3) Babies                                                 $     7,320,323

4) Waiting for Superman                         $    6,417,135

5) Inside Job                                            $    3,539,370

6) Exit Through the Gift Shop                 $     3,291,250

7) Catfish                                                 $    3,237,343

8) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work             $     2,930,687

9) Restrepo                                              $     1,330894

10)The Tillman Story                                $        803,535


And here, thanks to the indefatigable AJ Schnack, are the most honored docs of 2010, in terms of critics, festivals, guilds and organization/association awards and nominations:

1) Exit Through the Gift Shop                 27 honors

2) Inside Job                                            19 honors

3) Marwencol                                          16 honors

4) Waiting for Superman                         16 honors

5) Restrepo                                              15 honors

6) The Oath                                             14 honors

7)The Tillman Story                                13 honors

8) Last Train Home                                 11 honors

9) Waste Land                                         10 honors

10) Armadillo                                            9 honors


Finally, I present my ten favorite docs of 2010:

1)      Utopia in Four Movements

2)      Sweetgrass

3)      Last Train Home

4)      The Two Escobars

5)      12th & Delaware

6)      Marwencol

7)      My Perestroika

8)      The Tillman Story

9)      Thunder Soul

10)  The Fence


Thomas White is editor of Documentary.