In her 1999 essay What's Wrong with the Liberal Documentary, Jill Godmilow takes to task the “progressive or liberal documentary” as an “inadequate form––a relatively useless cultural product, especially for political change.” Her critiques of what she sees as a “soft form” include:
that this type of documentary film is still trapped in the same “matrix of obligations” as fiction film: to entertain, produce fascination, achieve closure, and to satisfy.
that this method of presentation tends toward an examination of one or more “distressed social actors” rather than the audience's situation: “There is nothing to learn about our activities or ourselves here. There is everything to learn about the other.”
that a typical film in this form “rarely proposes solutions” and while they may implicitly or explicitly “propose legislation” this type of film “never implicates the class activities of its audience as central contributors to the situation depicted in the film.”
If one examines the list of films receiving the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary in the years before Godmilow's essay, one could (at least for purposes of argument) reevaluate these films in light of Godmilow’s position:
1990: American Dream
While this film is traditionally considered in the “socially-concerned” genre, does it not follow the distress of working-class social actors and imply corruption among corporate and union leaders––all presented as “other” to the film's generally urban / elite / educated audience? Does it not complicate rather than clarify a pro-labor position?
1994: Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision
When this film contrasts the artist's vision for a Vietnam War Memorial against the expected heroic statuary traditional to public art memorials, does it not position art practice as a tool for post-war healing rather than opposition to war? Why is its primary argument about the best way to patch a wound, dissociating from the audience's recent support of the 1991 Gulf War?
1996: When We Were Kings
Since many of the film's interviews bring up social issues such as race relations in the United States, why does the film ignore the related issues that arise when a U.S. promoter (Don King) imports a fight spectacle and music festival (featuring James Brown, among others) into a country run on a one-party political system, secured by forces charged with human rights abuses? As with Godmilow's critique of Hoop Dreams (1994), does the film not also ignore the question of why Ali grew up with boxing as his only promising occupational option?
Next: applying Godmilow's critique to "traditional" social advocacy documentaries.