Much like the west side of Chicago, Northern Boston, or nearly all of Detroit, the documentary ghetto is a vast and sprawling, a sign of a failed infrastructure on the part of the film community. Documentaries are inherently cheap and ‘easy’ to make. ‘Easy’ as in the ease of which they can be made, not the ease as in “Oh boy, making a great and successful documentary sure is easy!” Grab a flip came, go film the homeless, and fire up iMovie, you are half way there! Time and time again, the most successful and popular documentaries have shown themselves to be models of extreme patience. For those who think that the process can be capped by time or deadlines, find success elusive. Those who want to manipulate or force events end up with a product that feels cheap and inauthentic. For the few who do escape the documentary ghetto, it is in great part to talent, industry, and ‘timing’. Those filmmakers are the small few who’s films can help focus the public discussion.
Enter Kirby Dick.
To be a popular documentarian these days is to tackle such benign subject matter asfast food is making you fat, The Simpsons turning 25, men who enjoy grooming, and the lighter side of comic-con. Dick is a pioneer in a way that few other filmmakers can ever claim to have been. Dick is not afraid of tough or offensive subject matter: hardcore S&M, the right to die, rape in the armed forces, sexual abuse and censorship in the Catholic church, & Homophobia at its most destructive. Get the kids and a bowl of popcorn, its the ABC Family Movie of the Week!
I can remember the first time I watched Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Sadomasochist, a film that is painful physically as it is at times emotionally. As the title states, Mr. Flanagan dies. He dies on camera in a matter of speaking, but that is probably the least shocking part of the film. Also as the title states, Mr. Flanagan is a sadomasochist. This is not your namby pamby S&M either, Bob likes to bleed. Dick and his camera do not spare you, why should they? Dick took the rather taboo issue of the time and turned it into an endearing testament to a man who knew he was living on borrowed time.
While you watch certain scenes in Twist of Faith, you get the feeling you should be somewhere else, doing something else because you are in complete violation of Tony Comes’ privacy. In several of his films including this one, Dick gives certain subjects camcorders to document their thoughts when the bigger cameras are not around. In Comes’ case, struggling to come to terms with how best to admit you were abused as a child, tell your wife and kids, and confront your abuser was not going to play out in front of the larger cameras very well. As difficult as it is to watch Comes try to maintain composure while explaining to his nine-year-old what exactly happened to her father twenty-something years ago, you realize this situation has unfortunately played out in too many house holds before.
Due to Dick and his film, The Invisible War, the unfortunate conversation of how and who should be dealing with sexual assault in the armed forces is still playing out in the political theater. Dick does not want to water down the issue once again giving the viewer the most graphic and detailed description of what happened to the subjects in the film. To the US military’s credit, they did not try to cover up the problem and showed the film on bases, but Dick has been vocal in that is still not enough.
Of course, not all of his films plumb the depths of the darkest corners of society. In stark contrast with his other films, This Film Is Not Yet Rated is easily digestible, if not a little pointless. The film is awkward with its use of ‘stunt’ film making, as Dick hires two private detectives to get the identities of the members of the Motion Picture Association of America, but it seems like Dick is having some fun. Dick must have known that by making the film, he would be guaranteed an NC-17 every time he submitted a film forever more. I get the feeling he probably does not care, Dick is going to keep doing what he is doing and doing it well.