Back in 2005, The Independent ran an article about the current volume of documentaries dubbed 'self-help documentaries'. This was around the same period that saw the release of My Architect, Tarnation, and, to a lesser degree, Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? (The latter of which has since been both solved and continues to be a mystery). To me, the 'self-help' sub-genre seemed like an acquired taste, like torture porn to horror, erotic thriller to thrillers, or porn-parodies to porn.
Let me back up for a minute; what IS the self help documentary? They are films where the filmmakers explores something about their life, their history, where they belong in this world, trying to find a love, etc... Rather than following someone else, the filmmaker hires someone to film them or film themselves working though these issues on screen. Answers are sometimes found in the field but usually are found in the editing room as filmmakers pour over their footage.
In my mind, the poster child of the sub-genre is Ross McElwee and his film Sherman's March. In the early 1980s, PBS gave McElwee an endowment to make a film about General Sherman and his destructive march through the south. His girlfriend breaks up with him right before he was to begin filming so in his heart-ache and grief, McElwee spends the PBS endowment filming his search for love. March is both fascinating and infuriating at the same time. The all-access-pass we get into McElwee's life and the lives of those who do not know or do not care that he is filming during rather intimate conversations makes you hold your breath for fear that they might see you, the viewer. On the other hand, the film is just McElwee moping around, looking for women, and wasting money made possible by viewers like you.
Intimate and relieving crossed with narcissism while wallowing in self-pity. This is the line most self-help documentaries straddle. Better parts of the sub-genre stay interesting and avoid going to a woe-is-me narration whenever possible. Lesser films find the filmmaker under the delusions that they and their plight are fascinating on a grand scale.
Nina Davenport is a very talented filmmaker when the subject of her films is not Nina Davenport. Her 2007 film Operation Filmmaker about a aspiring young filmmaker who is not as excited about the opportunity that is handed to him as those who gave it to him are. Filmmaker looks at privilege and hurt egos in Hollywood like few films ever do in an age of 24 hour publicists and cleanly scrubbed public relations. Although Davenport was able to root out some genuine truths in Filmmaker, her two more personal films Always a Bridesmaid and First Comes Love make her come across slightly sociopathic. Bridesmaid has Davenport following herself in her search for a husband, man after man after man. Upon scaring away half of the single men in the five boroughs, Davenport gave up and made Love where she follows herself getting artificially inseminated and continue to look for a husband. Davenport's approach to formulating a story around herself is to create a continuous cycle of complaining. Complaining to her friends, family, viewers, and just about anyone who will listen to her complain. To her credit, there is a certain bravery to filming moments in your life that should not be filmed, like first dates or giving birth. On the other hand, and this depends on the type of personality you are, acting that way is wildly inappropriate and no one is going to want to be your friend.
A major problem that dogs self-help documentaries is questionable accuracy. Chief among this issue is Michael Moore's Roger & Me which famously plays sequences as if they happen in order even though the events may have happened years apart. Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation may have been mostly fabricated. Even Werner Herzog's My Best Fiend feature re-enactments from time to time played off as truth. As annoying as manipulation in documentaries is, they are entertainment first and truth second. Herzog's 'ecstatic truth' argues that sometimes steps must be taken to reach a greater understanding of the material. A greater understanding while manipulating time and space; another topics for another day.
Although it might be a disservice to put this film into the sub-genre, Peter Friedman & Tom Joslin's Silver Lake Life could be classified as a 'self-help' documentary. Joslin and his partner Mark Massi begin the film finding out they both have AIDS and documenting the last year of their relationship. There is no music, minimal editing, and we rarely leave the couple's house. We are watching the home movies of two people coping with their fate and trying to stay strong for each other. I hesitate to put it in the same genre because it is less a 'self-help' documentary, but more simply a 'help' documentary. When I first saw it, the final twenty minutes ruined my day. This is not a criticism, this is an compliment of the sheer power of the film. Unfortunately, some of the films power has been taken away when taking a picture of yourself and the deceased at a funeral and posting it on social media is no longer frowned upon by society.
Like it or not, the 'self-help documentaries' has sort of worked their way into society already. What else could you call Vine and Instagram? For a vast majority of those application's users, they are their own favorite subject. Personal achievements are given the weight of massive scientific discoveries while negativity is taboo and treated like foreign object. Truth and reality are not as important as final product. The 'self-help documentary' in all its forms are not going anywhere, it is just evolving.