Three nonfiction films are attracting lots of attention this summer—maybe for the wrong reason

A documentary is an arrangement (or, if it includes historical footage, a rearrangement) of nonfictional film, structured to support the pre-existing ideas of the filmmaker. Only the terminally stupid or the childishly innocent imagine that anyone making a documentary film aspires to objective truth.

A convenient example is Bowling for Columbine, which won a documentary Academy Award this year and, more important, has grossed an unprecedented $21 million in theaters. Its ostensible subject is America’s murderous gun culture. Its real subject, of course, is the ravenous ego of its director-star, Michael Moore. Everything—including accuracy and nuance—is subordinated to the presentation of his bullying, know-it-all self.

Not since the blessedly silent Nanook of the North (1922) has documentary created such a “star.” And possibly at no time has there been such popular interest in the genre. There is, says Mark Urman, who heads theatrical distribution for ThinkFilm, a Bowling for Columbine effect. That film was seen by audiences “who had never before seen a documentary in a movie theater,” he says. “They liked it and were perhaps more inclined to go to another one.”

This may go some way toward explaining the unusually large amount of attention documentaries are receiving this summer. There are three among the 25 top-grossing movies now in theaters. ThinkFilm is a distributor of Spellbound, about contestants in a national spelling bee, which has grossed more than $2.6 million—a huge haul for a documentary. Spellbound follows the fortunes of eight kids, of very different backgrounds, from their victories in local spelling bees all the way to their participation in the nationals. It works “as human comedy and suspense,” says Urman. The other currently hot docs, Capturing the Friedmans ($1 million gross) and the birds-in-flight eye-popper Winged Migration (more than $4 million), are, he says, respectively a “Greek tragedy” and a “spectacle.”

What sets these documentaries apart is that they offer something more than talking heads and earnest messages. Documentaries need, Urman says, “the narrative virtues that fiction films have”—story arc, character development, adventure. Winged Migration audiences can somehow identify with those brave, pretty birds beating their way up and down the planet on their migratory paths. And, of course, they can identify with the human subjects of the other docs. But is that really why they’re watching?

One of Spellbound’s moms remarks that competitive spelling can be construed as a form of child abuse. All that study, all those desperately furrowed brows, all that tension—for what? Well, in this competition, to spell words you’ll probably never use—or even hear again—in any form of civilized discourse. Director Jeffrey Blitz is sympathetic to the eight kids he follows through this agony, and they and their parents largely seem to have the contest in wry perspective. And we do get caught up in their fates. Implicitly, Blitz seems to be asking but not quite answering this question: What’s the point of all this? The ability to spell is a sign of neither virtue nor brains. It’s just a skill some people develop and some don’t, and the national spelling bee is, in its genteel way, rather like Survivor, a pseudo event engaging real emotions.

Capturing the Friedmans, which has been rapturously reviewed, raises similar but more serious questions. Ostensibly it recounts the story of a mild-mannered high school teacher, Arnold Friedman, who with one of his sons was busted for child molestation, allegedly practiced on students in a computer class he ran in his basement in the ‘80s. The film implies, without quite saying so, that this was a bad rap. Arnold was no doubt a kiddie-porn addict. But he was, we’re pretty sure, a looker, not a doer. No one produced any physical evidence that he or his son committed any sex crimes. We emerge from Andrew Jarecki’s film convinced that Friedman was yet another victim of overzealous police work and mass hysteria.

But that’s not really what the movie is about. The Friedmans obsessively recorded, on film and tape, their incredibly boring lives. And Jarecki converts this record of banality into a sly object lesson in bourgeois dysfunction, which turns viewers into—what? Jarecki says people are rebelling against big-budget Hollywood action and embracing an alternate, more authentically emotional, cinema. Maybe so. But our fondness for noble fowl aside, it’s possible that we’re simply becoming voyeurs of misery, quite heedless of how and to what end its images are manipulated and falsified.

(adapted from TIME)