Currently I'm knee deep in submissions for the 2011 Atlanta Film Festival. It's definitely one of the most exciting times at the fest as we take an ever growing stack of films, mostly from and featuring unknowns, and begin searching for the shorts and features that will be our lineup. Maybe it's been this "golden age" of documentaries that's made me more acutely aware, however something came to mind as I was watching the docs this year. Of some of the entries I've noticed that some are Push docs trying to be Pull docs.
What's a Push doc and what's a Pull doc?
Push docs I define as films that are primarily informational and lacking a strong central argument or question driving the film. They're more expansive in what they cover. What few central figures that are in the film telling personal stories, or being followed, are like the experts. They are there to to tell their stories to be more illustrative, augmenting the docs main points, more than anything else. As implied, Push docs are great spreaders of knowledge.
Pull docs on the other hand rely much more heavily on a central argument or character on their structure. They're much more targeted in what they cover. Structured like a narrative with an over arching plot, we're watching to see what happens next. Unlike a Push doc, pull out the stories, stop following people around, and there's precious little left to create a compelling film. And when there's a strong central argument along with a strong central narrative, a Pull doc almost works like a thriller. And as implied by the use of pull, you're being drawn deeper and deeper into a story or a specific issue.
In the grand scheme, one isn't "better" than the other and each have their weaknesses and strengths. And there are films that combine elements of both. However, if you see the films creating the most excitement and press the last few years, it would be the Pull docs. Exit Through the Gift Shop, Client 9 and Waiting for Superman, all on the Oscar short list this year, would be examples.
If our festival submissions are a good indication, it appears that in a bid to capture some of that magic, filmmakers are adding elements to their Push films, inserting elaborate graphics and transitions, adding catchy music and using narrative like editing, to make their films more Pull like.
If you're creating a Push doc and you're worried about living in a Pull dominated world, I'd advise you to not get so caught up in the hype, worrying that your film won't get seen or written about unless you add some bells and whistles. Participating in a documentary arms race won't be good for your film or subjects. And don't forget the power well done Push docs have in documenting issues and stories will always make them relevant.
If you're a filmmaker submitting to festivals, I can guarantee if you look at the lineup at festivals overall, you'll see that Push docs are still getting a lot of screen time. Yes, there are some festivals you may not get into, but adding a few extraneous elements won't make a huge difference. And if you search beyond festivals, you'll find Push docs playing in some very interesting spaces long after their fest runs have come to an end.