Stranger than Fiction: the power of documentary films

by M. L. Longworth

The other day one of my NYU colleagues posted an essay on his Facebook page from the blog The Millions. The author, an American university creative writing teacher, laments on teaching writing to students who read less and less and watch television (and to a lesser extent, films) more and more. Friends replied to the post, suggesting ways that we can teach non-readers the craft of writing. I’m a firm believer that you don’t teach poetry by using, for example, pop-song lyrics. You use Wordsworth, Larkin, and Dickinson.

But there are times when I do use film–as the medium is such an important 20th century art form–as an aid in the writing class. But I use a genre that most students still associate with high-school science class, and one that they freely admit they would never spend money on. The documentary.

In the first semester the students write a  memoir. For many, it’s the first time they’ve been permitted to use  ‘I’ in a paper. We read memoirs by Adam Gopnik, David Sedaris, Ernest Hemingway, Ariel Levy, etc. We talk about memory, and how difficult it is to write about something that happened even only a few months ago. We forget some details, while others are still looming, in technicolor, in our heads. And then, part way through their drafts, we watch Sarah Polley’s film Stories We Tell. Real life is so much more interesting and bizarre than anything you could make up, and Polley’s story unfolds before you, with all the ups and downs of a classic novel.

You can watch the two-minute trailer here, and then run to your public library and get the film:

Canadian director Sarah Polley at work.

The memoir finished, the students then visit one of Paris’s museums or art galleries and write an essay on any art work of their choice; how it moves them, and why they are so attracted to it. Many have never written, or thought that much, about art. I try to show them how vast the art world is, and how it’s about more than just paintings. For that unit, we watch The Artist is Present, Matthew Akers’ documentary that follows performance artist Marina Abromovic as she prepares for her solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The students are silent at the end, and many are crying. Documentaries like The Artist is Present engage you; they’re an emotional, not cerebral, medium.

Marina Abromovic (in red) sat for over 700 hours in the MoMA, gazing into the eyes of whoever wished to sit in front of her. Towards the end of the exhibition people slept outside of the museum to ensure their spot the following day.


Like Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, part of what Abromovic teaches my students (I hope) is that any successful artist is completely dedicated to their craft: they’re disciplined. And some, like Abromovic, physically pay for it.

Term two’s essays are more researched-based, and we begin by writing about people, once again: the biography. I have time to use a film here, too, and could take the easy way out and show any one of the dozens of biopics that are released every year: The Social Network (on Mark Zucherberg); The King’s Speech (King George VI); Motorcycle Diaries (Che Guevara); or Nowhere Boy (John Lennon). But I want to challenge the students–that’s what you go to university for, right?–and so we watch a documentary, My Architect.

Most architecture critics agree that there are five essential twentieth century architects: Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Louis Kahn. Louis Kahn’s life, like any life, was full of happiness and sorrow, success and failure. His illegitimate son, Nathaniel Kahn, searches for answers in this heart-wrenching documentary. The students are divided after seeing it; some like it, others not. Is the theme of an absent father too difficult? Or are Kahn’s massive concrete buildings too stark for eighteen year old’s to appreciate?

Nathaniel and Louis Kahn, just a few years before the famed architect died, penniless, in Penn Station.

French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lastrade says that, “The real challenge for a documentary filmmaker is to take a story that seems banal and tell it in such a way that it becomes exemplary.” These three films do just that, but perhaps Sarah Polley’s the most. Just and ordinary suburban-Toronto family. How can that be interesting?  But it’s about so much more: memory, family, longing, and fidelity. And like any great story it’s a puzzle, too, and it takes you on a ride.