Film critic and journalist Eric Hynes visited the Murray Center in October to discuss the extensive parallels he sees between the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and current trends in cinematic documentary film. Hynes used Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine as a jumping off point for his exploration of these parallels, discussing the film with Greene, and reading excerpts from a piece he wrote in Film Comment about it. Hynes pushed back against the idea some filmmakers espouse that the genre of “creative nonfiction,” as it has come to be known, cannot be considered to be journalism. Hynes argued those filmmakers are defining journalism too narrowly. Pointing to how there is little debate as to whether other areas of nonfiction such as autobiography and arts criticism are journalism, Hynes said, “We somehow feel that that needs to be said in documentary; that some things are journalism and some things aren’t.” The genre of New Journalism, specifically in the experiential work of writers like Joan Didion, Grover Lewis and Gay Talese, could serve as a way to bypass the typical conceptualization of journalism, Hynes has argued.
In order to explore this argument further, Hynes spent time on set during production of Kate Plays Christine, taking notes to write about the film, but also helping to move equipment and even briefly appearing in one reenactment scene as a cameraman. Hynes explained to the audience of Murray Center students that it was his interest in approaching a subjective experience – helping Greene, his friend, make a film – as a journalist that drove him to participate in the process. New Journalism posits that a work of nonfiction can be more compelling if it is lived. It takes some of the methodology of traditional journalism and applies it to the personal. Perspective is examined with diligence, and its subjective nature coaxes emotional investment out of its audience. Here, Hynes argued, New Journalism has a lot in common with documentary. In the Murray Center talk, he cited the Ross Brothers’ Western as an example, calling it “one of the most responsible works of journalism I’ve ever seen.” Greene immediately fixated on the idea of methodology, saying that one of the most exhilarating experiences in making Kate Plays Christine was “doing good journalism” by exhaustively searching out authoritative sources on an obscure story.
The question of whether documentaries are or are not journalism is often a semantic one, and the importance answering it arose during Hynes and Greene’s discussion. The way audiences conceptualize documentary can shape how they receive it, whether they fixate on things that seem to be transgressions, or whether they take in the work as a whole. In this respect, the framing of what a documentary is can be vital to how it is understood. Hynes said his personal understanding of the documentary genre has grown considerably over the years, pointing to the film Billy the Kid as an example. Hynes worked on the film’s promotion and remembered at the time having serious qualms about some of the decisions the director made in the film, which he perceived as problematic from a traditionally journalistic standpoint. But over time, Hynes said, he came to understand the film completely differently, and said he now considers it a seminal and important film.
Ultimately, debating the nature of documentaries, as journalism or not, is something that must take place on a case-by-case basis. It is a debate that takes place ever year during the Based on a True Story conference the University of Missouri hosts in the lead up to the True/False Film Fest. That conference, in which Eric Hynes has participated, brings together filmmakers, journalists and critics to discuss the dynamic tension between documentaries and journalism, and the areas where they overlap. But for a program with the words “documentary journalism,” in the title, the question of whether documentaries are journalism seems one that will stay with the Murray Center for years to come.