As we continue to pass through a “Golden Age” of documentary filmmaking, what we’ve come to expect is changing—filmmakers test the boundaries of the form and viewers in turn become acclimated to nuances in its breadth of style and sub-genres. Short Film has been on the bleeding edge of these changes for many years, be it the emancipatory visual promise of animated docs and (what I dub) cinematographic verité, to the revelatory potential for creative editing to instill humor, shorts have served as a laboratory that has changed Documentary for the better (and that is leaving aside the exciting structural storytelling potential coming out of Interactive and VR). From this burst of creativity audience favor has followed, as they have learned that documentaries and artistic merit—to say nothing of sheer entertainment value—are not mutually exclusive. For this, and many other reasons, short form documentary has flourished on the internet, taking up a sizable portion of all watched video.
Yet where does that leave the weighty “issue doc”, the film type that initially established documentary’s pejorative reputation? If the mainstreaming of documentary in the culture has largely put to bed its formerly dry, “eating your vegetables” legacy, this golden age is threatening to reinstate it, as news publishers and general interest sites jump on the bandwagon, massively upping their output. Being an informational format, “issue docs” have been an appealing transition for hard news outlets to recapture mindshare, especially online, during the famous “pivot to video” era of 2015-2018. The problem? Filmmaking rarely is effective on the kind of regulated schedule that newsrooms operate upon, and there exists a gap between what makes for strong journalism and what makes for strong cinema. I’m painting with a broad brush here of course, and I’m on the record as being very complimentary of some of the work digital journalism is doing in fusing documentary techniques with traditional reporting. But the highlights too often feel drowned out by a prevailing cookie-cutter template for these pieces that incorporate select high-brow signifiers but otherwise lack artist voice.
This tension between a fidelity to factual on-the-ground reporting and the sometimes lyrical sensibilities of documentary’s artistic wing is what makes Darlin interesting to me. As a story intertwined with a current hot-button issue (immigrant detention and family separation in the United States) it is squarely in the contemporary camp of hard-news adjacent issue docs, valiantly working to communicate something fundamental about a topic wrenching the fabric of public discourse. Essentially a profile doc of Darlin, a young, 26 year-old Honduran immigrant separated from her partner and young son who remain in confinement, the piece isn’t particularly unusual journalistically for its focus on an individual’s story as opposed to a more wide-ranging perspective, nor does its more subjective and activist bent really raise an eyebrow—what feels interesting is the way Isabel Castro’s film bumps against, and attempts to stretch past, the confines of the genre.
Documentary is simultaneously easy and hard—easy because we are inherently fascinated with people. Put a person in front of a camera, and if they are in the midst of compelling circumstance you’re likely to achieve a high baseline of quality and audience interest. However the leap from “good” to “great” is extraordinarily difficult. It’s one thing to image emotion onscreen, it’s another to produce it. It’s the difference between giving space for a person’s story and storytelling.
Darlin, like much advocacy journalism is interested in provoking emotion, in this case fostering empathy. To do that, it really helps to move past the who, what, and why of a story, to really attempt to solve cinema’s longstanding interiority problem. Castro does that here by leaning into documentary’s artier impulses—poetic b-roll cutaways, rapid montages that mix in establishing shots with extreme closeups, as well as verité-inspired scenes with long takes that are sometimes empty of story “content” but establish mood and the subject’s mental state. In some ways the film is obsessively focused on Darlin, and the particulars of her life, her circumstances, her thoughts and feelings, and yet, through these sequences it avoids myopia—endeavoring to build a larger portrait of a culture and a way of life that provide context.
This is to not argue that Darlin is a masterpiece, it is something of a hybrid, and as such one can argue that the juxtaposition of these two modes diminishes both—as sheer education its occasional lack of clear exposition makes it ineffective in explaining the US immigration system or commenting on it, I was often confused as to what was happening and when. Also its occasional slips back into standard issue doc tactics leads to some mundane sequences in its 15min runtime, which undercuts it as a film of pure poetics. In trying to straddle the two forms, it ends up caught in the middle, occasionally doing neither justice.
I’m not a media critic, and this review to a certain extent has gotten off the rails as I attempt to work through my biased and complicated feelings on the modern state of documentary, but I admire Darlin a lot for provoking these questions and thoughts. The film, which debuted at the 2019 Tribeca film festival before appearing online last month as part of the NyTimes Op/Doc strand of programming, feels like an interesting artifact of the artistic growth of advocacy journalism and ultimately its flaws only serve to make it more interesting for me. The project also serves as my introduction to Concordia Studio, the Laurene Powell-Jobs funded documentary studio founded in conjunction with accomplished feature doc filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, that can hopefully serve as a powerful new institution for the form. Castro spent time at Concordia as an artist-in-residence, and is currently in post-production on a documentary about the criminalization of humanitarian aid in Arizona, and in pre-production on a feature documentary.