Should Documentarians Appear In Their Own Films?

By  · Published on February 6th, 2015


Towards the end of the first episode of Andrew Jarecki’s six-part HBO docu-series, The Jinx, Jarecki himself appears on screen during footage from, weirdly enough, the premiere of another Andrew Jarecki film. The Jinx is the product of Jarecki’s fascination with Robert Durst, the son of a prominent New York City real estate family who has had the bad fortune (well, maybe) of getting implicated in two very different murders. Jarecki’s new HBO series dives into Durst’s life and (possible) crimes head on, though it’s material Jarecki has chronicled before, thanks to the 2010 narrative film All Good Things, which lightly fictionalized the famous story of Durst’s missing first wife, Kathleen.

That’s where The Jinx ends up in its first episode. Although The Jinx slides back and forth between time periods, the first episode opens in the early aughts, when Durst was being pursued for the very weird murder of his apparent neighbor (we say “apparent,” because Durst rented the apartment using a fake name and a fake identity, again, it’s all very weird). By the time that section of the story wraps up, Jarecki himself pops in to, what, educate us on why he’s so compelled by Durst?, which brings us back to the 2010 premiere of All Good Things. Oddly, when Jarecki appears to talk about Durst via red carpet interviews, on-screen text introduces him as the director of All Good Things, not the director of the thing we’re actually watching. It’s all very meta.

As the first episode slips into the second, Jarecki spends still more time on the screen, mainly to provide some context to his eventual contact with Durst. Thanks to recorded phone conversations and some – frankly, pretty off-putting – “spy” footage, we come to understand how and why Durst approached Jarecki to talk about All Good Things, eventually leading to the project that would become The Jinx. Who can blame the guy for wanting to talk to Jarecki, who specifically made All Good Things to be the kind of film that Durst himself could watch? And who wouldn’t want to thank Jarecki for casting none other than Ryan Gosling in the story of their life?

Jarecki interviews Durst during the second episode, and while he doesn’t exactly insert himself into the material, his interviews awkwardly flip between shots of Durst and shots of himself. It looks like an interview pulled from 60 Minutes, not a well-made documentary that utilizes various talking heads to tell a story. Moreover, Durst is unquestionably the project’s most important talking head – this show is about him! – so why he’s routinely cut away from in favor of Jarecki, who is simply asking questions, is still more baffling.

Jarecki’s appearance in the series’ second episode is only distracting – which is unfortunate, as it is this episode that dives into the missing person case of Durst’s first wife, Kathleen, one of New York City’s most notorious unsolved crimes – but it’s also kind of pointless. Jarecki’s initial, first episode appearance is actually enlightening, with the director articulating exactly why he’s compelled by Durst’s story (he’s interested in the idea of “monsters” and he wants to probe their lives to find the human inside). Still, it’s not really necessary, because The Jinx should stand on its own merits and not need to be explained away, essay-style, by its own creator.

Jarecki doesn’t need to be in The Jinx. Most documentarians don’t need to appear in their own material. Until, of course, they do.

Whereas Jarecki’s various, unfocused appearances in The Jinx (or, more appropriately, the first two episodes of The Jinx) add nothing to the material, another recent documentary suffers from the exact opposite problem. The Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary The Wolfpack is the rare doc that would actually benefit from more appearances by its director, Crystal Moselle, who seems to be either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge how much of the film actually has to do with her own involvement in its events.

The Wolfpack was one of my most anticipated films heading into the Sundance. Just get a load of this synopsis:

“Locked away from society in an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Angulo brothers learn about the outside world through the films that they watch. Nicknamed the Wolfpack, the brothers spend their childhood re-enacting their favorite films using elaborate homemade props and costumes. With no friends and living on welfare, they feed their curiosity, creativity, and imagination with film, which allows them to escape from their feelings of isolation and loneliness. Everything changes when one of the brothers escapes, and the power dynamics in the house are transformed. The Wolfpack must learn how to integrate into society without disbanding the brotherhood.

Armed with unprecedented access into the subjects’ world, as well as their vast archive of home movies, director Crystal Moselle crafts a captivating portrait of an extraordinary family and inquires into the true nature of identity and creativity. By fully immersing herself into their world, she allows their remarkable story to naturally unfold without judgment. The Wolfpack resonates with the audience as it portrays people raised on movies.”

Do you have questions? I did, too! But I was so enthralled by this synopsis that I refused to ask colleagues and friends for answers until I could see the film for myself at the festival (scheduling demands kept me from seeing it until Sundance had been going on for nearly a week, and I boxed my ears whenever I was around others who had seen the film). It didn’t matter, because so many of my questions remained unanswered even after seeing the now-award-winning film.

As I wrote in my review of the feature over at The Playlist, “The Wolfpack is a film about access, and though we are admitted into the world of the eponymous Wolfpack, not understanding how we got there robs the film of compelling commentary.” Moselle may have been granted “unprecedented access” to the Angulo family, but the film fails to address how that happened. Moselle perpetually lurks just outside the frame, refusing to share her portion of the story – and refusing to acknowledge how it impacts the narrative she’s trying to tell. This is a film about a family who knowingly shut out the outside world, and while The Wolfpack addresses how the boys themselves start to break out, it never acknowledges how anyone – like Moselle – got inside.

Ultimately, then, we as viewers can’t quite get inside either.

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The Jinx debuts this Sunday on HBO.