Amanda Bluglass and Danny Cooke
United Kingdom, 2011
In Ray: A Life Underwater, the filmmakers stumbled upon a fascinating subject. They found a man consumed by diving and collecting the things he found. And for the most part, they let him tell his story. It is the short of documentary that would praised by saying that the filmmakers, "did not put themselves into the story."
Many people complain about documentary filmmakers who insert themselves into their movies. The primary targets of these complaints are Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. And while a documentary like Ray does not feature any of the filmmakers on screen like the films of these directors, does that make it any less driven by them.
Film is a medium controlled by those off-screen, in the case of a documentary, the director and editors. We have no idea how Ray would choose to talk about his life, or what in the interviews or footage collected of him got cut out. We are presented with a narrative that is only slightly less dominated by the filmmaker than a fictional product.
Look at the way this film chooses to spend so much time without Ray speaking, simply showing us the equipment he uses or the places he visits with no sound but music. Who is speaking to us in these shots? Why are they there? They exist to create a mood or atmosphere that does not seem to actually be in line with Ray's statements.
I think that documentary is a worthy enterprise and can reveal interesting and important things. But I do not think that any documentary can be separated from its maker. I do not think that we can praise them or criticize them based on how much presence they have in the story. I think we need to acknowledge that all documentaries are dominated by directors.