Three long years ago, Anthony Weiner — then a hard-charging Democratic politician — let two film-makers track his life for several months to create a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Weiner apparently expected that this would produce a political redemption tale. He was running for New York mayor at the time, having previously resigned as a congressman following a sex scandal (he tweeted lewd pictures of himself to several women). And when the film-makers — Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg — started work on Weiner, the man himself was riding high in the New York polls.
Moreover, his wife Huma Abedin, a long-time aide of Hillary Clinton, was supporting his mayoral bid; the film shows her telling reporters: “I made the decision that it was worth staying in this marriage,” while an aide insists: “If Huma can forgive Anthony, why can’t a voter forgive Anthony?”
But the plot did not play out as expected: halfway through filming, it emerged that Weiner had been sexting again — in spite of his earlier repentance — this time to a woman called Sydney Leathers. What started out as a tale of a triumphant comeback turned into a ghastly, mesmerising portrait of how a marriage and political career can collapse. As the camera rolls, we watch Weiner frantically dealing with distraught aides and flocks of reporters, while Abedin stands beside him, stony-faced, her body language screaming with horror.
It is an extraordinary piece of documentary film-making. And it left me buzzing with endless questions: why do so many powerful public figures take such stupid risks? Why do political wives such as Abedin stand by errant men for so long, even amid public humiliation? (Events have now overtaken that particular issue: last week, Abedin announced that she was separating from Weiner, after yet another sexting scandal.) Then there is the question being asked by many: why on earth did Weiner and Abedin permit the film to happen in the first place? (Weiner recently claimed it was because the film-maker was a friend, and he did not expect Abedin to appear.)
Weiner is also testament to the continued power of documentary film-making. A couple of decades ago, it was fashionable for pundits to predict that the documentary industry would decline. Television company budgets were being slashed, and it seemed that serious — costly — journalism would lose out to endless reality shows and Hollywood thrillers.
But that decline has not in fact occurred. On the contrary, documentary film-making is riding high. Next weekend, the Emmy awards ceremony will take place — and there are a host of striking documentaries in contention. One is Cartel Land, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about vigilantes in Mexico’s drugs war. This is almost as compelling to watch as Weiner, and also has a powerfully unexpected (true) plot twist. Other contenders include What Happened, Miss Simone?, a lively portrait of Nina Simone; Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, an account of the country’s 2013 political uprising; and The Hunting Ground, a howl of outrage against campus rape. If you click through Netflix or Apple TV listings, you will find a veritable treasure trove of other recent offerings. My personal favourite is Sherpa, a fly-on-the-wall account of a disaster on Everest; this — like Weiner — is a profoundly revealing piece of journalism-cum-history.
What explains this renaissance? Digitisation has made it easier — and cheaper — than ever before to film and edit documentaries (so much so that Matthew Heineman, maker of Cartel Land, never even felt the need to go to film school). The internet is also offering film-makers new ways to distribute and publicise their work, without having to rely on big studios. The rise of cable TV — including History and the Discovery Channel — has created demand for content. And there are new funding sources: today, a growing number of films are backed by consortiums of wealthy individuals, or crowdfunding platforms.
But I suspect there is another issue too. In our digital age, the idea of fly-on-the-wall content seems increasingly normal. Indeed, for a generation raised on YouTube, Skype and the iPhone, documentary history-cum-journalism may now be a more “natural” way to communicate issues and tell stories than text. Does this help to explain why Weiner, the exhibitionist, agreed to let the cameras in to record his own history? We may never know. But if you do watch Weiner (and I urge you to do so), don’t just mourn the human tragedy or gasp at the political drama. Take note of the revival of documentary as an art form. In the media landscape, it is an unexpected 21st-century plot twist.
Illustration by Shonagh Rae