The Empathetic Stance in Documentary Film: Remembering “The Education of Shelby Knox” (2005)

I see films depicting all sorts of human activity and culture and ritual. I see people engaging in incredibly diverse  practices that they use to try and make sense of a sometimes confusing world.

And, while many good documentary films tell the stories of people who have acted nobly,  sometimes they tell the stories of characters who engage in  sense-making practices or rituals that seem to me to be everything from foolish to frivolous to downright despicable.

My bias, though, (and this is something that sometimes sets me apart from those who seem to dwell permanently in ridicule and cynicism),  is that I always try to watch those practices from the standpoint of empathy, understanding, gentleness, and a serious attempt to see the world as the characters see it.  And I also have a bias toward films that take this perspective.  This is not the kind of empathy that condones actions, but the kind that struggles to see the world as someone else sees it.

I  can think of many examples of films that resist using a sledgehammer and instead depict  characters and their  actions with empathy, even when most people would correctly  find those actions to be  unacceptable. I want to know why people do things, what world they see that makes those actions seem logical.  I don’t mind an occasional film that ridicules the ridiculousness of some people’s actions, but for the most part I favorite insight over ridicule.  In fact I find that filmmakers who strive for insight and empathy often end up with films that more completely and fairly condemn someone’s action than those filmmakers who set out simply to make fun.

Just off the top of my head, one recent example is  Rose Rosenblatt’s and Marion Lipschutz’s marvelous The Education of Shelby Knox.  I love this film because it came to each character with humility, knowing that they each had constraints, responsibilities, and a whole life story that brought them to a given moment.

One fundamentalist minister, in particular, expressed views that could not be farther from my own. Yet because of the filmmaker’s attitude towards their subjects, and because they completely resisted making him look like a jerk, I was left with a real understanding of how this man sees the world and why he sees his fundamentalism as an antidote to forces that scare him. I still disagree with him,  with more vehemence and anger than ever,  but it seems to be a more informed and nuanced disagreement than the queasy feeling I had when Michael Moore ambushed Charles Heston.

Yes, Moore ambushed an impossibly foolish man and made him look — surprise! — impossibly  foolish. Congratulations, Michael.  But I did not find that to be even remotely insightful. I want to know more about the motivations and impulses, the historical and social contexts,  that lead to such foolishness. And I am not saying that I want this in even a slightly didactic way.  Audiences deserve  this insight, and they deserve it in the context of an elegantly crafted and edited film.

You really should check out The Education of Shelby Knox. The forces that this courageous young woman confronts are considerable. Many of those who oppose her effort to disseminate good information about sex in secondary schools seem narrow and even venal. But this is the kind of extraordinary film in which even the actions of the ostensibly venal are presented with incredible insight and context.

That will always trump ridicule any day.

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