In “A Marriage Made in Heaven or Hell? Relations Between Documentary Filmmakers and PR Practitioners,” Richard Kilborn traces the history of this relationship, through the Griersonian years and into the era of television. His conclusion: “documentary and public relations remain, at heart, uneasy bedfellows.” While this may be true, in recent years many celebrities have actively embraced documentary as a tool for publicity that can help to alter, reaffirm, and/or validate their publicly performed identities. This paper will explore the porous line between self-revelation and self-promotion in popular documentary by examining two recent films that have capitalized on this trend: You Cannot Kill David Arquette (2020) and Kid 90 (2021).
You Cannot Kill David Arquette documents the Scream actor’s attempts at career redemption as he trains to make it as a professional wrestler, 20 years after he won the World Championship Wrestling belt as part of a publicity stunt for his film Ready to Rumble. Kid 90, directed by Punky Brewster actress Soleil Moon Frye and drawn from a vast archive of her own home movies, traces what life was like for stars like her, who were coming of age in 1990s Hollywood. Both films are self-conscious examinations of the price of fame and the perils of celebrity, offering frank discussions about the toll stardom can often take; however, both also actively work to re-center these faded stars in the public eye. By tracing these films’ engagement with (and active reframing of) their subjects’ star personas, this paper will explore how the contemporary celebrity documentary draws the line between the project of documentary representation – with all of its attendant claims to authenticity and objectivity – and the business of publicity.
Kristen Fuhs is Associate Professor of Media Studies at Woodbury University in Los Angeles. She writes about documentary film, the American criminal justice system, and contemporary celebrity, and her work has appeared in journals such as Cultural Studies, The Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, and the Journal of Sport & Social Issues. She is also the co-founder and editor of Docalogue, as well as the co-editor of the related books I Am Not Your Negro: A Docalogue (2020) and Kedi: A Docalogue (2021).
Although its title may suggest a he said/she said framing of the case, the 2021 HBO documentary Allen v. Farrow, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, is notably committed to destabilizing such an approach. In its four-episode documentary investigation into longstanding accusations that Woody Allen sexually abused his seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, Allen v. Farrow resists a popular true crime tendency of recent years to deliberately foster ambiguity over questions of guilt or innocence (Horeck 2019). Instead, Allen v. Farrow validates Dylan’s testimony of abuse and, in the process, works to reframe a gendered cultural narrative that has for decades ignored her voice and painted her mother Mia Farrow as a scorned woman.
While some critics have taken fault with Allen v. Farrow for what they argue is its “unbalanced” and “biased” approach, this paper explores its significance as part of a wider cultural turn towards re-centering victim testimonies of sexual violence, as seen in other recent #MeToo era documentaries about high-profile sexual abuse cases such as Leaving Neverland (2019) [about Michael Jackson], Surviving R. Kelly (2019) and Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (2020). Where Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman casts Allen v. Farrow’s “activism” as a failure of documentary objectivity (2021), this paper argues for the value of its victim allied stance, which takes stock of the dominant cultural discourses of celebrity and power that enabled the silencing of Dylan and Mia Farrow’s perspectives. What critical role does popular documentary have to play in a broader cultural discussion about victim/survivor testimony, cultural cover-ups, and the logic of “auteur apologism” (Marghitu 2018)? Through an analysis of Allen v. Farrow’s use of the serial format and the complex interplay between its industrial and reception contexts, this paper reflects on the potential for true crime documentary blockbusters to intervene in public conversations about power, privilege and sexual abuse.
Tanya Horeck is an Associate Professor in Film & Media at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK. She writes on true crime documentaries, binge watching, celebrity culture, internet memes, and social media, and is the author of Public Rape: Representing Violation in Fiction and Film and Justice on Demand: True Crime in the Digital Streaming Era. Her current research projects include an AHRC funded study on online sexual risks and gendered harms for young people during Covid-19, and a study on the rise of consent culture and intimacy coordination.
Maria Pramaggiore is Professor of Media Studies at Maynooth University. She has published widely on gender and sexuality in cinema and media. She is the author of three monographs, a co-authored film studies textbook, and co-edited collections on voices in documentary and bisexual theory.