The qualities by which we judge a documentary successful today aren’t simply artistic ones. We also want a story we can believe in—on more than emotional grounds. If we see staged scenes, for example, we wonder how the real event differed from what we’re seeing. If persons or groups depicted in the film aren’t given voice, we wonder about the filmmaker’s bias. We acknowledge that bringing any story to the screen requires a degree of artifice—that documentaries are art, like other films. But like a well-written magazine feature (for example), they must be delivered with that objective sheen.
The reason my friend had asked me about silent docs was because I’d told him I’d just watched Grass. The film depicts a Bakhtiari tribe’s migratory odyssey from modern-day Turkey to western Iran, in search of pasture land for their livestock. Grass is, by the standards of the decade in which it was filmed, a successful documentary. By today’s standards, not so much.