My favorite documentaries are by filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman and Barbara Kopple, who let the cameras roll as interesting people go about their interesting lives. The resulting films feel emotionally true and, often, satisfyingly ambiguous.
So I'm not thrilled about the recent vogue for polemical documentaries, which instead set out to argue already-settled points. In the hands of skillful showmen like Michael Moore, these films can at least entertain us, even as they manipulate us.
But not every polemical documentary is a Michael Moore film. That's certainly true of Under Our Skin, an unfocused documentary about Lyme disease, the tick-borne illness that director Andy Abrahams Wilson would have us believe is a human-created epidemic that could exterminate us as a species because doctors and insurance companies are conspiring to neglect patients who need long-term antibiotic treatments.
Now all of that may be true. I'm certainly not qualified to evaluate the science. But I can say that despite its assured tone (and its melodramatic music, and its cutesy animations, and its cynical use of children), Under Our Skin raises far more questions than it answers.
Certainly the film reports much that is intriguing and disturbing. Some people suffer crippling chronic pain and other baffling symptoms, and their doctors don't have solutions. A community of patients and researchers - including a guy who does research in his basement, next to the furnace - think the culprit is Lyme disease. But mainstream scientists disagree. The disagreement is aired in dueling interviews, but the exchanges are too quick and too dense to be illuminating to lay audiences.
The film reminds me of the community of people who believe autism is linked to childhood vaccination. Like them, the people in the film are suffering, and they are sad, and they want answers. (See article here.) That's understandable. But when the talk turns to conspiracy, I just don't know what to think.