How Documentaries Tell Stories We Don't Want To Hear The documentary The Swell Season tells a story that seems sad, but isn't really. As a work of fiction, it would be unsatisfying, but as a true story, it challenges assumptions about close relationships that storytellers find hard to break down.

'The Swell Season': How Documentaries Can Tell Stories We Don't Want To Hear

Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard in The Swell Season, which opened the Silverdocs festival Monday night. Silverdocs hide caption

toggle caption

Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard in The Swell Season, which opened the Silverdocs festival Monday night.


Consider the discontented viewer.

We live in this hypothetical person's golden age, when the complaints he used to share with patient friends can now be shared with the entire online world, and they may even make their way to the eyeballs of the creators of the entertainment he's so angry about. Unsatisfying season finale? Terrible third act of a movie? Too much lens flare? Tweet, tweet, tweet!

I'm convinced that we have so many methods of conveying resistance that they feed resistance itself, and while we resist bad performances and continuity errors and tragic hair, what we often resist the most in enjoying works of fiction is being told the wrong story. This person should have ended up with that love interest instead of that one; nothing happened in this episode; that character didn't have a believable motivation for taking that particular action. That's not what should have happened.

As a work of fiction, The Swell Season, the documentary about the band of the same name that opened the Silverdocs film festival in Silver Spring, Md., on Monday night, would have been the wrong story to a lot of people. That's because what happens is, at one level, completely unsatisfying. The sketch goes like this: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova make the practically no-budget movie Once, it becomes an indie hit, they win an Oscar for Best Original Song for the beautiful "Falling Slowly," they give enormously memorable speeches, and they go from playing smallish venues to playing Radio City. And of course, they fall in love.


And it doesn't work out.

The film, from directors Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, doesn't point fingers about any one dramatic reason why it doesn't work out. There are, as there often are, lots of reasons. She's very young — the movie was filmed over a couple of years, but she's roughly 19 when a lot of it is happening, and he's in his mid-thirties and left school at 13 to make music, so they're in wildly different stages of both their lives and their careers. They react to the sudden onslaught of attention from strangers totally differently. And you sense that the same huge, passionate reactions to everything that make him so charismatic also sometimes make her tired.

It's just ... not quite going to work out.

But what's lovely about it — and ultimately very satisfying — is that it's a busted romance, not a busted love story.

Glen explains at one point that breaking up has made them closer, and the film ends with him performing, but more with Marketa watching him perform. Standing in the wings, she has all the giddy joy on her face that you would have watching anyone that you really, really loved doing something that he really, really loves doing. Make no mistake: this is a really beautiful love story. It's just a busted romance. It's sad, but ... it's really not sad.

You can go into this film as determined as you want to find absolutely no parallels between it and Once, because it seems like the most obvious and least interesting reaction you can possibly have, but the parallels are there (despite the fact that before they took on the project, the filmmakers had never even seen Once and knew nothing about Glen's long career in the rock band The Frames). They exist in the fact that pigeonholing what it means for your future to fall in love with someone is pointless in both stories — in the fictional tale, that's because some things never take off romantically at all, and in the documentary, it's because some things do, but then they sputter.

There's a great sequence where Glen and Marketa are looking at one version of the Once movie poster, and he's getting more and more agitated about all the Photoshopping and messing around that's been done, and one of the things that really bugs him is that they're holding hands — which they never do in the movie. While Once feels like a romance, certainly, that bridge is never really crossed. It's a love story with not only no kiss, but no hand-holding. And that's on purpose. Not every life-changing love story is, strictly speaking, a romance, let alone a lasting one.

It's one of the great advantages of an interesting documentary that it can more effectively challenge cliched ideas about how people work, because what happened ... is what happened. They broke up, and they seem relieved to have broken up, even though they really did have — do have — that tremendous bond and all that palpable chemistry and an evident fascination with each other. A strong documentary, because it relieves you of the obligation to think about whether you believe the story you were told is the story you should have been told, lets you pass through that resistance and go straight to thinking about what the story has to say.

If you told this story in fiction, that closing shot of Marketa would feel like a hint. It would feel like a hint that they would inevitably get back together, but here, it doesn't. It's not a moment someone placed there; it's a moment that was found. It's not full of portent. It describes the present, not the future.

Fiction has plenty of sad endings — we don't have any trouble accepting death, tragedy, or bleakness, in and of themselves. But in traditional works of fiction, with love stories, it's very hard to get an audience to accept the detachment of a successful ending (this ended with them staying together) from a happy ending (this ended well for everyone). Documentary has the advantage of being able to present narrative directions that are enormously hard to get people to accept if they believe that direction was someone's creative choice.

The movie isn't perfect — it can be tough to nail down the chronology, and believe it or not, Glen's ever-changing hair and beard are a bit of a problem there. You can always tell when anything at all has been taken out of order, and because this is more a sketch of the relationship than a direct start-to-finish timeline, it takes a while to get used to the fact that you're a bit unmoored from real time.

But of course, it has the enormous advantage of all that music. One of the things that doesn't always come through in Once is that Glen, in addition to being a guy who can sit at a piano and sing "Falling Slowly," is a thrilling, overwhelmingly energetic performer who spent years in a rock band, and there is a performance chronicled in the documentary that comes very close — at least when it's presented in a big theater with big sound — to capturing what that room-rattling intensity is like. At the same time, late in the film, they perform the song "I Have Loved You Wrong" (from their album Strict Joy), which is so intimate that you almost feel like you shouldn't be watching.

With the disclaimer that I was predisposed to like The Swell Season because it's about one of my favorite bands (and, indirectly, one of my favorite movies), it made for an interesting exploration of the kind of story that's easier to tell when nobody has the option of tweeting, "They set up this storybook thing, and then it fizzles for no particular reason even though they obviously still feel really close to each other? FAIL."