Friday, November 10, 2006

Discussion of Documentary

I've seen two documentaries in the last week: Wordplay and Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. I generally don't see much documentary on the big screen, unless I've run out of other films to see. In these cases I had free tickets, so couldn't refuse.

For me, the big screen works as a supreme medium for losing oneself for two hours on some journey, fantasy or experience. Documentary usually involves learning about a subject, and for this the TV will often suffice. There are two notable exceptions that spring to mind:

  1. Nature, architecture or others where cinematography is prominent, e.g. Microcosmos and Winged Migration (aka Travelling Birds)
  2. Documentaries that are emotionally engaging (as it is said, the truth is often stranger than fiction) , e.g. Capturing the Friedmans.

Many cinema commentators have noted a renaissance in the documentary genre in recent years, particularly since the success of Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine. I've been ruminating about the reasons for that.

It is my perception that Hollywood has been neglecting the adult market and focusing heavily on the teenage market, for over a decade. So much so that there has been a real vacuum in adult cinema. (This has lead to a boom for independent cinemas.) At the same time, documentaries are being produced in increasingly entertaining ways.

Perhaps it’s a case of emulating Moore’s success – injecting personality, humour, use of celebrity heads, mocking others and opinionation, among other novel populist devices. This trend could be considered an effective means to justify the end - a ‘sugar-coated pill’ - and there may be some validity to this strategy. Some recent examples of this include The Yes Men, Super Size Me and Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 (all of which I enjoyed, by the way).

This is a distinct departure from the more traditional model of focusing on being authoritative, balanced, impartial, incisive, analytical, revealing and explorative. Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (to be released next week) is this type of documentary. Errol Morris’ excellent Fog of War also fits into this category and is the best documentary that I can recall.

A distinct difference between the two Moore films mentioned is that Bowling For Columbine appeared less partial. Despite his tendency to mock some of his subjects, particularly Charlton Heston (a little in the vein of David Letterman), the film was a genuine exploration of the cause of violence in America.

Perhaps success went to Moore’s head because in Fahrenheit 911, he adopted more of the chutzpah or cockiness he was known for in his The Awful Truth TV series (which screened on SBS), or the earlier film Roger & Me. In Fahrenheit 911, he made no attempt to disguise his contempt for the US leadership and openly aimed at toppling the president at the following election. The film has since been widely criticised for inaccuracy and manipulation of facts, even though much of its content may be valid.

Another form of populist documentary that is appearing increasingly is the ‘competition’ style, like Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom and the just released Wordplay. Each of these films follows an almost identical formula: follow some key players that are going to compete in a competition. Interview some talking heads – sprinkle in some celebrities if possible. And culminate in the drama of the actual competition.

The popularity of this genre may be attributed to the reasons discussed above, i.e. the vacuum of adult cinema. I think the popularity of reality television may also be a factor. The formulae of each are very similar, though the ‘competition’ documentary is closer to actual reality than its television cousin. While each of the ‘competition’ documentaries may be interesting on their own, the repetitiveness of the formula becomes tiresome, unoriginal and uninspirational – much like the Hollywood model that has turned away mature audiences. There’s a risk that too much recurrence will backfire on audience interest.

There’s definitely a place for the more entertainment-oriented documentaries, though I think too much subjectivity and populist devices can undermine the importance of their content. For me, there really is no comparison with really well-made, well-researched, authoritative documentaries of the more traditional kind. Think The Corporation, Fog of War, My Architect, Metallica – Some Kind of Monster, Noam Chomsky’s Power and Terror and the soon-to-be-released Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. It seems that documentaries of this calibre are released about once a year.

If quality documentaries interest you, next week’s release of Metal may be a good opportunity to get your annual dose. I highly recommend it.


delon melville said...

Power Trip,

a documentary on the Georgian (USSR satelite) power industry is probably the most entertaining doco I have seen. MIFF '03?

Most of the doco's that get a release here probably are pioneering doxploitation. Fog of War and a few others exceptions.

See the Q&A with Morris @Nova?

delon melville said...

actually, "Black Sun" was brilliant, just coming off 2 weeks @Nova. Might have been @MIFF I assume.

The Hepzibah doco was disappointing.

Paul Martin said...

Delon, I generally don't go out of my way to see documentary. But I do get a lot of free tickets, so then I go. I go to the cinema to get lost in a story for two hours. I prefer documentary on TV.

Having said that, I did see Fog of War when I was in the US a couple of years ago. So no, didn't see it here (though I think it came out here about 9 months after I saw it).

I'm not sure what you mean by pioneering doxploitation. BTW, there's a boxed set of Errol Morris DVDs that was released recently, though when I enquired no-one had it in stock. Morris is one helluva film-maker.

As far as MIFF, this year was the first time I'd seen more than 2 or 3 films. I bought a mini-pass (10 films + 3 business hours bonus), and I specifically selected films that weren't docos. I maintain a film calendar, and I generally give a preference to non-doco films when I have a choice. But I'd go to see anything by Werner Herzog or Errol Morris. Even Michael Moore, though I respect others' criticisms of him.

Paul Martin said...

I missed both Black Sun and Hepzibah at Nova, for reasons just posted. I had other films I preferred to see. We are, of course, coming into silly season. There'll be a shortage of good films to see, and that's when docos make their way up the list for me.

Paul Martin said...

Girish has written an interesting article on The Six Kinds of Documentary.

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