With unprecedented critical and commercial success, documentaries are cinema’s newest fairy tale success story, fact giving fiction a run for its money. And that’s the truth.
Story: Leigh Singer
AUDIO: Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine Oscar acceptance speech:
“Whoa. I'd like to thank the Academy for this. I’ve invited my fellow documentary nominees on the stage with us…”
FOOTAGE Michael Moore at Oscar Podium
“…they're here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction. We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times…We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. Shame on you Mr. Bush, shame on you…”
FREEZE FRAME: Michael Moore holding his Oscar
MIX INTO: Newspaper headlines of his Oscar speech:
MUSIC: Carmina Burana (aka ‘Old Spice’ theme)
AUDIO: The deep, velvety tones of VOICEOVER MAN:
“In a world where fiction was king a forgotten genre just started shooting back…”
Wild West showdown between two camera-slingers ‘Fact’ and ‘Fiction’. ‘Fact’ shoots first, blows fiction’s camera away.
INTERVIEW: Michael Moore, director Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine.
“Since Bowling for Columbine non-fiction films in America have received tremendous reaction and support. Theatre owners are now showing them in regular theatres I’m really happy about that.”
FOOTAGE: Sundance 2004 opening for the first time with documentary on California surf scene, Riding Giants.
INTERVIEW: Jeff Gilmore, Sundance Film Festival Director:
"We have more documentaries in this festival than ever before."
the French classroom from Etre et Avoir;
birds in flight from Winged Migration;
family camcorder meltdown from Capturing the Friedmans;
military analysis from The Fog of War;
death row drama from Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer;
mountain survival from Touching the Void;
Brazilian bus hostages of Bus 174;
the Spelling Bee competition of Spellbound.
Various Top 10 lists for 2003 Newsweek, Time, New York Times - all citing one or more of these films.
L.A Times critic Kenneth Turan’s list: ‘Documentaries’ at No.1.
Oscar nominees Best Feature Documentary:
2002 Bowling for Columbine, Winged Migration, Spellbound
2003 The Fog of War, Capturing the Friedmans
INTERVIEW: Jeff Blitz, director Spellbound:
“Audiences really participate. They shout at the screen, cheer, laugh and cry. It’s incredibly rewarding to see your film generate that kind of response.”
CAPTION: Feature films using documentary style
The real Harvey Pekar in American Splendor
Non-actor refugees in In This World
‘Mockumentary’ A Mighty Wind
INTERVIEW: Mark Urman, Head of Distribution, ThinkFilm
"Spellbound is, by a wide margin, the most profitable film we have released."
GRAPHICS Box Office Statistics:
Capturing the Friedmans - $3 million U.S gross
Spellbound - $5.6 million U.S gross
Winged Migration - $10.7 million U.S gross
Etre et Avoir - $13.5 million French gross
Bowling for Columbine - $21 million U.S gross
By comparison, throughout the 1990’s only two documentaries made over $3 million…
CLIPS and TITLES:
inner city basketball teens in Hoop Dreams;
veteran Cuban musicians in Buena Vista Social Club.
CAPTION: July 2003: three documentaries in the US box-office top-grossing 25 movies for the first time ever
SHOT: Variety magazine box-office chart.
VOICEOVER MAN: “
…suddenly, they had it all.”
SOUND F/X: Needle ripped off record…Silence.
CLIP: Fred Willard in A Mighty Wind:
Michael Moore’s Oscar acceptance speech for Bowling for Columbine did more than earn a witticism from host Steve Martin. The resulting publicity confirmed the documentary as the film form of the new century. Columbine’s been followed by the rapturously received Touching the Void, Spellbound and Capturing the Friedmans, films all the more unusual for their box-office success, especially when compared to the meager success of documentary during the Nineties, when only two of the genre Hoop Dreams and Buena Vista Social Club earned over $3 million. Stranger than fiction? Perhaps not.
‘People have started using flashy cinematography, special effects, music, animation, actors, found footage, whatever,’ enthuses Kevin Macdonald, Oscar-winning director of One Day in September and Touching the Void, ‘and that’s what’s liberating about documentary, you can use any of these things in it. The sky’s the limit.’
As comeback stories go, it’s irresistible. The ‘bastard stepchild’ of documentary, as Michael Moore describes it, turned prodigal son. Caught between last year’s spate of dire, barrel-scraping sequels and insultingly simplistic news reporting on highly complex global matters, people began to look for an alternative. As Andrew Jarecki, helmer of the Oscar-nominated Capturing the Friedmans puts it, ‘I think people are hungry for those more complex human stories. When you watch the TV news you start to get a headache ‘cos it doesn’t engage you. I think people want to learn more about themselves from what they see.’
Which of course is how it all started. In 1895 when the Lumiere Brothers screened footage for the world’s first cinema audiences, simple shots of workers leaving their factory or a train pulling into a station thrilled viewers unused to seeing the moving world reproduced on a screen. By 1903 around 75% of early ‘films’ were still so-called ‘actualities’. Only when editing techniques were refined did fiction - staged comedic pratfalls or heightened suspense through cross-cutting - take over. And once Pathe created newsreels it seemed as if actuality had found, or rather been jammed into, its niche.
In the 1920’s and 30’s both the Soviets and the Nazis found non-fiction a powerful propaganda tool the aesthetic vs. political value of Leni Riefenstahl’s Aryan Nation celebration Triumph of the Will is still hotly debated but Britain’s John Grierson is commonly credited with coining the phrase “documentary”, defined as ‘the creative use of actuality’. It’s a definition so vague as to be almost pointless, but what it did promote was the idea of social value, civic duty - and the excitement of watching someone hang out the washing.
Kevin Macdonald tries to be diplomatic: ‘A lot of documentaries can be just illustrated lectures. You’re asking a lot for people to sit there in the dark for 90 minutes and pay seven quid. You need to tell a good story and entertain.’ Moore, on the other hand, doesn’t bother. ‘They were boring films,’ he sniffs. ‘It felt like Castor Oil, like it’s medicine.’
When the new technology (lighter, more portable camera kit) arrived, many schools of thought emerged Direct Cinema, Free Cinema, cinema verite with one goal: to free up the documentary. Errol Morris, long regarded as one of the genre’s mavericks, director of The Thin Blue Line the real-life crime thriller that actually got its protagonist off a murder charge and this year’s The Fog of War pinpointed the problem. ‘We think about documentary being one thing as opposed to another and, in fact, it includes so many different kinds of filmmaking, from narrated slide shows to diary films to verite to whatever it is that I do.’
Perhaps that’s both documentary’s strength and drawback. Incorporating everything from fly-on-the-wall domestic dramas to filmed concerts to biographies to undercover investigations is too broad a field to ‘brand’ in marketing terms. A lack of recognisable ‘stars’ or artists also keeps the profile down, though Nick Broomfield’s regular co-starring roles in his own films and latterly Moore’s blustering on-camera presence are rare exceptions. In addition, despite the best efforts of Morris and others, resistance to change within the conservative documentary community continued to stymie greater outside acceptance.
Kevin Macdonald, an avowed Morris fan, risked opposition for choosing to shoot Touching the Void as if it were the Hollywood thriller that the story had almost become several times. ‘We told it in a way like a fiction film using real people and real material and called it a documentary thriller, which some people disliked intensely,’ he recounts. ‘It was a sort of experiment to see how far we could push that.’ Happily it’s just propelled him to a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film of the Year, fact or fiction.
Filmmakers like Morris and latterly Macdonald have been quietly revolutionising documentaries for several years, so it’s ironic that an unforeseen outside force has very likely re-energised the genre’s profile and yet could also still simultaneously strangle it at birth. ‘Reality TV’ has been the defining small-screen obsession of the new millennium, the original Big Brother and Pop Idol formats replicating and mutating like a rampant virus. While these manufactured situations are anathema to what many doc filmmakers are about, perhaps the massive popularity of ‘normal’ people and ‘real’ stories on TV has filtered into cinema too.
Andrew Jarecki gives the notion short shrift. ‘There’s this feeling that’s there’s not much reality in Reality TV,’ he says. ‘When you see people on Survivor eating rats or whatever, you always know that if you turn the camera round 180 degrees there’s a big catering truck there with a bunch of muffins on it.’
There’s also the sense that these programmes with their safe formats and lab rat studies are pushing genuinely innovative documentary out of its natural home. ‘I guess so-called Reality TV has really taken over but hope that producers retain their belief in the documentary film,’ adds Nick Broomfield. ‘It’s much harder to make, lasts much longer and is more satisfying to the filmmaker and should be encouraged.’
Michael Moore hardly needs any encouragement. After Bowling for Columbine he’s promised to go Gunning For Washington in presidential election year with his Bush-bashing expose Fahrenheit 911. ‘That’s the temperature at which truth burns,’ he deadpans. ‘It’s a comedy and a tragedy.’ Big Brother 4 may come and go but if Moore and others keep an eye on the big truths and lies - the flames of the documentary resurgence should keep on burning.
Capturing the Friedmans is out April 9th; The Fog of War April 2nd
and Bus 174 April 23rd; The Special Edition DVD of Spellbound is available to buy March 29th.
IF YOU WILL, MOCKUMENTARIES…
Woody Allen’s nebbish chameleon flits through history blending in with Hitler, the Pope and various US presidents.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Heavy metal ‘rockumentary’, first and still the best from Christopher Guest and co. On a 1-10 scale, still goes up to 11.
Bob Roberts (1992)
BBC doc reveals Tim Robbins’ right-wing politician as corrupt sociopath. Imagine that.
Man Bites Dog (1992)
Benoit, Portrait of a Belgian Serial Killer. Dangerous for postmen and camera crews alike.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
What do you mean ‘mockumentary’? It all happened, right? Those poor kids…
'© Highbury Entertainment 2004. No material may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.'
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