There is a boom in documentary film-making. It’s not just because of the availability of cheap technology. It’s connected with a new way of seeking truth.
There is definitely a new energy out there. We are living in a moment when film-makers, and young film-makers in particular, are increasingly turning towards documentary as a way to make sense of the world they live in. They are more alert about, and suspicious of, the mainstream media and eager for a form that talks to them about real events in a real way, even if that form is often rough or even low-key. It’s a very exciting and ground-breaking time for the documentary.
British director Lucy Walker shares the enthusiasm.
I really do think we are living in a golden age of documentary film-making. There is a frustration with traditional media and a hunger for documentaries that have the stamp of integrity. The week it opened, my film [Waste Land] was number one at the box office in terms of what they call ‘per-screen average attendance’. Of all the movies playing in America, a Portuguese-language documentary about the lives of people living on a garbage dump in South America had the highest per-screen average across America. That tells me that people are looking for bigger truths about the way we live now, truths they are not getting from Hollywood or the traditional media.
Walker thinks people are looking for bigger truths. But it may also be that they are looking for smaller truths – as film-maker Adam Curtis explains:
There is a sense that the grand narratives are gone and that people are now living in an age of uncertainty, and documentary increasingly reflects that. Traditionally, documentaries were part of a progressive tradition, a progressive machine. They provoked us or inspired us to do something. I would contend that, when politicians turned into managers, that system did not work any more and even big budget, well-meaning, measured documentaries, like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, leave us perplexed and helpless rather than angry and politically energised. At the other extreme, you have films like Catfish that noodle about with the intimacy of feelings. Here, people know the grammar of feelings, they know how to act on camera and how to emote formally, while real feelings, which are of course messy and complicated, are hidden.
O’Hagan finishes the article by quoting director Kevin MacDonald.
“But documentary is a generous basket that can hold a lot of different things. If you think about it, journalism, letter-writing, memoir, satire – they all qualify as non-fiction, so why can’t the same loose rules apply to documentary?”
To this end, MacDonald is currently working on the first feature-length documentary made entirely of user-generated content shot in a single day and then uploaded on to YouTube. Called Life In A Day, the impressionistic film is currently being edited down by MacDonald from 5,000 hours of footage from 190 countries. It will premiere as a three-hour documentary at next year’s Sundance festival.
“It’s amateur film-making on a grand scale,” says MacDonald. “But, because the participants are often showing such incredibly intimate things that you could not get in a traditional documentary unless you spent months filming, it is also ground-breaking in ways that we did not expect.”
In the end, says MacDonald, it all comes down to great storytelling. “The irony is that, when I make a documentary, I always feel like I am taking all this real material and trying to tell a story almost as if it was a fictional narrative. When I make a fictional film, I do the opposite.”
Documentary, as MacDonald reminds us, is essentially structured reality. “The only real breaking point,” he adds, “is when documentary actually becomes fiction, but more often than not, as many great documentaries testify, real life does often turn out to be a hell of a lot stranger than anything you could make up.”
That is perhaps the reason why its boundaries are currently being stretched – to keep up with the increasing unreality of the real world.
I’m dying to see this Life in a Day. The idea reminds me of what was perhaps the best ‘exhibit’ at the Millennium Dome – a huge collage of photographs of ordinary life in Britain, pieced together to make it look like one single image, hung around the curving walls of one of the main rooms. I haven’t seen any reproductions of it since. Do let me know if you can remember what it was called or whether it still hangs somewhere.