01 June 2011
The Documentary's Last Stand
They win awards and critical acclaim – but are in-depth documentaries under threat? Mark Lawson talks to film-makers about risk-taking, total immersion and the cult of celebrity
Is this a good time for factual film-making? It depends on your definitions of fact and film. There are executives and directors who complain that there are too few documentaries on television these days; and yet programmes from Brian Cox's The Wonders of the Universe to My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding have large and enthusiastic audiences. The problem is that what traditionalists mean by documentary (Adam Curtis's new series) is quite different from the star vehicles and "constructed reality" shows (Made in Chelsea, The Only Way is Essex) that are currently popular.
The past decade has also seen a big increase in the number of documentaries made for cinema. The success of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me (2004) began a phenomenon in which a format (the reporter-director) and subject matter (gun control, fast food) that would once have been restricted to television played in multiplexes. Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, Man on Wire and Restrepo, following the military in Afghanistan, co-directed by the late Tim Hetherington, have all been Oscar-nominated (Man on Wire won in 2009).
Does this mean documentary is now on an equal footing with mainstream, "feature" cinema? Or, given its largely indifferent box-office performance, is it simply flourishing in a soon-to-be-closed bolthole – a genre for which TV no longer has the time or money?
This summer, a number of events will focus on this debate. The BFI has just released the first of three volumes of a DVD boxset that will add up to a near-complete retrospective of the work of Molly Dineen, whose influential observational films include Home from the Hill (1987) and The Lie of the Land (2007). In April, Kevin Macdonald, who won an Oscar for his account of the Munich Olympics massacre, One Day in September (1999), gave a BBC-sponsored lecture in which he challenged the view that the current digital free-for-all, in which anyone with a mobile phone and web access can shoot and distribute a film, reduces the need for traditional documentarians.
Dineen's work and Macdonald's thesis are among the subjects to be discussed at next month's International Documentary festival in Sheffield. At last year's festival, the key themes were "access, consent and editorial policy", and these are likely to recur.
Are we on the cusp of a golden age of democratic documentary-making? Macdonald is sceptical. "It's very interesting that, although the technology is out there now for us all to make a film, there aren't more great films," he says.The director's next project, Life in a Day, is based on hundreds of thousands of pieces of volunteer footage, shot around the world on 24 July last year. "There was some wonderful film-making in there," he acknowledges, "but a very tiny percentage. And I think it took a film-maker, a director, like me to find the story in there."
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