By Lucia Hodgson
Reportedly, whilst speaking at the increasingly extolled Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival this year, filmmaker Steve James hailed a ‘golden age of documentary film-making. 2011 has already witnessed an epoch-inducing influx of documentaries with the subjects just as diverse as their creators. The last time the box-office experienced a surge in documentary films was between 2004 and 2006. Films such as Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Super Size Me (2004) all featured a discernable moral tone but this year’s breakout titles, from Senna (2011) to Pina (2011), explore a range of themes which couldn’t be further from the heavy politics of past successes. Morality is still present of course; Countdown to Zero and Project Nim are just two of the more probing projects to hit cinema screens this year but there is no denying that the documentary genre is diversifying.
After a quiet couple of years documentary buzz started to grow again with the release of Catfish (2010) at the end of last year. The imperative tagline ‘Don’t let anyone tell you what it is’ invited a word-of-mouth following and was boosted, not least, by rumours of the rather liberal artistic license at work. With the help of a well-advertised Channel 4 showing, and released amidst the buzz of fellow Facebook film The Social Network (2010), it became the film you had to see to believe. Catfish side-steps heavy-handed preaching, (asides from a vague warning about the murkiness of social networking) and thrills in a way usually only experienced in fiction filmmaking.
Three big names in cinema have since turned their cameras towards the factual, including documentary veterans Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) embodies one of documentary’s prime purposes, that of preservation. Granted access to the impossibly enclosed Chauvet caves in Southern France, he uses the opportunity to experiment with 3D, a form in which he told Sight and Sound reporter Nick James ‘there is not much inspiration to be had’.
Regardless, Herzog brings the art and history of the caves alive in a way which 2D may not have satisfied. Wenders chose a similarly obscure subject matter, in the contemporary Pina Bausch dance troupe. Surely one of the most stunning 3D explorations so far, Wenders made the decision to continue with the documentary despite the death of Bausch during the early days of production. The picture is astonishing and undoubtedly lends weight to the idea that 3D is a tool best reserved for connoisseurs of cinema. Furthermore the two documentaries performed well, making approximately £300k and £230k, respectively.
Kevin MacDonald, another director who has proved his mettle through documentary projects, also utilises modern technology in an innovative way in Life in a Day (2011). MacDonald called for YouTube submissions on one particular day of the year (24th July 2010), collating and editing the material into a mosaic of the world’s day. From a proud Porsche owner one minute to an Afghan photojournalist the next, the user-generated content from 192 countries worldwide certainly advertises the potential for diversity during this documentary boom. Other 2011 releases, Jig (2011), and Fire In Babylon (2011) have demonstrated that even films about unlikely subjects, such as Irish Dancing and Cricket in the 60’s/70’s, are managing to rake in over £100k a piece in this favourable, factual climate.
In light of this Senna seems less of a standalone triumph than a product of a healthy environment. That’s not to detract from the figures; it pole vaulted the £3m mark and was given extended runs by its championing multiplex: Cineworld. It has currently taken more money than Hollywood favourites Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in Larry Crowne (2011) – not necessarily a mystery to anyone who has seen it. Why, though, as revenues are at an all-time low, has documentary film piqued the interest of audiences?
Whilst Hollywood is still largely concerned with belting out magnanimous comic-book adaptations documentaries are moving quickly with the times. UK television has reflected this movement, swiftly producing discussions surrounding the right to die (Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die, 2011) and addressing Islamic extremism within its own borders (My Brother the Islamist, 2011). Such programmes are an encouraging step away from trashy ‘reality’ TV as are shows like the award winning One Born Every Minute (2019) and 24 Hours in A&E (2011). On the whole it’s clear that the UK is moving towards more of a culture of documentary making, with tried and tested television success paving the way for big-screen triumphs.
Experimentation with 3D, YouTube and archive access has proved that the documentary sector is using new technology in a much more proficient and spectacular fashion. Instead of filming in 3D for the sake of 3D let’s not mention any names here) there is a palpable vision behind the camera. This ‘golden age’ of documentary isn’t necessarily defined by a specific theme as were the 2008 Iraq/Afgan war documentaries. Instead, this mini-movement hints at a return to the idea that cinematic escapism need not always be found in robots or pirates, but can be realized, well enough, through the wonderment all around us.