Documentary Landscape: Truth-Seekers

“Truth is the property of no individual but the property of all men.” True words spoken by Ralph Waldo Emerson hold up to the feelings driving today’s documentary filmmakers. There is always an aspect of life that is compelling enough to someone to make a documentary about; the truth is out there, it’s just waiting.

While audiences seek truth, the documentary landscape is becoming more varied and tricky as it becomes more popular. The range of films that have been falling under the “documentary” heading is broad, including political pieces, personal stories, and films the authenticity of which one can’t quite be certain. What makes a documentary? What doesn’t? It’s presently something of a catch-all for any film that professes to show the truth or is set up in a truth-like format; a slippery slope, when audiences are accustomed to the misguiding mania of reality television.

The popularity of documentaries is obvious at film festivals around the world — not only as the top billings, but the main talking points, often hitting interesting issues and avenues of life not often glimpsed. The gradual short-form direction the media is taking leaves audiences wanting longer truth-telling stories, and it’s hard to get to see a documentary at the theatre; interested audiences leap at the chance. The reality television mentally clearly hasn’t been too damaging; it expresses to documentary makers, at least, that people are interested in real world stories and slices of life– the more unusual or compelling the better. Through the internet — and all its various avenues of experiencing media — and cable television, audiences are wanting a wider range of content.

Documentary-like formats are becoming part of our TV-and-movie-watching fabric through reality TV and even fictional comedies like The Office and Parks and Recreation seamlessly storytelling through handheld cameras and video confessionals. Long after The Blair Witch Project, movies like Paranormal Activity employ the found footage approach. While such content opens audiences’ minds to documentary formats, does it also make them accustomed to viewing fictions as facts?

There are certainly films out there that tow the line between fiction and fact. Dramatic documentary — or is — Catfish, for example, along with exposé Exit Through the Giftshop and proven hoax I’m Still Here. As art, it may be no one’s place to law down the law on what can be called a documentary and what cannot. “Documentary” is an evolving term, and it’s an art that’s constantly being pioneered.

Among the pioneers — though certainly not the first — was Roger Moore, whose cynical, funny political documentaries were based on uncovering hidden truths (a subjective term, said critics) and accusing the big bads of politics and business. While his style is still popular with truth-seeking audiences, the current trend among docos is more essayistic and creative — and often, they don’t have big, eye-catching advertising behind them or trendy topics, however popular they have the potential to be. There’s an upswing in quality documentaries, not many get actual theatrical releases.

Whether or not documentaries fit in at the theatre isn’t exactly straight-forward. When distributors take on a documentary for a film release, they’re not radiant about filling seats. It’s the DVD sales, with a few exceptions. But things are at work to boost the amount of documentaries seen; while the goal of a documentary is to be seen, in any format, there’s something to be said for the magic and shared experience of a theatre. Cinemas, festivals, and distributors are slowly starting to work together in some instances. Will it be successful? It’s yet to be seen, but there’s hope. Maybe someone will make a documentary about it.

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