After writing 89 of these doc-focused articles, I’ve grown to appreciate the form even more, and remain dedicated to exploring its many facets, shapes and styles. It’s an exciting time for docs and I consider myself fortunate to have taken part in the critical dialogue surrounding them. Here, for me, are the top takeaways from my time on the documentary film beat.
While Actress is a self-conscious hybrid doc that blurs the line between staginess and spontaneity (pushing it far afield from the direct cinema tradition), Approaching the Elephant is a more traditional observational film that, except for one visual element, straightforwardly represents the reality it encounters. While the former grants us extreme access to its central character’s subjectivity, the latter gives us none.
Today, documentary filmmakers have access to an ever-expanding toolkit of digital gadgets, which fosters further developments of the nonfiction form. While computer-based animation and graphics have become ubiquitous, even to the point of cliché, new technologies can still produce eye-opening results. Fittingly, Particle Fever, a documentary about a groundbreaking new technology, benefits from technological innovations in its overall audio-visual design.
For most people, the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject is best known as the hardest category to predict in Oscar pools. But for documentary filmmakers, it is much more, functioning not only as a crucial career stepping-stone but also as a career-sustaining achievement, allowing veteran directors to stay active, relevant, and present new material. For these reasons, the films nominated for best short doc merit more attention than cursory Oscar-night handicapping.
Two new documentaries, Demonstration and The Uprising, depict revolutionary protests in a significantly different way from those predecessors. They decontextualize conflict, sidelining specific social and/or economic struggles in order to make broader points about the nature of protest in general. Such projects would probably have never been made without the detached perspective and emotional distance that time provides. These are not activist films; they are art films.
With their inherent sense of conflict, intense human drama and potential for grave injustice, trials have frequently made for riveting documentary viewing. Memorable examples include the Paradise Lost trilogy, Capturing the Friedmans, and The Central Park Five. But while CAPTIVATED and Kids for Cash, which opens this week, employ some of the same conventions of the typical court-room documentary, they are also, at their core, about judgments handed down not by juries or judges, but by the culture at large.
There’s something dubious about this kind of beauty. While it is meant to uplift, or at the very least, show a positive side to their experience, it’s also a bit disingenuous, because there’s little that’s actually picturesque about these people’s lives. The more lush the representation, the more the film risks obfuscating their painful realities.
The signs were everywhere in Park City. Though you wouldn’t know it from the snow-topped mountains or masses of privileged white people watching movies, the colonialist-style exploitation of Africa, developing nations and other working people is alive and well, and is the most dominant theme to emerge from this year’s Sundance docs.
There’s nothing like another Sundance Film Festival to give a boost to the nonfiction business. No disrespect to other festivals that showcase documentary films, but there is no bigger or more important marketplace for documentaries than the one that takes place this time of year in Park City, Utah. From 20 Feet From Stardom to Searching for Sugar Man, every year the majority of the year’s most prominent docs were launched at Sundance. How might this year’s festival define the … Read More