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The Golden Age of Documentaries

The Golden Age of Documentaries

The list of top-grossing films from the past ten years is a little depressing for anyone with more than a passing interest in movies. Sequels galore. Budgets larger than the GNP of most countries. Way too much George Lucas.

Yet while Hollywood does its poorest to cling to dwindling audiences, there is yet cause for celebration among cinephiles. The Golden Age of Documentary is upon us.

Until recently, documentary films suffered negative stereotypes: junior high filmstrips, talking heads, dry subject matter. Relegated to “educational” status, these movies were the Hollywood equivalent of a tenured 9th grade chemistry teacher—intelligent but nerdy, somewhat engaging to a few, but incredibly boring to most of the class.

In the last five years, however, some of the most innovative, captivating, and, yes, entertaining films have been documentaries. Many still do not receive the attention they deserve, but when a movie about penguins in Antarctica grosses more than $80 million and sparks political controversy around the country, something has obviously changed in the documentary world.

What led to this renaissance? Speculation reveals a rich catalog of modern-day classics that represent the best filmmaking of our day.

Bowling For Columbine (2002) and Control Room (2004)

Cultural Trend: Hotbutton Politics

Michael Moore’s manifesto about gun control and international policy may have fallen on deaf ears in eras past, but a tumultuous decade defined by events like the Columbine tragedy, September 11th and the Iraq invasion has forced Americans to pay some attention to politics and government.

Bowling for Columbine represents an interesting twist in documentary. In crafting his film, Moore opted for pathos over objectivity and the language of culture (sarcasm and humor) over the language of academia. These stylistic decisions, though controversial, injected new lifeblood into the old, detached method of documentary filmmaking, transforming the genre from acquired taste to a more attractive flavor. This film arguably made documentaries palatable to the latest generation of influence.

From 9/11 to the Iraq war, Control Room takes viewers inside of the notorious Arab network—the largest of its kind—Al Jazeera. Filmed during the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq, this sobering study in journalistic integrity turns the tables on American news. Watch enough CNN and you’ll always hear all sides of the story … right?

The Corporation (2003) and Super Size Me (2004)

Cultural Trend: The Jon Stewart Effect

“People think that things are going horribly wrong in the world in many ways,” says Joel Bachan, co-writer of The Corporation. “While people are starting to feel afraid and angst-ridden about the realties that they’re facing, the media [is becoming] less and less real in some ways and certainly less and less able to convey any kind of big picture or overall contextual framework for people.”

At our present juncture in the information age, it remains to be seen where future generations will seek their information. As the Fourth Estate competes for this distinction using loudness and flashy graphics, documentaries like The Corporation and Super Size Me (not to mention television’s The Daily Show) choose a more ironic, subtle approach that woos the trust of suspicious, critical thinkers unsatisfied by an hour in Scarborough Country.

As long-format presentations, documentaries provide much more information than a token, three-minute news segment. In today’s sound-byte-enslaved media, The Corporation and Super Size Me have redeemed journalism, proving that in-depth research can still educate and—more importantly—entertain. Even when “research” means eating Big Macs for thirty days straight.

Grizzly Man (2005) and Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Cultural Trend: Handheld Revolution

The directors of Grizzly Man and Capturing the Friedmans used existing home video footage to craft chilling tales of depravity and delusion. Accessible technology has opened up new realms of creativity and democracy in filmmaking. Interestingly enough, the documentaries that exemplify this trend of “real life on tape” depict eerie, disturbing events that will send viewers groping for answers.

Director Werner Herzog edited video footage shot by the grizzly bear-obsessed Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell—confused at best, insane at worst—worships nature and the animals that ultimately destroy him. Herzog refutes this optimism, concluding, “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.”

A similar, stark reality is depicted in Capturing the Friedmans, which chronicles the life of a suburban family. Over the course of a decade or so, the family and the lives of its members are utterly destroyed by secret sin and deep seeded delusion. Again, through video shot by the film’s subjects (the Friedmans themselves), the reality of life without Jesus resounds so vividly, few movies haunt at such a profound and disturbing level.

Murderball (2005) and Born Into Brothels (2004)

Cultural Trend: Global Village

Everyone has a story. And let’s be honest: Some people’s stories are more interesting than others. One of the great things about living in a time and a place where prosperity and freedom allow the pursuit and development of creativity is that more stories come to light.

Documentary filmmaking in an ever-shrinking world means that we have the privilege of witnessing life in Calcutta’s red light district. Such an other-worldy experience elicits three questions far too often ignored in the West: “why not me?” “what would I do?” and “how do I respond?”

Gratefulness, humility and passion (as well as the less pleasant though not unrelated: conviction, angst and depression) also stem from the best film of 2005, Murderball, which tells the story of championship wheelchair rugby players. This movie epitomizes the Golden Age of Documentary. When based on rock-solid storytelling, documentary is a medium that transcends genre. Murderball excels as a white-knuckle action movie, a tear-jerking drama, an astute social commentary and a light-hearted comedy (while at the same time paying homage to documentary filmmaking’s educational roots).

Spellbound (2002), Mad Hot Ballroom (2005) and To Be and To Have (2002)

Timeless Trend: Kids Are Cute

Like Murderball, the documentaries in this category reinvigorate Hollywood conventions that all-too often depend on tired clichés. Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom and To Be and To Have do for cute kid flicks what Murderball does for family dramas. In the process, these gentle yet captivating films reveal what is perhaps the fundamental element of successful documentaries: They show instead of tell.

Teacher Georges Lopez firmly yet kindly coaxes his elementary students out of themselves and into humble respect for one another in To Be and To Have. In Mad Hot Ballroom, fifth grade girls speculate about their futures and how to avoid the mistakes of their parents before them. And in Spellbound, middle school students deal with the stress of growing up in the bittersweet world of capitalist competition.

Very few films that wrestle with themes like socioeconomic disparity, parental authority, education reform and adolescence accomplish the task without resorting to heavy-handed preaching or cardboard stereotypes. While plenty of documentary filmmakers approach their task with a pre-meditated agenda, to their advantage they do so by observing real life. In the process, moments of serendipity are not uncommon; human truth is revealed as life—not a contrived script—unfolds.

While a screenwriter, director, actors, cinematographer and the like may influence a project with their own life experience, good documentaries grow in a more organic environment. In a society inhabited by an inquisitive, camera-toting populace, the fruit of this grassroots effort is more abundant than ever. Enjoy the harvest that is the Golden Age of Documentary.

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