Monday, 28 February 2011

Docma 11: let's make better documentaries and why

Docs are funny things. For a start, there are a lot more of them being made, which is great. But because there’s now a wider audience, the films that do well have a tendency to fall into a very accepted style of narrative and focus on familiar ‘issue’ subjects.

We, as an audience, have started to demand our viewing to have more explanation and resolution. We want our docs to be more like films – content that can be placed neat little boxes of context – rather than a record of a true story.

Perhaps the most obvious example is Michael Moore. You know you’re watching one of his films – there’s a very defined narrative path. We are presented with a problem, we are shown the bad men what did it and then we see Moore confronting them as some infographics fly about.

There are plenty of people who say Moore is not above bending the facts to make his case, but his films embody the direction documentary is heading. Too often if the medium is tackling an issue, the medium becomes a two-hour closed loop misery fest: we franchise our outrage to the filmmaker. We say, ‘good grief that’s terrible, thank goodness someone is confronting them’, rather than questioning whether we’re part of the problem.

When a review pops up in a doc trailer, how many times have you seen a it described as ‘terrifying’?

For me a doc should pose a question, make us think about the wider world and perhaps our place in it. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be a terrible event or injustice. Documentary film should not appear to solve an ‘issue’ in a neatly wrapped Sundance approved package. Otherwise the audience knows what to expect, they arrive with their popcorn and preconceptions. You’ll end up generating apathy about the subject.

And I think we are jaded about issues. Watch a doc about GM/the financial crisis/the environment/the war against terror and we all almost universally come away from the experience with the knowledge this is a bad thing. But there’s no push for us to take action against these misdeeds. It feels too big. Watch Gasland and be freaked when they set their polluted drinking water on fire, but do we really feel we can take action and make a change?

Is it enough to just report an issue and get it into public record? Is this the best way to tackle an issue, or is it just one way?

It’s a question that reminds me of the Insider, the Michael Mann dramatisation of Jeffrey Wigand speaking out against former employers, Brown and Williamson on 60 Minutes. In the film, Wigand accuses Bergman of simply making entertainment for a Sunday night. Bergman reassures Wigand his words will make a difference. But where did Wigand’s story have more impact – on 60 Minutes or in Mann’s film? Is this a fair comparison?

Maybe one way of pulling documentary in the right direction is to bring it down to earth with smaller subjects and take a less sensational and dramatic approach. These routes are still valid – just overused. I think we should draw up a list of subjects to avoid for the next five years – so we’re forced to think a little more creatively about the films we make. Sort of a Docma 11 if you like. Here’s mine:

Enough already of the…

  • Detroit docs – all of them
  • ‘Shot with the troops war’ docs
  • Docs where the filmmaker conducts a stunt to prove a point about how bad something is.
  • Docs where the filmmaker is an integral part of the story
  • Aesthetically enticing surroundings (like rural America), and subjects (gang members/tattoos/tattooists/burlesque/fixiebikes/skateboarders/surfers/snowboarders/bands.
  • Fake docs. I think they have a genre already: film.

Oh, and does everything have to be made with a Canon 5DII with super shallow depth-of-field?

What do you think?

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Monday, 21 February 2011

Monday doc: Nostalgia for Light

Patricio Guzmán’s documentary uses the Atacama desert in Chile to convey the themes of time and history. The humidity-free area has the clearest night sky in the world and attracts astronomers from all over the world. But while they search for the origins of the universe, archaeologists uncover the country's past in the desert.

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Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Street Fighting Man: meet the real Detroit Robocop

We almost lost Detroit*; loads of hipsters turned up with cameras and took photos of ruin porn. But others came, started urban farms, small businesses that sort of thing. All good and besides, this sort of thing always happens in run down areas. You can read more about what these people think of the media’s view of their city here.

And you should because when I heard about the Kickstarter project to erect a statue of Robocop in the city, I wondered how many people in the city pledged. And of course, what the real Detroit Robocop, James “Jack Rabbit” Jackson, thinks about it:

It looks like an amazing film and like the statue proposal, funded (and then some) by Kickstarter. Via the Documentary Blog 


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Monday, 14 February 2011

Monday's doc is set in the wild

<p>National Parks Project - Trailer from Ryan J. Noth on Vimeo.</p>

Found the documentary blog today with this skill trailer on the front page. What a good idea, and the whole thing looks stunning too. And they have a podcast too, one of my favourite mediums ever, because you can ride the Tube, your bike (quietly in the background mind) and cook with them on in the background.

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Sunday, 13 February 2011

Six word story #4

Walk with me across this field

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The Adventure Travel Film Festival

What did you do this Saturday? I helped Rhys unpick the iMovie edit of ATC and rebuild it in Final Cut. God I hate iMovie. I hear it used to be good – almost as good as Final Cut Express is now. And that's precisely the point. Why give away something for free with each Mac when you can up sale later. Now, I do know you can export an XML file, but it doesn't export the slugs (which you have to make), the VO, crops, soundtrack, but more importantly the timecode. So no, no more iMovie. Obviously.

Anyway, there's a lot of sitting around, tea, biscuits, making the characters do rave moves by manipulating arbitrary clips to shuttle back and forth, biscuits, looking at settings, short noises made by perplexed men, biscuits, swapping out drives named after characters in Peter Carey books and biscuits. So alleviate those dead moments when a clip is played over and over again, I've been reading the Adventure Travel Film Festival programme. It's on 3 – 5 June in Appledore Devon. Rhys is giving a seminar on how to do his job and they're showing a whole bunch of interesting stuff.

Cycle South – 1971 is about three guys who jump on their BSAs to drink and shag their way from Colorado to Panama. The clip here is a fan edit of the 90 minute movie, so the action is all out of sync. This edit goes straight for the hippie girl, dope and naked motocross section. So mind how you go, it's not safe for work. Especially if you work for The Man.

You think the Tour de France is hard? Try Ride the Divide. No yellow jerseys here and you 'll be racing 2700 miles of trails and peaks from Canada to Mexico. The divide is the Rockies and at the end each rider will have climbed around 200,000 feet. Many often race alone and without support.

In 1991, Irish filmmaker John T Davis set off with Vietnam vet, Beargrease to make an illegal 2000 mile journey across America. Shot on 16mm we learn about Beargrease's boxcar philosophy and his anger at modern America.

There's also a great sounding film called Headless Valley. It features regular couple Melvin and Ethel Ross journeying by canoe through the remote Canadian Northwest territories to reach the Headless Valley. The documented their journey on 16mm film. I've only seen a screen grab but it looks like the type of thing to be full of soft colours and sun-drenched vistas. I tried finding a clip on YouTube, but 'headless' is not the sort of search request you want to mess with.

Find out more on the Adventure Film Festival site  

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Thursday, 10 February 2011

The External World


Via Rubbishcorp. If you're near Birmingham, it's playing in the Flatpack fest. More info

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Matt Stuart shoots people

"...there should be no post-production like Photoshop or whatever and, just as importantly, no pre-production. In fact, I never make any form of communication with anyone I am photographing before I take a picture. You are looking in at something without being a part of it. That's very important. I try to be as invisible as possible, in fact, but I will explain what I'm doing after the event if people ask me."

All images are from Matt's website

Lovely tone of wit and craft.

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Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Jean Painlevé and Yo La Tengo

Couple of years ago I saw them perform this in London - pretty sweet.

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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Six word story #2

"There done. Oh!" said the tattooist.

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