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?