Editorial: Why Documentaries Can and Should Be Considered Cool
by Cate Hahneman
March 4, 2011
I fancy myself a bit of a documentary nerd. When most people hear the term "documentary film" they cringe and immediately think of another word: boring. There was a time when everyone saw documentaries; the films appeared as propaganda reels during the previews of war-era pictures. Audiences initially tolerated this because it was often their only source of news, but that faded with the invention of the home television set and soon thereafter American families could chose when to watch true life documented. After a couple of decades there were enough channels of fictionalized stories that the real stuff could be completely tuned out.
But even today with the inundation of pointless "reality" television we're still convinced that documentaries are not for the masses; they only show up in cramped indie houses where intellectuals donning dark-rimmed glasses and blazers chat and nod and proclaim the film's topic "a travesty." But docs about 1970's politics or African civil war or oil interests abroad or economic decline or the migration of birds are no longer aimed solely at college-bound American yuppies. No, this is the modern world, where documentary films can and should be cool again.
Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock once said: "In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director" but Hitchcock never anticipated that sixty-odd years later a member from the audience would have the chance to direct the films themselves. Today any schmuck with a digital camera can make a film - and I mean that in the best possible way for docs. Unlike star-driven Hollywood blockbusters, shooting docs is a portable breed of moviemaking with a story that is in constant and endless development.
Dig through all those silly YouTube videos and you might find the beginnings of a low-budget documentary, a homemade trailer, even. The internet is ripe with ambitious individuals whose membership to any social media site and knowledge of some basic web design allow them to market their passion project to almost anyone. Neither the digital camera nor access to the web aren't particularly expensive endeavors, right?
Our new 21st century documentary filmmaking has resulted in an exciting and accessible product. The process of developing popular docs was slow to be sure and some would claim began with Brooklyn-born documentarian Ken Burns (pictured right). His PBS docu-miniseries chronicling historical landmarks, national parks, and American history eventually transitioned into tackling lighter topics, like baseball. Burns gradually grew popular with educated folk ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Garrison Keillor to Tom Hanks and Morgan Freeman, all of whom lent their voices to his succeeding projects and thus perpetuated Burns' success.
We can't ignore Michael Moore who burst onto the doc scene with 1989's Roger & Me investigating (with somewhat obnoxious spunk) the impact of massive downsizing at the GM plant in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. His budget on that project: only $160,000, but even as an unknown his picture earned upwards of $6.7 million dollars. All it took was a little bit of a modern attitude. Don't think Moore is cool? Well his last three docs grossed a combined $150 million dollars, all while maintaining his distinctly confrontational tone, a feat that is considered very cool to producers and theater chains alike. As the wheels continued to roll even the previously stuffy and uptight (at least to us Yanks) BBC made a name for itself with their incredible series Planet Earth, which resulted in many-a stocking stuffer and several theatrical features.
So now that we covered the "can" let's talk about the "should." Next year is set to have 27 sequels and countless remakes resulting in the most unoriginal feature film lineup of any theatrical year. This is more than a bummer, it's a waste of our time and hard-earned dough. So why not skip Final Destination 5 and Big Momma's House: Like Father, Like Son and choose a documentary instead? You might not even have to brave a new theater, though you oughta give it a try. Films like Fahrenheit 9/11, An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman earned such impressive takes at the box office that major chains like AMC and Regal now make room for the occasional documentary.
The docs of today are not all politically or historically based, either. This year's popular Oscar nominated Exit Through the Gift Shop is a prime example as it exposes street art and the elusive figure Bansky (though remains ambiguous as to its factuality). Recent documentary topics range from musical or comedic figures (Michael Jackson: This is it, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work), to military corruption (The Tillman Story) to internet sensations (Winnebago Man). Believe it or not there's a seemingly endless collection of fascinating and critically acclaimed documentaries waiting for you to enjoy! Which is why I'm here - to name a few of my favorites for you to choose from.
Don't know where to begin? Think of it as a library, peruse a little and you might just find something that sparks your interest. Let's begin at the top!
According to Netflix there are boatloads of different documentary genres: Military, Indie, Historical, Foreign, Faith & Spirituality, Crime, Political, Sports, Science & Nature, Social & Cultural, Biographical, Mockumentaries and Rockumentaries - so you can check out just about anything.
There are the Oscar Nominees of Recent: Sebastian Junger's Restrepo, Sean Fine & Andrea Nix's War Dance and Louie Psihoyos' The Cove.
The Ones You've Never Heard of: Gary Hustwit's Helvetica and Sam Bozzo's Blue Gold: World Water Wars.
The One's with Catchy Titles: Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story and Bowling for Columbine.
Or the One's Based off Popular Books: Freakonomics (On DVD Now).
And if that doesn't help spark some interest, take a look at some of my all time favorite docs below. These should all provide some worthy documentary viewing when you get a chance:
Mad Hot Ballroom (2005): Ballroom Dance turns several struggling New York City public school classes from reluctant participants into seriously determined competitors.
Born into Brothels (2004): British filmmaker Zana Brinski gives disposable cameras to the children of poor prostitutes in Calcutta's red-light-district and celebrates their distinct points of view in European galleries to earn the young photographers money for education.
Super Size Me (2004): Director Morgan Spurlock challenges recent obesity suits by eating nothing but McDonald's, three times a day, for thirty days, and his health quickly begins to deteriorate.
Waking Sleeping Beauty (2010): A chronicle of Disney Animation's decade-long recovery between 1984 and 1994 which resulted in some of its most famous pieces including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King.
Man on Wire (2008): The story of Philippe Petit a high wire acrobat who walked between the tops of New York's Twin Towers in 1974.
The King of Kong (2007): Long time Donkey Kong champion Billy Mitchell's score is challenged by an unemployed father from the Midwest all while the history of competitive arcade gaming is revealed.
Not on DVD yet but worth finding and watching, if you can!
Do It Again (2010): Amidst a round of massive Newspaper layoffs, Boston Globe reporter Geoff Edgers pursues a quest to reunited one of his favorite bands, the Kinks (official website).
Marwencol (2010): After suffering brain damage during a bar fight, a man builds a 1/6th scale World War II-era model town in his backyard as elaborate and therapeutic stand-ins for his real life (official website).
Those are my selections. I hope you guys take a moment to check out some of these documentaries that you haven't seen yet or start exploring as many of them as you can. As always, we'd love to hear about any docs you've discovered and your own all-time faves to suggest to others. What documentaries do you love?