produced, it still does mean we're getting many "great" ones.
I think this article is excellent in terms of discussing this growth of production.
A link to the original article follows:
Camera, laptop, action: the new golden age of documentary
From Kevin MacDonald's examination of the YouTube phenomenon to a cab ride with Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard, cheap technology is allowing film-makers to stretch the form as never before
In the past week, the festival has screened 120 new documentaries – including shorts as well as feature-length films – from 26 countries. As well as fly-on-the wall documentaries about well-known figures, such as the American comedian Joan Rivers and the English playwright Alan Bennett, there were music documentaries about subjects as diverse as Elgar and Heaven 17, and biographical documentaries about the beat poet William Burroughs, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and a taxi driver who once worked as Osama Bin Laden's bodyguard.
This year, the festival also focused on low-budget films about everyday life and politics in the Middle East, made as Currimbhoy puts it "by people who really needed to tell their stories and can suddenly afford to do it on film". He seems genuinely excited, even by the films that have arrived on his desk unsolicited and not made it on to the festival programme.
"There is definitely a new energy out there. We are living in a moment when film-makers, and young film-makers in particular, are increasingly turning towards documentary as a way to make sense of the world they live in. They are more alert about, and suspicious of, the mainstream media and eager for a form that talks to them about real events in a real way, even if that form is often rough or even low-key. It's a very exciting and ground-breaking time for the documentary."
This view is echoed by the young British director Lucy Walker, whose latest film, Waste Land, opened to rave reviews across America two weeks ago (the film is out here in March). It tracks the artist Vik Muniz as he travels from Brooklyn to his native Brazil to undertake an unlikely creative collaboration with the "catadores" – garbage pickers – who scavenge a living on the world's biggest garbage dump in Rio. It is a film, says Walker, about "the transformative power of art" and one that utilises the grammar of fictional film-making to tell a real-life story that is as uplifting and redemptive as any fictional feelgood movie.
"I really do think we are living in a golden age of documentary film-making," says Walker, over the phone from Los Angeles, where she is currently on a frantic promotional schedule. "There is a frustration with traditional media and a hunger for documentaries that have the stamp of integrity. The week it opened, my film was number one at the box office in terms of what they call 'per-screen average attendance'. Of all the movies playing in America, a Portuguese-language documentary about the lives of people living on a garbage dump in South America had the highest per-screen average across America. That tells me that people are looking for bigger truths about the way we live now, truths they are not getting from Hollywood or the traditional media."
To a degree, this has always been the case, but today, with the coming of affordable high-end digital camera and laptop technology, it is possible to prep, shoot and edit your own film in a fraction of the time – and the budget – it would take to make a traditional film. In many ways, cheap technology has energised film-making for a fast-forward generation who have little time for the slowness of traditional script-based film-making. "I've been in development hell for four years for a fiction film that never got made," says Walker, bullishly. "I don't have that kind of time to waste. I want to get on and make films that I think need to be made."
The availability of cheap digital cameras and software has also meant that, for every campaigning film like Walker's more hard-hitting nuclear weapons documentary, Countdown to Zero (released in March next year), or Charles Ferguson's Inside Job, a riveting, clear-headed exposé of the ruthless financial tsars behind the 2008 global financial meltdown (due next February), there are a host of smaller, stranger documentaries being made, many of which seem to push the boundaries of the form almost to breaking point.
In Exit Though the Gift Shop, released earlier this year, Banksy, the world's most famous street artist and arch art-prankster of our time, plays havoc with notions of authorial "reliability" and takes the audience on an entertainingly self-referential rollercoaster ride that says more about the baroque pointlessness of contemporary youth culture than it perhaps intended.
One of the most ground-breaking documentaries of the year, though, is also one of the most complex, formally and emotionally. The Arbor (released last month) is a film about the short and brutal life of dramatist Andrea Dunbar (writer of the 1986 film, Rita, Sue and Bob Too), who died from alcoholism at the age of 29. Director Clio Barnard restages short extracts from Dunbar's work using actors on the estate in Bradford where Dunbar grew up. The director also uses actors to lip-synch to recorded testimony from Dunbar's friends, family and grownup children. This has proved problematic as well as distracting to some reviewers although, as the Guardian's film critic, Peter Bradshaw, noted, the end result is a kind of "hyper-real intensification of the pain in Dunbar's work and in her life". All human life, it seems, can now be reassembled, and sometimes even creatively reinvented, by contemporary documentary directors.
Many recent documentary films also denote a generational shift in both style and subject matter away from the political and outward-looking, towards the emotional and solipsistic. One could argue that Catfish (out here next month), currently the most talked about documentary of the year in the US, is one such film. It is a documentary for – and about – the Facebook generation and it was made possible, says co-director Henry Joost, "by technology that is available to anyone. You can now buy a consumer-level digital camera for $400 [£246] or less that shoots in HD [high definition] and that still looks pretty good when blown up on a cinema screen. This really is an anyone-can-do-it moment for film-making."
Catfish chronicles the odd relationship between a young, hip and handsome New York photographer, Nev Schulman, and Abby, an eight-year-old who initially sends him an unsolicited painting of one of his published photographs. She lives, she says, in rural Michigan with her mother and her sister, a horse-riding, guitar-playing beauty who flirts with Nev shamelessly via phone texts and email. It all seems too good to be true and it is, though in ways that are surprising and, at times, affecting.
Made in a seamless vérité style by Nev's brother, Ariel Schulman, and his friend, Joost, two young men who seem to chronicle every waking hour of their lives on camera, Catfish is essentially a film about narcissism and self-delusion in the social networking age. There is a sting in this particular tale – and one that would be giving too much away to talk about here. Depending on where you are coming from, however, this unlikely twist is either redemptive or exploitative. You may come away, as I did, feeling both charmed and manipulated, wondering if real life could ever be as unreal as this. Are we seeing a film that unfolded alongside the events it portrays, or a retouched version of the same. And, more pertinently, how retouched?
"It really was an unbelievable perfect storm of circumstances and events that led to this film being made," insists Joost. "We're a little compulsive, systematic. We are all making home movies all the time. It's kind of like fishing. Then, suddenly, we found a story right under our noses. Our friend, who's sitting right in our office, was the story. We just followed it to see where it led. I really do feel that my life as a film-maker – all the dumb jobs, the commercial work, the videos – all led up to this moment."
Catfish may indeed herald an age when the quotidian can become prime subject matter for documentarists – this has already happened with photography. With one or two exceptions, everyone in the film seems to live lives that are so mediated by the grammar of reality television and docudrama that they behave as if they are somehow both utterly knowing and wilfully naive. Like Banksy's film, Catfish may ultimately say more about the emotional shallowness of the culture it betrays than its makers intended.
"There is a sense that the grand narratives are gone and that people are now living in an age of uncertainty, and documentary increasingly reflects that," says the film-maker, Adam Curtis, who has made two ground-breaking documentary series for the BBC: The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares, each of which illustrated in their different ways how ideologies of power work on the collective imagination. "Traditionally, documentaries were part of a progressive tradition, a progressive machine. They provoked us or inspired us to do something. I would contend that, when politicians turned into managers, that system did not work any more and even big budget, well-meaning, measured documentaries, like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, leave us perplexed and helpless rather than angry and politically energised. At the other extreme, you have films like Catfish that noodle about with the intimacy of feelings. Here, people know the grammar of feelings, they know how to act on camera and how to emote formally, while real feelings, which are of course messy and complicated, are hidden."
Back in 1935, the pioneering British documentary film-maker, Paul Rotha, declared: "Above all, documentary must reflect the problems and realities of the present." Rotha was a socially conscious director who believed, like many of his contemporaries, that the role of the documentary film-maker was to help change the world for the better. One wonders what he would have made of The Arbor, Catfish, or Exit Through the Gift Shop, all of which undoubtedly "reflect the problems and realities of the present", but in ways that Rotha could not have envisaged. In doing so, they don't set out to change the world but rather to question the nature or reality, truth and, indeed, documentary itself.
"The form is certainly being stretched more than ever," says the director Kevin MacDonald, who has made feature films (The Last King of Scotland), documentaries (One Day in September) and merged the two (Touching the Void). "But documentary is a generous basket that can hold a lot of different things. If you think about it, journalism, letter-writing, memoir, satire – they all qualify as non-fiction, so why can't the same loose rules apply to documentary?"
To this end, MacDonald is currently working on the first feature-length documentary made entirely of user-generated content shot in a single day and then uploaded on to YouTube. Called Life In A Day, the impressionistic film is currently being edited down by MacDonald from 5,000 hours of footage from 190 countries. It will premiere as a three-hour documentary at next year's Sundance festival. "It's amateur film-making on a grand scale," says MacDonald. "But, because the participants are often showing such incredibly intimate things that you could not get in a traditional documentary unless you spent months filming, it is also ground-breaking in ways that we did not expect."
In the end, says MacDonald, it all comes down to great storytelling. "The irony is that, when I make a documentary, I always feel like I am taking all this real material and trying to tell a story almost as if it was a fictional narrative. When I make a fictional film, I do the opposite."
Documentary, as MacDonald reminds us, is essentially structured reality. "The only real breaking point," he adds, "is when documentary actually becomes fiction, but more often than not, as many great documentaries testify, real life does often turn out to be a hell of a lot stranger than anything you could make up."
That is perhaps the reason why its boundaries are currently being stretched – to keep up with the increasing unreality of the real world.