Ever since the birth of the moving image, we have been obsessed with using cameras to document our ever-changing world. In fact, the very first films were documentaries, such as the Luminère brothers’ 1895 silent film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, a 50 second single take that showed precisely what the title promised.
Of course, documentary filmmaking has enjoyed a few renaissances since that golden age of 12 frames per second and live music accompaniment. IMAX cameras, for instance, were developed for educational films. And yet, this pioneering medium is forgotten when people start writing their ‘best films’ lists. Moreover, many documentaries receive limited theatrical releases, in order to qualify for awards consideration, before being dumped into the mire of syndicated television.
They deserve so much more. Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Shoah, a nine-hour panoramic descent into the atrocities of the Holocaust, is not just one of the greatest films ever made, but a definitive statement on human catastrophe. Perhaps more than any other form, documentaries can arm us with the knowledge to right foul injustices. They can reveal wrongdoing in our institutions, as in Ava DuVenary’s The 13th, a horrifying account of segregation in American prisons, and in the extraordinary case of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, even overturn wrongful convictions.
But that’s not to say we should blindly trust everything we watch. Some documentarians- Frederick Wiseman springs to mind- approach a subject like a rigorous investigative journalist. Their cameras are passive observers, their skilful editing dramatizing the facts only as necessary to hold our attention. Then there are the opinionated columnists, like Michael Moore, who cut their footage to dramatise an agenda. Now, Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is a brilliant film; it won the Palm d’Or, arguably the highest accolade in world cinema. But it’s vital that we appreciate that documentaries do not record the truth; they shape it, too.
To be fair, the line between truth and fact has always been fuzzy in cinema. Directors throughout history have spiked their narratives with documentary technique. For example, the Italian neo-realists would cast non-actors to build realism. However, recent films, such as Sarah Polley’s wrenching 2011 docudrama Stories We Tell, blur fact and fiction to critique the slipperiness of truth itself. Polley’s film, alongside Asif Kapadia’s home movie biography Amy, testify that non-fiction cinema can be as moving and innovative as any mumbled indie or VFX extravaganza.
There is, however, an argument that the documentary’s natural home is the small screen. Like a history book, a documentary on television can be split into multiple volumes, examining each facet of a topic in thrilling, granular detail. Behold the jaw-dropping series of natural history films Sir David Attenborough has devised for the BBC since 1978. Here, the episodic format liberated filmmakers to catalogue every tropical nook and subterranean cranny of our extraordinary, mysterious planet. It remains an unparalleled achievement.
However, of all the documentary genres, the concert film might be the most popular. Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s seminal 1983 film of a Talking Heads concert, is so electrifyingly immersive that you could see it as a forerunner for virtual reality experiences. While some play like million-dollar press kits- sorry, One Direction: This Is Us- a chosen few tune in so deeply into their subjects that it feels like a visual extension of the group’s musical fixations. One such film, is 2011’s Pulp: A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets, a perky experiment that splices arresting performances from the Britpop conquerors’ final UK concert in hometown Sheffield with loving vignettes of ordinary urban life.
Something about its earthy images of children playing footy on a brisk Saturday morning encapsulates what films about real life can do. The greatest storytellers of our time could spend millions of years dreaming up a terrific yarn, crammed with alien invasions and savage breakups, and it could never match those mundane moments of wonder that pass us each and every day.