My Ode to Documentary Film

From “Nanook of the North”, dir. by Robert Flaherty.

A few days ago, Jim Feeley on Doculink posted the article “Why Documentaries Matter”  from Sunday’s Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2011/mar/20/documentaries-brian-cox-nick-fraser

“It would be more accurate to say”, writes the author Nick Fraser, “that documentaries are among the most valuable, neglected cultural forms of our time. They aren’t all good, to be sure, but the best are unusual, persuasive, seductive. And their success has something to do with the way they are taken for granted, casually watched. Few old things have flourished in the cultural chaos of this century, but docs have steadily consolidated their hold on a small portion of the contemporary consciousness. Film stars want to make or sponsor them. Sometimes, if you squint hard enough, they really do seem like the new rock’n'roll.”

I think that in all realms, our shared need to understand and bear witness to the “real” has informed our cultural vision, as serious documentaries play at first-run film houses, literary memoirs rise on best-seller lists, and reality shows hold sway on tv.

I like particularly Fraser’s line, that the success of the documentary has “something to do with the way they are taken for granted.”

Did you know that before photography was invented in the mid-nineteenth century, visual art was strictly classified into the “high” art of famous battles and staged scenes…the “medium” art of portraiture…the “lower” art of lady-painter still lives, and on down?   At the very bottom were drafts people who documented architecture and nature.  Sound familiar?

In barely a decade after the invention, the content of the real was transformed into a bona fide subject.  Now the artist was free to merely capture his/her impression of a few flowers in a vase or a starry night sky to create high art.

There will probably never be an invention to do for literature and film what photography did for art (and afterall film is based on photography), but the same awareness can apply.  Historians have always known this, that the act of recording history in itself is, by definition, subjective: what facts are emphasized, what others deleted, and how does the shading and nuance of the history or film color the final story?

That is why documentaries are so great…Because they continue to attempt the impossible task of documenting reality.

For some great thoughts on the challenge, see these essays by Toni Morrison, Annie Dillard and others  that can be easily applied to film:

Inventing the Truth: the Art and Craft of Memoir ed. By William Zinsser.

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