“The widespread dispersion of semi-professional and affordable filmmaking equipment has, in essence, created a harsher and more competitive commercial environment.”
Non-fiction film is now more popular than ever. Over the past two decades, domestic and international film markets have swollen, experiencing a massive influx of non-fiction and documentary films into what was once Hollywood’s homestead. More recently, an even greater number have been produced by so-called ‘non-professional’ filmmakers. What seems to have caused this phenomenon is not immediately obvious, since the widespread dispersion of semi-professional and affordable filmmaking equipment has, in essence, created a harsher and more competitive commercial environment.
Additionally, non-fiction and documentary discourse has itself become part of the mainstream aesthetic, a ‘look’ in its own right – another weapon in the arsenal of cinematic style. Blockbusting fiction films such as Cloverfield (2008) employ very deliberate home-video aesthetics to fulfil the modern movie-goer’s demands and to cater for their increasingly gluttonous filmic experience. Style is now a pre-requisite and non-fiction style is just another string in the proverbial bow.
Of course, none of this information should come as a surprise to the ‘modern movie-goer’ (what is that anyway?). Hybridisation of this kind has been happening since the beginning of cinema. When George Méliès built on the realist filmmaking of the Lumière brothers – principally through modern, in-camera special effects – he added to his simple films a sense of fantasy. So why is it that now, more than ever, the discourse of documentary has so brazenly affected the production and consumption of mainstream cinema and why do the movie-going public so crave the generous helpings of non-fiction that are handed to them on a plate? Is it perhaps that documentary films have in some way become more personal? Perhaps, but it would be an injustice to cluster many of the most recent commercial documentary films into some kind of sentimental batholith. Another plausible explanation may point to the market momentum of documentary film, and the ever-growing research budgets that are handed the filmmakers during pre-production. Of-course, with more research ability come the fruits of labour, however, not all documentary films are commissioned, or in fact handed budgets at all.
“Non-fiction and documentary discourse has itself become part of the mainstream aesthetic, a ‘look’ in its own right – another weapon in the arsenal of cinematic style.”
During the late 1980′s, documentaries such as Roger and Me (1989) and The Thin Blue Line (1988) proved that engaging stories told from the American panhandle could ostensibly succeed in captivating commercial audiences, despite their fundamental lack of Hollywood bravado. In fact, while these films set out to tell their stories through documents, witnesses and oral testimony, what had changed was not a noticeable lack of style, but in fact its abundance. Both of these films display invigorating narrative techniques and more visual aesthetics than commercial audiences had seen before in the world of the documentary film – once a medium for information, now a medium for manipulation. John Grierson famously called documentary film the ‘creative treatment of actuality.’ It seems to me that Grierson’s remarks are today more pertinent than ever.
Since then, independent filmmakers have adopted and adapted the so-called conventions of documentary filmmaking for projects that now resemble hybrid beasts. Shaky, handheld camera techniques and awkward confessional interviews vis-à-vis This Is Spinal Tap (1984) are now everywhere. Recently it seems that almost anyone is able to cross-over into documentaries, whether they’re already based in the creative industries, such as Banksy and his hugely popular ‘film-within-a-film’ – Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010); or simply savvy about filming intensely personal subjects, in the case of Tarnation (2003).
In fact, even actors are now making films (this is no revelation). While in the past they have tended to step into the directors chair at the helm of their own star-driven fiction films (George Clooney’s intolerable Leatherheads (2008)), actors are now looking at the medium of film with an air of mischief. Take Casey Affleck’s provocative film about his best friend Joaquin Phoenix. I’m Still Here (2010) presents itself as a film that documents the descent of Phoenix and his decline in mental health. In reality, the film simply documents a hoax, lending itself to the lie that Phoenix was serious about quitting acting and pursuing a rap career. At best, the film serves as a mildly interesting vehicle for Phoenix’s supremely grandiose acting talent.
“Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the highest grossing independently released documentary of 2011, according to the Los Angeles Times, making $3.7m worldwide thus far.”
While Affleck’s film focuses on media spin, the iconoclastic German filmmaker Werner Herzog has recently completed documentaries on the Chauvet cave in southern France (Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)) and a Texan correctional facility (Into the Abyss (2011)). The former is in fact the highest grossing independently released documentary of 2011, according to the Los Angeles Times, making $3.7m worldwide thus far. The latter is also expected to do well at the box office with widespread distribution secured and vital film festival slots already booked, such as Toronto and London. This may, of course, be a product of the director’s inimitable reputation, solidified after the enormous success of Grizzly Man (2005), however, both films seem to be part of the recent wave of mainstream non-fiction which is taking the world by storm.
It is with eager anticipation that we should welcome this recent wave of documentary film, despite a seeming market saturation with ‘touching,’ ‘heartfelt’ and ‘true’ stories which come across as infinitely likeable, whilst remaining strikingly similar. This is no bad thing when you consider the lasting effects of the classical Hollywood style – a niche that took many thousands of movies to carve.