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Review of the Year 2004 – Part 1: The Documentaries
A personal selection, by Slarek

The year in overview

It has, without question, been a great year for the documentary feature, both in the cinema and on DVD. I have a special passion for documentary films, one that stems from my belief in the documentary medium as a vital tool of enlightenment and understanding, and its potential as a powerful political weapon, one that has been recently democratised through the availability of relatively low cost of DV and DV-Cam equipment and affordable but professional level digital editing suites. It's a view that was enhanced by my time teaching documentary theory and practice to students who had, until they encounter the films in class, rarely even looked at the medium and its possibilities in any detail. For them, the recent popularisation of the form, as well as its determination to entertain as much as inform, has made it more accessible: they know the names of the films, they are discussing them with their friends, they are hiring out the DVDs – good lord, some of them are even seeing them at the cinema!

The rise in the use of digital video as a recording medium has been a boon for up-and-coming young documentary makers, but has inevitably prompted complaints from some quarters about below-par image quality when the films are screened in cinemas, but this seems to me to be completely missing the point. Although in our post-modern age many tend to cling to Marshall McLuhan's famous claim that "The medium is the message," in the case of documentary it most definitely is not – here, quite simply, the message is the message, and the means of delivery is ultimately irrelevant. DV camcorders have transformed the documentary medium precisely because they have taken it out of the hands of big corporations and established industry figures and placed it in those of anyone wishing to question the validity or accuracy of the established viewpoint. In an age when western media is increasingly controlled by only a few large conglomerates, this technical revolution could not have been more perfectly timed.

But making your documentary is only half the battle, and despite the considerable work involved, this is sometimes the easy part. The process of transferring the digital video to film remains a hugely expensive one, and for many digital film-makers it can cost far more than the film itself. And even if you get that far, you still need a distributor to get the film into cinemas. Of course, if you can reverse that process and get a distributor interested up front, at least they can pick up the transfer bill.

All this is changing, of course. Increasingly cinemas have both film and video projection facilities, and even a very small production company – Spanner Films in the UK is an excellent example – can put together a DVD package that will rival the quality of any major studio release (more of this later). Reaching a wide audience still generally requires the involvement of a distributor, or a fleet of bicycles, a good deal of energy, and as many co-operative cinema managers as you can find.

For the documentary feature, 2003 was an important year, because of the huge commercial success of just one film: Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. Costing $4 million to make, it earned over $21 million at the box office, a new record for a documentary feature. Suddenly distributors got interested – documentaries can make money! We have to get in on that! Disney, whose fortunes nowadays seem reliant almost solely on Pixar, had the original distribution rights to Moore's next feature, the you-must-have-been-living-on-Mars-if-you-haven't-heard-of-it Fahrenheit 9/11, though their subsidiary company Miramax, but balked when they saw the finished film and refused to distribute it. I still to this day wonder just what they thought they would be getting, given Moore's previous films and books, but then Disneyland is in Florida, and Jeb Bush is the State Governor and...oh well, who knows. I would bet Disney's shareholders were pissed off, though, when the film won top prize at Cannes and went on to be the first documentary ever to earn more that $100 million at the box office.

Fahrenheit 9/11 may have made more money than Bowling, but it was, on the whole, less well received. That it prompted right-wing American commentators to spit blood is hardly surprising – it was always meant to – but that a portion of the British liberal establish also got sniffy about it was unexpected. This reaction was nicely summed up by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, who pointed out that due to his phenomenal success, Moore is simply now seen uncool, playing to the myth that once you get rich you can no longer really take a left-wing political stand on anything. But even its impending arrival was good news for documentary film-makers, as distributors looked to cash in on its inevitable success in some way, even if that be by trading on the increased publicity that the documentary genre in general received.

Whether more documentaries were made as a result is hard to say, but there were certainly more getting high profile releases. Thus in 2004 we saw the arrival on UK cinema screens not just of Fahrenheit 9/11, but also Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, Jeffrey Blitz's Spellbound, Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, Errol Morris's The Fog of War, Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar's The Corporation, Jehane Noujaim's The Control Room, and Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed, and a good deal more, some of which arrived on DVD in feature-rich special editions, given the same status as mainstream fiction fare. All of which is good news, isn't it? Well, yes and no, for while I celebrate this upsurge in availability of contemporary documentary material, I am still bothered by one small thing: all of the above are American films dealing with primarily American issues, told from a largely American viewpoint. Though the issues raised in Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me are ultimately global ones, we are still talking an American president, an American-led war, and an American conglomerate.

Now I'm not knocking any of the above films – though I do believe The Fog of War was a little over-praised – as they are very fine, often hugely entertaining examples of their craft. But where were the documentaries from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, India, South America.... well, anywhere else? Distributors may be excited about the money-making prospects of the documentary medium, but they are still playing it safe – American movies make the biggest bucks, so let's stick with them. To a degree I can understand this with cinema releases, an expensive process at the best of times, but there's little excuse when it comes to DVD. Yet most major distributors appear to require the seal of approval that comes from a TV screening or a cinema release before they'll commit themselves to an even half-hearted DVD of a documentary feature. Thus the entertaining but ultimately shallow Long Way Round, in which actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman go biking around the world, gets a rapid DVD release from Virgin while Spanner Films are still struggling to raise distributor interest in Franny Armstrong's excellent Drowned Out, a film about an Indian issue rather than an American (or even British) one, and one not fronted by an enigmatic and magazine-friendly film or TV personality.

There were five notable exceptions to my sweeping categorisation above: Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void, a British documentary about three English climbers and an extraordinary tale of survival against all odds, Thomas Riedelscheimer's Rivers and Tides, a spellbinding portrait of nature-based artist Andy Goldsworthy, Julio Medem's The Basque Ball: Skin Against Stone, a mind-boggling collection of enlightening interviews about Spain and France's 'Basque issue', José Padilha's Bus 174, a compelling retelling of a bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro, and Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni's The Story of the Weeping Camel, a captivatingly simple ethnological successor to Robert Flaherty's pioneering Nanook of the North. It is worth pointing out that Basque Ball was directed by a film-maker whose fictional features have earned him considerable international acclaim, and that Touching the Void was helmed by the Oscar-winning director of One Day in September and had a genuinely thrilling story and structure to recommend it. I still applaud the films and their release, and the opportunity to see them on a large cinema screen with a responsive audience.

It's a depressing reflection of the attitude of so many to the form, however, that a local video store reported to me that the DVD of Touching the Void was frequently borrowed, but usually returned unwatched with the complaint that the borrower hadn't realised the film was a documentary.

Documentary Choices for 2004

I have selected the following documentaries as my favourites for 2004 and have refused to be constrained by the DVD format in my choices - if it isn't available yet, let's hope in will be in 2005. They are in no particular order, and brief details of why I have chosen them are included, plus links to DVD reviews where appropriate. My preference to see films in the cinema means that I have yet to catch up with a couple of films, including The Corporation, which is thus carried forward to next year for possible selection.

It has to be said that all of the films mentioned above are worthy of inclusion and the time of anyone interested in the documentary medium, but I have decided to limit myself here to the five works that impressed me the most.

Touching the Void (cinema/DVD)
An obvious choice, given my comments above, but Kevin Macdonald's riveting mix of interview and reconstruction managed to be both soberly factual and nail-bitingly exciting at one and the same time. Joe Simpson, Simon Yates and Richard Hawking make for most engaging interviewees, and the reconstructions are done in a disarmingly matter-of-fact way and are never as intrusive as the very word 'reconstruction' makes them sound. The cinema is the place to see this film, to be overwhelmed by the landscape, to share the thrills with a large and appreciative audience, and to more completely appreciate Simpson's Herculean struggle for survival, but the DVD includes an excellent mini-documentary, The Return to Siula Grande, which gets uncomfortably close to Simpson's feelings about revisiting the scene of his near death.

Drowned Out (DVD)
A superb documentary that examines the fate of a group of Indian villagers whose homes are due to be submerged by a huge dam-building project. The film starts as a simple study of a way of life that could be lost to technological progress, but gradually expands its scope to very effectively illustrate the fate that thousands of families are now facing as a consequence and suggest widespread corruption at the highest level of the Indian government. It seems gobsmacking that a film of this quality has not been picked up by a mainstream distributor, or is receiving the press coverage it deserved, but despite this the small-scale Spanner Films have put together their own, excellent DVD package that includes a lively and informative commentary track and a number of fascinating featurettes, including a sobering follow-up story. You can buy the DVD directly from Spanner Films, and if you at at all interested in the genre then I would urge you to do so – you'll not only get a fine DVD package, you'll help support the group in their next venture.

Rivers and Tides
Made in 2000, the same year that Kevin Macdonald won his gong for One Day in September, Thomas Riedelscheimer's intimate portrait of artist Andy Goldsworthy – who creates genuinely astonishing but short-lived works of art exclusively from objects found in nature – finally reached the UK at the end of 2003, but I've included it here because I didn't get to see it until February. A beautifully constructed film that feels completely in tune with Goldsworthy's own approach, recording the painstaking and often surprising construction of a variety of works, engaging us to such a degree with the artist that when two of them threaten to collapse in mid-construction, the entire audience could be seen chewing their nails with tension. Chances are that if you know and admire the work of Andy Goldsworthy then you'll already have sought this film out, or at least tried to – it was not widely shown and as yet there is still no UK DVD release planned. Until recently, the German region 2 disk was the only way to go, but there is now a US region 0 disk available from documentary specialists Docurama, which features a non-anamorphic but otherwise strong 1.66:1 transfer and seven short films featuring other Goldsworthy works.

Jonathan Miller's Brief History of Disbelief (TV - BBC Four)
Jonathan Miller's three-part history of religious disbelief was a low key television milestone, being the first televisual study of atheism, and a prime example of how important the aspects of subject, research and presentation are to great documentary. Miller's approach is not remotely even-handed, and why should it be? After years of documentary material outlining the history of various faiths and their supposed virtues, Miller charged himself with the task of presenting the opposing view, and did so with exemplary detail and gentle passion. Of course, this is as likely to prompt a religious viewer to abandon their faith as Fahrenheit 9/11 is to persuade a hardened Republican to suddenly turn Democrat, but given that this is a subject that has in the past either been ignored or buried (and can still whip up a frightening fury in many countries, the US included), the programme should make for worthwhile viewing for believers and non-believers alike. And for us non-believers, this was a moment to savour, an intelligent, articulate voice of reason in a world that seems to be going increasingly mad. No sign of a DVD release as yet, but I live in hope. Having been screened on the digital channel BBC4, I have every expectation that the series will make it to one of BBC's terrestrial channels (BBC2 is my bet) in 2005, and a DVD release may then be on the cards.

Related articles
Review of the Year 2004, Part 2: The Movies
Review of the Year 2004, Part 3: The DVDs