Apparently this is the time of year to make ‘best of’ lists and review the previous year’s cinematic output for bloggers everywhere. Probably true, however nothing puts me off reading an article than that sort of claim so instead I’m going to write about the health of documentaries this year. As has been previously noted by others, a lot of the documentaries that premiered at the Sheffield Doc/Fest found their way onto television screens over the autumn. Which is commendable, people can be as puritanical about it as they like, but really what’s the point in making a documentary if its only ever seen by one festival audience? Documentaries on television, and also on radio, are fairly safe I believe. It is, after all, the easy way to fill the public service broadcast remit and there is, for example, a certain section of the audience who will watch Dispatches and Cutting Edge regardless of the topic. Guaranteed audience is not to be sniffed at.
The problem with trying to see documentaries in the cinema is that even those on general release are rarely shown for long enough to pick up the necessary word of mouth audience, meaning that by the time you hear about a film, its not showing anywhere nearby. With film festivals the problem is only exacerbated, a wide selection of interesting films may be shown that otherwise would never get seen, and that’s irrefutably great, but half the time there will be only one showing. Many films can benefit from a second watching, especially for anyone who wants to write about them, and often that second viewing makes a good opportunity to drag someone else along for a second opinion. Never mind that writing about a film feels a bit pointless when there is little to no chance of the audience being able to see the film even if they want to. The Africa in Motion festival seems to have the right idea with its touring idea, touring only a few weeks after the festival while the reviews of the films are still fresh in people’s minds and far enough away for the audience to book time off work/a babysitter. Speaking of that festival three out of the five films that my local arthouse cinema got as part of the tour were documentaries, I only saw two of them both excellent films; one well attended and the other appallingly under-attended.
I’m really pleased that this year’s ‘little-film-to-tout-for-Oscars-glory’ is Waltz with Bashir, it looks and sounds fascinating, but I’d be even more pleased if, given that it only came out at the beginning of the month in a flurry of publicity, it was actually showing anywhere that I could go see it! Time and the City on the other hand seems to be turning up all over the shop; nearly always at times when I can’t go… Yet I know there were a lot more documentaries released this year, I read about them in newspapers and heard them reviewed on the radio, but never saw them in the cinema listings. The first I’d even heard of Taxi to the Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure was in the Radio 4 Film Program‘s review of the year.
I must admit to having something of a soft spot for short films, perhaps because it’s a medium that I’ve worked in and am therefore familiar with. The combining of a feature film with an accompanying short is always one that I’ve enjoyed and which isn’t employed often enough these days – I don’t doubt that part of my fondness for Pixar’s output has to do with wonderful little showcase shorts that before all their features. The second short film I made as a student was a documentary for the RSA and since then I’ve always had a fondness for documentaries in their short-form. So it is with considerable pleasure that I can recommend some documentaries that anyone reading this can go and watch. The Shooting Party was a one of Channel 4’s new talent schemes, and though a program about it ran throughout April it somewhat passed me by. My loss certainly as these films definitely deserve to be watched on a full-sized screen. It’s always good to see female directors making interesting films, so my first recommendations are by the three female contributors.
Maddie Kitchen’s film, The Human Whisperer, explores the director’s relationship with her horse, and with depression, which both she and her horse suffered through at the same time. The film deals sensitively with the issues of isolation and companionship, and her search for understanding of her horse’s feelings, provides a metaphor for her battle to understand her own.
Nikki Fox’s film Follow Me is a lighthearted look at the bright side of being disabled. Blurring the lines between fantasy and reality; it makes a pleasant change from the downbeat films that are the norm when able-bodied film-makers make films about the experiences of disabled people.
Zoe Cartwright’s film 126.96.36.199 is a fascinating look at the director’s experience of tinnitus. There’s some fabulous usage of sound design in the film, as it attempts to recreate the aural landscape in which the director lives; which is by turn fascinating and unnerving to the viewer. There’s something wonderfully poetic about the way in which the film demonstrates the condition.