Apparently it’s the start of a new year. It sort of sneaked up on me, so I’m a little late with my annual review of the year’s documentary films. I managed to see five feature documentaries this year, an improvement by one on last year, though only four were actually in the cinema. There were a few interesting looking documentaries showing at my local art cinema towards the end of the year, but I missed them due to about a foot and a half of snow falling on us and making getting to and from work in one piece an adventure of epic proportions. Perhaps my new years resolution should be to try and watch a documentary film every month this year, it might be a good way to judge whether there are enough documentaries released in cinemas in the year to manage that. It also might make me finally get round to watching Taxi to the Dark Side, which I bought just after I did this for the first time at the end of 2008.
If this year’s cinematic documentary offerings had a theme it was blurring the lines. There was a great deal of playing with – and down right manipulating in a few cases – audience perceptions, constructed realities and general blurring of the lines between fact and fiction. Even mockumentaries didn’t seem certain about exactly what they were. Most notably I’m Still Here – which regardless of what one thinks about the film itself, shows a remarkable willingness by Joaquin Phoenix to go to extremes for a role – and the still mysterious Catfish which at the time of writing the film-makers are still insisting is a genuine documentary and the media in general are still getting worked up about. Chinese documentary 24 City, mixed oral history contributors with actors, personal memories with stories, in a way that became more or less obvious to the audience depending on how familiar they were with Chinese cinema. It is arguably a good year for documentary experimentation when the most conventional documentaries I saw this year were the two films by Julian Temple that were screened at the Shetland Film Festival back in September.
There seems to be a great deal of moral indignation among film critics around these issues but the alternative view point – that some at least of these film-makers seem to be cognizant of and may actually be the underlying point – is that all documentary is constructed to a great or lesser degree. Making a documentary is always about telling a story, constructing an image of reality, from the choices of interviewees to the quotes used, every decision in the editing room is naturally subjective. Documentary makers, like journalists and historians are subject to bias, they have their own agendas, however much they might like to think they don’t. We all do. Some documentary makers may claim to be seekers after the truth but not all do or are, and either way truth can be a pretty subjective thing itself. The fact that some documentaries have chosen to play with the conventions of documentary, to question or at least to foreground the necessarily constructed nature of the genre can actually be seen as a good thing. Especially if it makes viewers question what they see; we shouldn’t accept unquestioningly what we are told. It speaks to me of a genre/form that is alive and vibrant, changing and developing, questioning itself: a healthy medium. I find that quite a hopeful thought.