Compare and Contrast: Documentaries Old & New

Due to my misreading a headline I saw, I thought that this week was the Sheffield Documentary Festival (one year I will remember when that’s on and actually go to that) and thus was an excellent excuse to write about documentaries, when in fact this week is actually the Shetland Film Festival (which I attended last year and where I saw a couple of excellent documentaries).

Regular readers may recall that when I did my annual review of the previous year’s documentaries back in January, I challenged myself to watch a documentary a month this year. I seem to have been running two behind the target all year, and likewise I’m currently at 7 so far for this year. Though that’s an improvement on last year already. (If you’re interested: Nesvatbov (Matchmaking Mayor), His & Hers, Helvetica, Waste Land, The Great White Silence, Life in a Day and American: The Bill Hicks Story.)  I have already answered the second question I posed in that challenge, whether there were enough feature-length documentaries released in the cinema to manage that. Despite the fact that of the documentaries I’ve watched so far this year, one was on DVD, another was on the iPlayer and another was made in 1924 I can reassure anyone worried that there are definitely enough documentaries being released in cinemas here to manage one a month. Possibly not if you don’t live near a good arts cinema, but if you do then you are, if not exactly spoiled for choice, certainly given a good selection.

At the beginning of last month, I pottered off to the MacBob to see two documentaries in fairly short succession. Despite their being, on the surface, almost as different as you could possibly imagine two documentaries being – having been shot nearly a century apart – seeing them so close together (just over a week apart) made certain similarities really quite noticeable.

The Great White Silence is proper pioneering documentary work. As it was made before the grammar of documentary filmmaking was properly established but still recognisably a documentary to modern eyes. Whereas Life in a Day is arguably an attempt to revitalise/reinvent the genre itself. They have a similar mix of capturing life in action, staged performances for camera and random bits of what are essentially mini nature documentaries. They are both camera operators’ films, telling the story of the world as they see it, showing the audience places they would and probably could never have seen before. Breaking all the ‘rules’ to create something new and interesting.

There is also a certain distance between the director and the footage in both cases. Life in a Day is essentially a crowd-sourced film, with people all over the world contributing their footage of their life on a particular day in July of 2010. The director was absent from all of the shooting and has absolutely no control over what was shot and cannot re-shoot. He’s looking at thousands of hours of footage and trying to pick out themes and stories that will somehow tie all this disparate footage together. While the director and camera operator are one and the same on The Great White Silence he also has to contend with a vast amount of footage taken over the best part of a year in hostile conditions in an evolving style, with no way to go back and re-shoot. And as for distance, well the film wasn’t finished until 1924, over a decade after he’d returned from Antarctica, if that doesn’t count as distance I’m not sure what does.

One particular moment of synchronicity between the two films were two entirely different moments of human tragedy that you know are coming but somehow forget about watching the film. The last third of The Great White Silence covers the expedition to the pole itself and over this entire section hangs the audience’s knowledge that they aren’t going to make it back. No matter how determined they are to get back or how heroic the sacrifices that they make are, we know they aren’t going to make it back. (The film came out 12 years after they died, and I was watching it nearly 100 years after their deaths, it must be rare that anyone sees or saw this film without knowing the outcome) It feels oddly voyeuristic viewing as they battle their already known fate. That horrible creeping foreknowledge struck me in one section of Life in a Day too, watching crowds enter a music festival in Germany, early happy crowd shots giving way to carnage and injury. The moment the camera, held aloft in the crowd, takes in that tunnel you know that this Love Parade and that you are about to witness why it isn’t held any more. There’s something weirdly claustrophobic about both these scenes that combines with this voyeuristic feeling that you shouldn’t be watching this and this conflicting feeling that you owe it to the people on screen not to look away, to bear witness to their fate. As though the camera operators in both cases are trying to make sure you remember what they cannot forget.

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