So this time last year I set myself the task of watching a documentary a month to see how practical that was in terms of documentary release. Well, I successfully watched twelve documentaries last year though not actually one a month, sometimes none one month and two the next. However, what I can say is that there are in fact enough documentaries released in cinemas to see one each month, though due to the nature of the arts cinema that I frequent they’re not always recent releases (they often do themed runs so for example, October/November was all political documentaries). Despite having managed to up my documentary viewing to a level that pleases me I still didn’t see some of this year’s ‘big’ releases. I was quite disappointed to miss Senna, Pina and for that matter Jig when they were on and neither Project Nim nor Bobby Fischer Against the World moved me to want to track them down. (I’m looking forward to seeing Dreams of a Life but that hasn’t reached here yet.) I did see a variety of documentaries which I did feel was equally if not more important in this process. I saw a nature film and two environmental ones, two silent documentaries from the very dawn of the genre, saw Bill Hicks at his worst and his best, a fly on the wall Czech television film about a Slovakian village, an Irish documentary about women talking about men, a year in the life of a newspaper and a day in the life of the world, an intensely political documentary about Guantamo Bay and a film about the history of a font. The variety of documentaries that are being made out there is vast, not all of them are brilliant, many of them aren’t to my taste but they’re getting made and they are, just as importantly, getting screened.
Increasingly documentary makers are appreciating that there is an audience out there who love documentaries, who will see your film and enthuse to their friends about it, and are trying to capitalise on it. Kickstarter (and similar sites) has been gaining popularity over the last few years for getting the audience involved in funding documentaries. Word of mouth isn’t always as effective for documentaries because they tend to have shorter cinema runs, a film might only be shown once or twice anywhere near you and having all too often been one of half a dozen people in a screening I can’t say I blame the cinemas either. Now some filmmakers are going so far as to contact their target audience and say ‘do you and your group want to see this film? Let us know and we’ll arrange a screening in you area.’ Activist documentary Just Do It advertised itself towards student environmental groups and screened at universities all over the place. There are of course pros and cons to this method and a real danger of simply preaching to the choir but at least if you screen initially to lots of receptive audiences you’re more likely to speed up the word of mouth process.
I saw some good documentaries this year, documentaries that covered diverse and interesting subjects. Yet having just watched The Arbor I’m reminded that 2010 was, to my mind, a better year for innovation in documentary. Life in a Day was an interesting concept that raises really interesting ideas about directorial authorship versus the idea of the camera as eyewitness but other than that, almost all the documentaries (You Don’t Want the Truth is a whole separate creature due to using large amounts of security camera footage) were stylistically very safe films. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of interesting, and in a couple of cases important, films but I don’t necessarily feel inspired. It’s a difficult thing because the most important aspect of documentary-making is telling the story. However documentary exists in a very competitive market and documentaries that push the boundaries of the medium attract discussion and thus viewers. Perhaps it’s inevitable, we’ve had a couple of really good years of people pushing the boundaries with documentary and now the medium will coast a bit while the innovators do research or search for new subjects or try to convince people to fund them. Perhaps its just that I’ve seen a lot more documentaries this year so I’ve got a wider pool to look at, to try and tie into an over-arching theme. There were a lot of good documentary feature films out this year and that is a very good thing for both the genre and the industry in general, they just weren’t ground-breaking.