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I didn’t watch very many documentaries this year. Just five feature length documentaries, all of them very interesting and worth seeing, but only two of them – Side by Side, on the great film vs. digital debate and Fire in the Night on Piper Alpha – was actually released this year. I’ve written previously about the short documentaries I saw at the Glasgow Film festival at the start of the year, so things certainly started well, but trailed off quite quickly. To be honest, I just didn’t know about documentaries that were coming to the cinema, last year there was all sorts of excitement about films like Searching for Sugarman and, well actually all the other examples I was going to give turn out to be from 2011 rather than 2012 which just goes to show how few documentaries have penetrated the white noise of the multiplex. This year, Fire in the Night caught my eye in the press, but was promoted more as a Scottish film – it’s about the Piper Alpha disaster, and while it was a Scottish disaster, I don’t think the appeal is purely to the home audience, I think the subject has wider appeal, especially in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster a couple of years ago. Other than that, well I’m vaguely aware of Blackfish in as much as its caused a fair bit of controversy around Killer Wales and SeaWorld in the states, and of We Steal Secrets though only in the sense of The Fifth Estate being compared unfavourably to it. I seem to remember hearing about an interesting, if strange, sounding film about former members of the Khmer Rouge but needless to say that I’ve seen none of these films, I’ve not even seen them advertised nor listed as being screened anywhere near me.

The documentaries I did see though, they were good. Side by Side is, I won’t lie, a little bit pretentious. It’s a film student/geek film, it’s about digital vs. film and while it is fascinating, it’s a pretty niche interest, even with Keanu Reeves narrating. Though it did spark an awful lot of conversations between my friends about why though we’ve never actually made a film on actual film we still think it would be a tragedy if they stop making film stock. Probably the same reason that as a sound person I’ve only ever worked in digital format – well unless you count dubbing music across double tape decks as a teenager making mix tapes and fake radio shows – but retain an inexplicable protective love of vinyl. Man on Wire is essentially the story of the French high wire walker, Philippe Petit, who is best known for having done a high-wire walk between the towers of the Twin Towers in New York when they still under construction. It looks at why he did it and how he (and his small and dedicated team) pulled it off. Though personally I found the footage of him walking between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris more impressive, the Twin Towers adventure got a bit too James Bond for my taste. Bus 174 is a fascinating and despair-inducing look at endemic poverty and horrific prison conditions in Brazil. Officially its about a young street kid, Sandro do Nascimento, who held up the bus in question, held the passengers hostage and was essentially beaten to death in the back of the police van taking him away afterwards. He’s essentially a metaphor for many of Rio de Janiero’s social ills, but while the film does use him as a way to examine wider issues, it also makes him a human, three-dimensional character, whose life and choices were indelibly shaped by personal tragedy and police brutality, beyond the TV footage of an angry young man with a gun. The film caught my attention on the library shelf this summer because I wanted insight into the summer’s riots in Brazil and my goodness it fulfilled that role. Extranjeras (Foreign Women) is an interesting little Catalonian documentary about the diverse immigrant communities that live in Barcelona. From the older Chinese ladies who have lived in the city for 30 or 40 years and worry about their grandchildren having no interest in learning Chinese to the young girls from Eastern Europe and North Africa cleaning offices, struggling with the language and just trying to make it through the winter. The documentary felt like one of those educational TV dramas that you get in language class at school, informative but distant letting the interviewees speak for themselves, giving insight into the communities they’ve left behind and those they’ve brought with them. It was an interesting alternate/more realistic view of a city that I have a decidedly romantic holidaymaker’s affection for. Fire in the Night is a dramatic, heart-wrenching and even-handed look at the Piper Alpha disaster on its 25th anniversary. It’s one of those news stories that I remember from childhood, the image of the flaming rig seared onto my memory, along with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square protests and the Braer Tanker disaster. It was weird to re-experience it as an adult but of all the documentaries I’ve seen this year – it’s the film I’d recommend most wholeheartedly.

I need to seek out documentaries again. I really enjoyed the challenge I did a couple of years ago where I saw one feature-length documentary a month, the way it made me realise how many excellent documentaries out there if you just looked out for them. It was also quite frustrating to realise how many excellent films would have passed me by if I hadn’t been so focused on looking for them – though that’s more of a film marketing issue. I’m your target audience (I’m regularly one of half a dozen people in a documentary screening at my local art-house cinema) if you’re not reaching me…what are you doing wrong? Time to find out…

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