It’s the last day of the year, so arguably the best time to make a review of the year’s documentaries. This year’s documentary watching target was twenty documentaries and in the end I made it to eighteen. (I could, perhaps, have squeezed in another today as part of my time-honoured Hogmanay tradition of documentary watching but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.) So near and yet so far! However given that I only watched 34 films in total that I hadn’t previously seen, 18 documentaries was reasonably impressive.
For a change, a decent number of the documentaries – eight of them – were actually from this year, so I’ll be interested, when the awards season nominations roll in at the start of 2018, which of them – if any – show up in the documentary categories. For once, I’ll be able to have an informed opinion.
I didn’t see any ‘classic’ or even just old documentaries this year. All of this year’s documentaries were from the 21st century with the earliest instalment being 2001’s Oscar winning Murder on a Sunday Morning. On which note I saw three Oscar winning documentaries this year – the film that I almost watched today would have made it four, as it was Bowling for Columbine – but I don’t think I’m any closer to figuring out what makes a documentary award-winning than I was two years ago. Over the last few years, I’ve been quite successful in my quest to see more documentaries and while I tend to see documentaries a bit behind the curve, I usually see a fair survey of the previous year’s documentary films each year, and yet looking at the Oscar winning and nominated films for the last three years I’ve only seen two of them – Citizen Four and Last Days in Vietnam, winner and nominee respectively – and while I’ve heard of a few of the rest of them, most of them I never even heard of, let alone saw a review of, much less got a release here. The documentaries that did get a wide release here, or proved popular/influential on a wider stage are almost entirely absent from the listings. Is it purely a sign of the inevitably US-centric nature of the Academy’s voting or simply a matter of taste? For example, I think that Roller Dreams was far and away the best documentary I saw this year, but I’ll be truly amazed if it shows up on any awards nominations lists in the new year. Whereas I suspect that 78/52 will do, as too I suspect will Ex Libris, which I missed, so can only go by the trailer – which was a little Oscar-baity. Perhaps fundamentally, the BAFTAs documentary award is a better metric for my viewing.
If this year’s documentary watching had a theme it was systematic injustice and corruption. It wasn’t intentional, but that seems to have been the theme that emerged, perhaps also the lies that we tell ourselves: about ourselves, about each other and about the world in which we live. Obviously not all of them fitted into the theme – one of the most recent instalments, The Furthest (about the Voyager probes) and Lost in La Mancha and 78/52 really don’t – but overall that would appear to be the thread that wound itself through this year’s documentaries.