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The current appeal of Documentaries?

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#1 of 89 OFFLINE   Stevan Lay

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Posted June 23 2004 - 05:06 AM

It seems to me that documentaries have become more accessible and prevalent than it was say 5 or 10 years ago. 2003 was a great year for documentaries with Capturing the Friedmans, Spellbound, Bus 174, and The Fog of War amongst the standouts. Now, in 2004 we'll have Fehrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, and The Corporate as the main headliners, in which I'm assuming that those three will - if not already - be profitable in terms of return on investment.

Is this a trend in the genre cycle or has documentary filming become more sophisticated in its approach and technique that has lifted the profile of this genre in recent years?

I guess it helps to have an interesting subject matter or a controversial argument but what other factors has made the documentary genre a success of late?

#2 of 89 OFFLINE   Lew Crippen

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Posted June 23 2004 - 10:07 AM

Bowling for Columbine no doubt helped documentaries in general, but overall, even the successful ones don’t make much at the box office. Super Size Me has managed to become a huge success so far raking in over $7M (US)—contrast this with Fog of War and Spellbound, both very fine documentaries where each only managed about $5M. Errol Morris is for me the very best documentarian active today and all of his films box office totals would not approach Bowling for Columbine (somewhat over $20M). His The Thin Blue Line for example did not even gross $2M. It helps, obviously to make films about big corporations (GM, MacDonald’s) or very well-known, controversial subjects. The Thin Blue Line, about corruption in the Dallas Police Department just does not have enough profile to have been able to draw big numbers, even though it is far more well constructed and innovative than his Fog of War. And his even earlier Gates of Heaven hardly had any audience, despite critical praise. Earlier, excellent documentaries were made by the Maysles Brothers, among others. Much of their work can be obtained on Criterion, if you are not familiar with them. I don’t think that any of the current documentaries you mention (including Fog of War) is as sophisticated (at least in technical terms) as those other works—and perhaps (other than allowing for technical improvements) no more so than Man of Aran, back in the 30s. I do think that they have become much more commercial (not more sophisticated). I would give a lot of credit to Michael Moore for this, as he has figured out how to include humor in his passion and make his high profile subjects both outrageous and entertaining. Others have learned from this.
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#3 of 89 OFFLINE   Rob Gardiner

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Posted June 23 2004 - 10:11 AM

I wonder if cable TV has had any influence. There are entire channels (Discovery, History Channel, etc.) that air nothing but documentaries.

#4 of 89 OFFLINE   Brook K

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Posted June 23 2004 - 05:30 PM

Those documentaries that are able to capitalize on certain controversial and/or commercial subject matter are able to make a profit, similar to fictional films. It also helps that a Moore film, as well as Super Size Me, get marketing pushes on par with that of the average studio release. That isn't something that is accorded to most documentaries which still only play festivals and a week or two at the art house. I agree that 2003 was an outstanding year for documentaries, but I think the best ones still remain underviewed and made little impression at the box office. Films like: Tibet Cry Of The Snow Lion, Stevie, & The Weather Underground
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#5 of 89 OFFLINE   andrew markworthy

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Posted June 23 2004 - 08:12 PM

This issue has been discussed in the Brit media quite a lot over the last couple of years. The argument being made over here is that it's all down to the aftermath of 9/11 coupled with a general rise in depressing news about the planet (increased terrorist threats, global warming et al). Fiction is being seen as increasing peurile, be it TV drama, movies or books, and people are turning to non-fiction to reflect a more sombre mood. Hence the rise (in the UK at least) of sales of history and other non-fiction books at the expense of fiction. I don't think that it's necessarily down to the better quality of recent documentaries, simply that more attention is being paid to them.

#6 of 89 OFFLINE   Andrew 'Ange Hamm' Hamm

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Posted June 24 2004 - 01:15 AM

While I'll concede his influence on the genre's popularity, calling Moore's films "documantaries" is a stretch at best and wishful thinking at worst. Well-documented examples abound of his inventing interviews, falsifying timelines, editing out context, and outright fabrication of material. Moore's films aren't documentaries, they're propaganda, and I certainly hope against hope that he doesn't have a lasting influence on the genre.
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#7 of 89 OFFLINE   Mike Broadman

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Posted June 24 2004 - 02:25 AM

Maybe it's the same attitude that makes "reality TV" so successful. I think there's this feeling of "seen it all" with movies- just look at our own "Dumb Movie Cliches" thread.

#8 of 89 OFFLINE   Lew Crippen

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Posted June 24 2004 - 02:40 AM

This is exactly why he has had and will continue to be an influential documentarian. Without going into politics, I am always very interested in the number of charges leveled against Michael Moore, but that are not also leveled against other documentaries and documentarians—though I’d concede that Super Size Me is getting some of the treatment. Many (perhaps most) documentaries (and I’ve written on this before), including what is generally considered to be the very first, Nanook of the North use many of the same devices that Moore uses. For example Nanook’s family in Robert Flaherty’s film, is in fact not his family, but local Inuits who were paid by Flaherty to make the film. Actors, in other words. In the same film many, perhaps most of the scenes were either staged or recreated. The struggle with the seal was done with an already dead seal attached to Nanook’s line. Many of the scenes of the lifestyle being depicted had already largely disappeared from the Inuit life even before the film was made and some items had to be recreated for the film. If Moore were to do the same things, he would be soundly criticized for not making a documentary. Or take two of the most honored documentarians who have ever made documentaries: Albert and David Maysles. They come probably as close as possible to a style called cinema verité, or a film that depicts exactly what has happened as anyone (or even as possible). But what they did in a film like Salesman was to edit over 90 hours of film into a 90 minute documentary. With this much footage, they and their editor, Charlotte Zwerin, could have chosen to tell a variety of stories and focused on any of several different characters. That they chose to tell a story of a mostly unsuccessful salesman, who fails in his job does not mean that they could not have chosen to make the core of their film one of his colleagues who sold door to door very successfully. That they did not do so was a deliberate choice on how they wanted to present their view of reality. One could say that they had an agenda. And when Moore does the same thing, charges are leveled against him, that he makes ‘propaganda’. Except for some nature documentaries, I have a hard time calling to mind very many documentaries that don’t introduce a point-of-view to the film and are not open to some of the charges brought against Moore. This because if nothing else, the editing process never leaves everything in (or the film would be much longer than 90 minutes), meaning that it can always be rightly claimed that significant details have been omitted. For example, in this forum I read a criticism of For All Mankind, a documentary on the Apollo program and the moon landings that the documentary did not give sufficient attention to Apollo 13 and therefore presented a false picture of the program’s success. And I read another that the editing choice to put together film from several different missions, as though it was one continuous mission was deceptive. Were Moore to have done this he would have been criticized much more vigorously.—no doubt charged with ‘falsifying timelines. In short, I think that Moore is doing exactly what has been done (and is being done) in many, many (perhaps most) documentaries and by most of those making documentaries. That he is doing it on subjects about which many people have firm, emotional opinions, and does so successfully just means that his films are being considered by many people who actually don’t have much of an understanding of the form and set up benchmarks for him, that very few others could meet. Even some nature documentaries are edited in order to present an agenda. For example, Winged Migration, a stunningly beautiful achievement, very most certainly presents a point of view, though nowhere is anything falsified. About the only documentary that comes to my mind, that does not have a point, is Le ciel et la boue/The Sky Above, the Mud Below, about an expedition over the Owen Stanley mountains of New Guinea made back in the late 50s-early 60s. And my guess is that if I knew enough cultural anthropology, I’d probably find that the filmmakers here too, had an agenda.
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#9 of 89 OFFLINE   Lew Crippen

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Posted June 24 2004 - 03:44 AM

Brook, you are one up one me, :b as I have not seen Stevie—in fact, I had to look it up on IMDb in order to make sure that it was not a film about the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Posted Image

And I really thought that only Michael Reuben (and pros like Scott, who see everything) saw more documentaries than I.

But back to one of the points: the more I think about it, I can’t imagine that anyone without a passion of a particular subject would waste their time and effort making a documentary. It sure would not be for the money. You might get lucky, as did Jeffery Blitz who make Spellbound, but no way could anyone predict that a film about a spelling bee would rake in over $5M in box-office alone.

I listened to an interview (NPR) where Blitz said that they financed the movie by maxing out about 18 credit cards and they were just happy to pay them all off. No one, but someone (or group) who had a passion for the subject, would take that kind of risk.

As it happens I think that Spellbound presents a reasonably balanced picture, but I could well believe that it would be pretty easy for one of the participants (or their parents) to claim that they would look better, if only some material had not been edited out. Or in some cases, an entire community might claim that they would look better if additional footage had been included.
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#10 of 89 OFFLINE   Brook K

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Posted June 24 2004 - 03:55 AM

Yes it is Lew. The filmmakers did exactly what they criticize in the film. They captured birds and caged them or hired others to do so. Then released them so they could be filmed. In other sequences, trained birds were used. While Moore's methods are not unique, he attracts criticism because of his high profile, a profile that he cultivates and that is an integral part of the marketing of his films. Other documentarians don't attract the interest of Moore so there films aren't under the spotlight in the same way. My problem isn't with his methods per se, but rather his style or perhaps better stated, his enthusiasm, for going for the joke over making intelligent points. He'd rather embarrass someone on camera to the cheers of an adoring public than really say something. He's far more P.T. Barnum than Upton Sinclair.
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#11 of 89 OFFLINE   Anthony Clifton

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Posted June 24 2004 - 04:16 AM

How many people would want to watch a straight-forward movie about a major US corporation moving jobs out of the country? Maybe lots of pie charts, statistics, a few boring and pointless interviews with the corporation's PR staff.... I'm guessing not many based on the content of the evening news. On the other hand, a documentary about trying to talk to the head of the corporation and personally ask him why the company he runs is doing this and you've got something that people will watch.

Every documentary has spin. Every film is influenced by the personal biases of the filmmaker(s.) It's unavoidable. Turn on one camera, point it at something and film it. Why did you choose that spot for the camera? Why that type of film/video? Why did you light it so low? Were you trying to hide something? Conscious or not, those are all decisions influenced by bias.

#12 of 89 OFFLINE   george kaplan

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Posted June 24 2004 - 04:21 AM

I think there's always been a fine line (if that) between documentaries and propaganda. I'd consider Triumph of the Will a documentary, though it's also certainly propaganda. All such films have a point-of-view, and when that pov goes against one's views, it tends to be labeled as propaganda. I'm pretty sure that if a documentary had to be completely real (i.e., no staging, no misleading sound bites, etc., etc.), that there wouldn't be many documentaries, and if you futher culled out those that could be accused of distorting truth via editing, I don't think there'd be any.
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#13 of 89 OFFLINE   Seth--L



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Posted June 24 2004 - 04:26 AM

Welcome to the history of documentary filmmaking. I don't know where people get these ideas that documentaries are unbiased. Editing makes it impossible for a documentary to be objective since the filmmaker is choosing not to show footage, and meaning can be created from the juxtaposition of footage. Heck, until the ‘60s it was common practice to stage scenes. All documentaries have a thesis. Go ahead and try and find one that doesn’t. When you shove your thesis down people's throat, they tend not to listen, and thus, most documentary makers try to be subtle wit their thesis. Moore though goes for the shoving down your throat approach. As a documentary maker you're not obligated to be fair to all sides. Moore’s style is nothing new (see Jean Rouch). Now a documentary that truly may not be a documentary is Bunuel’s "Land Without Bread."
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#14 of 89 OFFLINE   George See

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Posted June 24 2004 - 04:29 AM

Getting back to the topic a bit I wouldn't say that Documentaries have become more accessible and prevalent than it was say 5 or 10 years ago. I think that maybee Steven it's that your tastes have changed from 5 to 10 years ago and now you are making more of an unconcious effort to seek out Documentaries so they do seem to be more prevelant. Maybee i'm way off here but I think changing tastes acount for your perception of the Documentary market. With the possible exception being Michael Moore, he's definitely on the Map at this point. Bowling for Columbine was the only documentary to play in my local non Art House theaters in the past 10 years.

#15 of 89 OFFLINE   Lew Crippen

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Posted June 24 2004 - 04:53 AM

Well said George.
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#16 of 89 OFFLINE   Lew Crippen

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Posted June 24 2004 - 05:04 AM

And riffing off George, Brook, Seth and Anthony, I did a little research on IMDb. The first instance I found of the Academy having a category for documentaries was (drum roll), 1942. I’ll just list the nominees (* denotes winner) for the first few years:


* Churchill’s Island
Christmas Under Fire
Letter From Home, A
Life of a Throughbred
Norway in Revolt
Soldiers of the Sky
War Clouds in the Pacific


Africa, Prelude to Victory
* Battle of Midway, The
Combat Report
Conquer by the Clock
Crain That Built a Hemisphere, The
Henry Browne, Farmer
High Over the Borders
High Stakes in the East
Inside Fighting China
It''s Everybody's War
* Kokoda Front Line!
Listen to Britain
Little Belgium
Little Isles of Freedom
Mister Gardenia Jones
* Moscow Strikes Back
Mr. Blabbermouth!
New Spirit, The
* Prelude to War
Ship is Born, A
The Price of Victory
Twenty-One Miles
We Refuse to Die
White Eagle
Winning Your Wings

I could go on, but you get the idea. Documentaries or propaganda? I’d say that those who charged the Acadamy with not holding true to the meaning of a documentary when they made their award of a couple of years ago, probably neglected their research. Posted Image Posted Image
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#17 of 89 OFFLINE   Lew Crippen

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Posted June 24 2004 - 05:10 AM

Oops, I forgot to add the unbiased source of these nominated and winning documentaries from the war years: ·US Navy ·US Army Special Services ·Australian News and Information Bureau ·US Army Signal Corps ·Office of War Information ·British Ministry of Information ·Belgian Ministry of Information ·US Army Air Force ·US Merchant Marine ·National Film Board of Canada ·Netherlands Information Bureau And on and on.
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#18 of 89 OFFLINE   Chris_Richard


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Posted June 24 2004 - 05:36 AM

I don't know about in other places but in Dallas we have more art film screens. A couple of years ago we had 1 theater with 3 screens. This week a new theater opened and now we have 4 theaters and 21 screens. This weekend we have 4 doc on 7 screens. With the advent of DV docs are cheaper to make, easier to conceive (I have 3 doc ideas yet not a single fiction film idea) and probably cheaper for distributors to acquire and sell. The public seems more interested in reality. Look at television. It is almost all reality tv, news programs, documentary shows on cable and fiction shows that are more concerned with plot details than character development. Now the American Idol crowd is not rushing out to see Control Room. But the art house crowd seems more likely to take a change on an unknown doc than an unknown fiction film and with good word-of-mouth it will bring new people to the theater. Spellbound and Winged Migration brought entire families to the art house. Lew - I never saw that about For All Mankind. I will now bet that every doc has now been criticized for content. Filmmakers that put themselves in front of the camera open themselves up to criticism. Moore gets more grief because his topics push buttons. Like you said Morgan Spurlock is seeing much of the same. So did Mark Moskowitz but how many people are against a book getting published. Even among the filmmakers there is a bias. Maysles and Morris have a distain for the previously mentioned group who make themselves part of the story if not the story.

#19 of 89 OFFLINE   Jack Briggs

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Posted June 24 2004 - 05:46 AM

For All Mankind was intended as an almagram of all Apollo missions -- an evocation of what it was like to be one of the brave, chosen few to have flown on the most historic flights of all time. Remember, that when this "composite" space mission is enroute to the Moon, Apollo 13's near-disastrous emergency is included (so as to emphasize the inherent danger in what these astronauts volunteered to undertake in the service of "all mankind").

#20 of 89 OFFLINE   Seth--L



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Posted June 24 2004 - 06:04 AM

This all goes back to a paper I'm working on about how genre theory is worthless. Labeling a film as a documentary pigeonholes it, forcing analysis and criticism to be limited to what people perceive as a set of rules that the filmmaker must abide by. Who says that you can’t stage a scene/action/interview? If you the viewer think/expect everything on the screen is 100% unbiased reality just because you’ve been told that the film you’re seeing is a documentary, then that’s your fault for not being critical enough. The difference between commercial narrative films and documentaries is not a matter of truth or reality, but subject matter. Narrative films typically deal with heterosexual relationships, while documentaries seek to inform and make an argument about a person, concept or event.
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