In the past couple of years documentaries have risen from obscurity to become one of the hottest film genres. Some of the reasons why were evident in the films competing for the International Film Critics (FIPRESCI) award at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.
No accounting for the popular and commercial success of non-fiction could exclude Michael Moore or his imitators. That school of first person, muckraking, investigative filmmaking was represented at Sydney by American filmmaker Marc Levin’s Protocols of Zion, which is what a Michael Moore film might look like if Moore decided to let his dad tag along while he was making it. Spurred by the renewed interest and credence in the long discredited, fake handbook of Jewish world domination among Arab, African-American and other communities, Levin and his father decided to track down the origins of the document and its history, and in the process confronting some of the most virulent anti-Semitic organizations and individuals around. For once, though, Moore’s trademark bullying and sarcasm might have been appropriate as Levin’s genial, liberal reasonableness gets a bit lost in the cesspool of hate and irrationality he uncovers.
Another formula of recent documentary success has been the Spellbound-style story of an obscure but intense competition, usually participated in by youngsters. The films usually build up slowly by introducing key participants, invariably representative of some distinct social or economic class, then counting down with intensifying suspense to the final showdown. American filmmakers Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s Murderball is a classic example of the format. The title is the original name for quadriplegic rugby, a sport in which players encased in armored wheelchairs carom and collide in a violent sport that combines elements of basketball, bumper cars and Ben Hur . The filmmakers delve into the back-stories of the participants, all from different backgrounds but united by unbelievable courage and persistence in the face of the worst life can offer. For the most part the tale is told without editorial comment or voice-over narrative. Nonetheless the “USA! USA!” chanting seems closer to the film’s own point-of-view when the Murderball athletes visit a military hospital to teach their skills to those maimed in Iraq – suggesting, perhaps, that the exuberance demonstrated by the handicapped in this sport is enough to compensate for the vast human cost of a dubious war.
A similar rosiness mars the Festival’s Urban Cinephile Audience award, American director Marilyn Agrelo’s Mad Hot Ballroom. I suspect no one will leave a screening of this documentary about a ballroom dancing contest among New York City schoolchildren without feeling uplifted. The problem is that the euphoria overshadows the many social problems faced by pre-pubescent kids in a tough urban environment – poverty, drugs, abuse, sex, crime, gangs, bullying – which the film barely mentions.
As such, however, the film makes a fascinating complement to British filmmaker Daniel Gordon’s A State of Mind. At the height of North Korea’s “Axis of Evil” notoriety, Gordon was given permission to follow two teenagers from Pyongyang aspiring to participate in the city’s “Mass Games.” Gordon claims to have received no official interference in recording whatever he wished, and if so his portrait of North Korean society is not without its appeal, especially when compared to the American alternative shown in Mad Hot Ballroom. On the one hand, the two North Korean girls and their families seem completely indoctrinated into their country’s ideology and submerged into the idolatry of leader Kim Jong Il. They have few ambitions and little identity beyond serving the common good. On the other hand, they don’t have to put up with Burger King ads, celebrity news or the religious right. Nor do drugs, violence or teen pregnancy seem to pose much of a problem – though one of the creepiest elements of this creepy, fascinating movie is the sexual ardour that the girls put into their routines in order to please their beloved Kim Jong Il (he never showed up for their performances).
One aspect of the documentary that has been a mainstay even before the genre’s recent renaissance has been the presence of an inquisitive, quirky filmmaker who will take the viewer into the depths of an esoteric area for a surprising revelation or who will combine seemingly disparate topics into an unexpected, epiphanic synthesis. Errol Morris is the master of this style, and his influence can be seen in German and American filmmakers Frauke Sandig and Eric Black’s brilliant, haunting Frozen Angels, an exploration of the world of alternative reproduction in Southern California whose structure combines unexpected sources, not unlike the machinations of genomes themselves.
Another master is Werner Herzog, present here himself with his The White Diamond, a rather lightweight effort that follows with the usual Herzogian profundities the attempts of an English inventor to devise an airship capable of exploring the tops of the Guyanan rain forest. A subject more characteristic of the Herzog of old is explored in Austrian filmmaker Huber Sauper’s Darwin’s Nightmare, winner of the International Film Critics’ Award. As one of the film’s infrequent title cards inform us, Lake Victoria may well have been the place where the human race started. Now, so the film suggests, it may be the place where its end can be foreseen. As devastating as are the truths Sauper uncovers in his harrowing, challenging but utterly fascinating investigation is his method. Both he and the audience must be rigorous and alert in spotting and pursuing clues, and uncompromising in following them to the darkest of discoveries.
That hunger for truth might be the main reason why documentaries have enjoyed such a resurgence among the public. Audiences at the Sydney Festival flocked to screenings of such brilliant, revelatory and entertaining films as American filmmaker Ellen Perry’s darkly hilarious but deeply disturbing The Fall of Fujimori, British filmmakers Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi’s hard-hitting and uplifting Sisters in Law (an excellent corrective to the bleakness of Darwin’s Nightmare) and American filmmaker Alex Gibney’s infuriating Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Tired of propaganda, advertising, fluff and lies, audiences think it’s high time to get real.