“The cool kids are making docs.”
When I attended film school, back in the ancient 80s, there was not a single documentary program to be found anywhere across the educational landscape. We attendees were all keenly intent upon becoming the next Martin Scorsese or Francis Coppola; those most successful fictional moviemakers from the first generation of film school brats. Documentary film was seen by us as slightly dusty, quaint, more often suited to arid academia than the edgy dramatic territory we meant to occupy.
These days documentary programs abound in film schools everywhere, and documentary film is seen as a highly relevant form aggressively focusing our attention upon social and economic issues of immediate concern to all of us.
It’s interesting to consider why this change.
Certainly the greatly increased availability of production and post production technology (think cameras and computers) has a lot to do with it. Today’s media audience maintains a more forgiving expectation of documentary ‘production values’ (the quality of the sound and picture) than that expectation which remains for dramatic film. In the documentary world, content rules, and so if you have captured a terrific story using a comparatively cheap digital camera, then edited on your laptop, you may well be good to go in the marketplace. Searching for Sugarman would be a prime example. Not so much in the dramatic sphere, where a low-budget look is still likely to prevent you from ever hitting the theatres.
But there’s more to it than that I think. Today’s generation of film school students is far more determined to effect change then we ever were. We were interested first of all in making films; today’s doc filmmakers seem first of all interested in making a difference. Where filmmaking was an end for us, it is a means to them. Caught up as we were in the countercultural ethos of 70s ‘anti-hero’ movies like Scarecrow or Straight Time, we were willing to focus our lenses upon the downtrodden, the misfits, but we were rarely inclined to take direct aim at problems we nevertheless knew were all around us, problems like air pollution or economic inequality. Contemporary docs like An Inconvenient Truth and Inequality For All show no such reluctance.
And let me be perfectly clear; this change is much for the better. We humans have a ravenous need for stories, and one of the reasons for that is because we understand, sometimes unconsciously, that stories offer us ‘life lessons.’ They offer us insights into how we should or should not behave in the face of common human problems. To a lesser or greater degree mind you. Some stories are so simple minded that whatever insight they may offer is utterly generic, if not banal.
And documentaries, by their very nature, offer us better insights than do dramas. As good as the storytelling is in a dramatic series like Breaking Bad, for instance—and it is very good—it doesn’t necessarily hold any greater relevance to real life than does your typical comic book movie. Walter White is only marginally more real than is Spiderman.
Not so with Michael Morton, the Texan who spent 25 years in prison before finally being exonerated on all charges, and is the protagonist of a documentary entitled An Unreal Dream. Morton is the real deal, a genuine American hero.
Conventional TV broadcasters operating right now have badly dropped the ball on the burgeoning audience interest in documentaries, as evidenced by a recent Hot Docs study. Despite that fumble however, because of the rise of the internet, and because of their own commitment, the film school students of right now who are drawn to documentary are likely to succeed at making an impact, at changing the world, however incrementally. They are perhaps not entirely typical of the current generation, but they undoubtedly represent a new, different and very worthwhile slice of that generation. And more power to them.