It is fair to say that Hollywood has an innate fascination – a fetish even – for real-life events and people, be they historic or modern. As such it seems surprising that more mainstream documentary films aren’t on offer. Arguably though, this does mean that the ones we do get are largely independently produced, which often provides more scope for experimentation and creativity, so it isn’t all bad. Nonetheless, given the recent success of some more high-profile documentaries, are they now starting to get the recognition that they deserve?
1970’s Gimme Shelter is an excellent starting point in assessing the potential goldmine of documentary films, and the potential resonance they can have with an audience. The film examines the run up to, and events of, the now-notoriously violent Altamont Free Concert in 1969, from the perspective of the contemporary members of The Rolling Stones, viewing footage of the events back individually in a studio a year later. A particularly harrowing scene occurs towards the end of the film; archive footage of a man drawing a revolver before being stabbed and beaten to death by the Hells Angels, who were put in charge of security for the event – the now infamous death of Meredith Hunter, which encapsulated so much not just about the counterculture gig happening there and then, but about that era as a whole. Much like, of course, the song Gimme Shelter, hence the documentary’s name. What’s especially affecting to watch, on top of the pivotal drawing of the revolver moment being caught on camera, is Mick Jagger trying his best to both work out what exactly is going on and, consequently, his attempts to try and calm everyone down, amidst the alcohol-fuelled, potentially drug-addled eruptions of violence occurring in front of him.
Even more affecting is 1985’s Shoah. A documentary lasting no less than nine hours and twenty-five minutes, its subject matter is nothing forgiving either. This extraordinarily eye-opening documentary about the Holocaust is both fascinating and unlike any other documentary or film experience. Much like Gimme Shelter, there is no narration, and this is to the film’s strength, as Shoah is comprised almost entirely of interviews of witnesses to the Holocaust – survivors and perpetrators alike. The presentation of these in isolation is well handled, and allows the viewer to question things on their own terms – an excellent example of how good documentary films both require and foster ‘active filmwatching’, something all documentaries should strive to do, and Shoah does this better than any other documentary film going.
Senna won three BAFTAs, and Kapadia would later go on to direct the Oscar winning Amy.
So then, to the present day (and recent past). 2010’s Senna is clearly the point at which this quasi-resurgence of documentaries began to take shape, or at least make it into the mainstream. One of the often-touted comments about Senna soon after its release was that it was a fabulously engaging film, regardless of the audience’s awareness/attitude/knowledge of Formula 1 and/or of Ayrton Senna himself. This is to the film’s credit of course, and a lot is to be said for Asif Kapadia’s direction in this regard. Gripping, thrilling and ultimately tragic, if you’re new to documentary films, Senna is an excellent starting point, and a great example of what the genre can do. Senna won three BAFTAs, and Kapadia would later go on to direct the Oscar winning Amy, (which will be discussed later in this article).
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing and the later The Look of Silence, 2012 and 2014 respectively, helped again to bring documentaries yet further into the mainstream, again not shying away from showing audiences topics that many would not have had a prior knowledge of. Both films, in their own unique ways, examined both the Indonesian Genocide of 1965-6, and, more interestingly, how Indonesians today are still coming to terms with these events, and the different ways in which shared experiences about this, both positive and negative, have lingered to this day. Fascinating and powerful, both were released to critical acclaim. Even more interesting is the more experimental and ‘unorthodox’ style that is used in both, The Act of Killing in particular. The films were still fairly commercially successful, so it stands to reason that documentaries, if they are to fully enter the mainstream film world, don’t need to ‘dumb down’ in order to appeal to more people – and don’t believe anyone that says that they need to (looking at you, Hollywood), because the evidence just isn’t there. Also, this view is just frankly insulting to cinemagoers – just because you like watching Marvel films doesn’t mean you won’t understand or want to watch a documentary film.
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2015 has been a peak year in the recent history of mainstream documentaries – in the sheer number of them as well as how much they’re being talked about and being critically and commercially acclaimed. Listen to Me Marlon – an infinitely interesting look at the life and work of the man who many consider to be the greatest actor who ever lived, Marlon Brando, is well-worth viewing. Through Brando’s own words (the documentary utilises hundreds of hours of audio footage that he recorded himself), the documentary tracks the course of his life through his views on the acting craft and much else in an extraordinarily personal account of the screen icon. Mystifying as much as it is demystifying, Listen to Me Marlon does little to unravel the enigma of Marlon Brando, but that’s very much the point. 2015 also saw Cartel Land – again, like many of the other films featured in this article, it’s not a cheery watch, but an interesting one, and worth mentioning in terms of documentary films seeping slowly into the mainstream. Finally, we come almost full circle (back to Senna, that is) with Asif Kapadia’s Amy. A gut-wrenching, often heartbreaking look at the brief but eventful life of Amy Whinehouse, Amy also uses the subject’s own words to explore the highs and lows of her life and career, and how these all-too-often overlapped. It also features previously unseen archive footage, and unreleased/alternate versions of Whinehouse songs. All of this combines to convey what is ultimately a tragic, deeply saddening story, and though Amy Whinehouse’s father has been critical of some elements of Amy’s narrative, it’s still a great documentary and a hugely memorable one. In any case, 2015 has been a great year for documentary films, so let’s hope that 2016 can at least follow in its footsteps, if not carve out a path of its own.
So whilst there has not exactly been a full-blown resurgence of documentary films over the last half-decade, there has at least been a renewed interest in them, with films like Senna and The Act of Killing being the much talked about trend-setters of this, leading the way for later successes such as Listen to Me Marlon. Furthermore, this renewed interest has been recognised by more mainstream film publications such as Empire and Total Film, and with Amy’s recent highly-publicised Oscar win, this is sure to inspire more studios to perhaps reconsider rejecting that supposedly risky documentary venture. They’re not getting the love they really deserve yet, but they’re certainly on their way, and that’s nothing but good news.
By Oliver Rowe
For more on great documentary cinema, read our full review of How to Change the World.