Last week's Academy Award nominations included "Darwin's Nightmare," "Murderball," and "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."
Never heard of these movies? Well, that's probably because they're documentaries.
Although the documentary is one of the oldest genres of film, it still suffers from a lack of exposure. Few docs, with the exception of films like "Fahrenheit 9/11" or "March of the Penguins," get wide distribution, and thus never reach audiences that may be interested. Many an excellent documentary has fallen by the wayside due to a lack of support, while inferior mainstream movies earn tens of millions of dollars.
However, this process is starting to change for the better. In 2003, when film critic Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times made his top 10 list, he put all documentaries as his number 1. He wrote that it was the best year for documentaries in the history of the genre?a statement that made people take note.
More mainstream moviegoers became aware of documentaries at the 2002 Oscars. When Michael Moore won for "Bowling for Columbine" and infamously scolded the president on stage, the documentary feature category was permanently brought into the limelight, never again would it be able to hide among the lower technical categories. In fact, many credit Moore with the rising cache of documentary films in American film today.
But what exactly do documentaries offer to viewers that differs from feature films? Why are they worth anyone's time?
Unlike most fiction films, there is no prerequisite to siding with the protagonists; in fact that's not the goal. The goal is to get statements from different people and to consider human nature from a realistic perspective rather than through the eyes of a main character. There is a thrill in seeing real people, real situations and real opinions depicted; forget "based on a true story," documentaries are all true stories.
On some levels, documentaries are similar to investigative reporting or sociological research because the filmmakers collect information and use it to drive the viewer's understanding of what is depicted on screen. That's the beauty of the documentary: it is an information source. And in light of recent strengthening of FCA regulations, it is a place where filmmakers can present more controversial messages and without fear of censorship.
Documentaries, more than other genres, live and die by the stance and angle the director takes on the material. This is not to say that the goal of a documentary is to further a political agenda. The filmmaker collects the information and viewpoints of others and molds it into what he considers a coherent presentation of the person, event, or issue that is the film's subject. It is up to the audience to determine its own opinion of the material discussed. Michael Moore, for example, may make his opinion more explicit than other documentarians, but then, without his own voice he has little to show to viewers.
In "Grizzly Man," the best documentary of 2005, director Werner Herzog tells the life story of Timothy Treadwell through the subject's own footage. The film is about the 13 summers Treadwell spent living in the Alaskan wilderness with Grizzly bears and his eventual death by mauling.
Seeing the story of a man who lived with and was eventually killed by bears, it would be easy to demean the beliefs and choices that led a person to that place. But rather than criticize Treadwell, Herzog focused on Treadwell's humanity and refrained from commentary on the outdoorsman's life choices. He allowed those who knew Treadwell best to offer insight into who the man was, adding layers to our understanding of Treadwell's roots. By the end of the film the viewer understands, even empathizes with the naturalist?a man just as mixed up as the rest of us.
There are countless other worthwhile documentaries worth seeing. The 1994 film "Hoop Dreams" is a four-and-a-half year journey through the lives of two inner city high school basketball players trying to make it to the NBA. This is my favorite documentary of the '90s because it covers multiple topics, from race and class in America to the American Dream with grace and humanism.
Likewise, Errol Morris, one the greatest documentary filmmakers ever, has two unmissable classic docs: "Gates of Heaven," a film about a pet cemetery and its pet owners that Roger Ebert called one of the five greatest films of all time; and "The Thin Blue Line," a documentary examining a murder case in Texas and speculating that the courts erred in their decision to convict the defendant.
The list of commendable films has grown in recent years, with "The Fog of War," "Born into Brothels" and "Spellbound" all contributing to the revitalization of the documentary genre.
Supporting documentaries, as well as the mostly independent theaters such as the Eveningstar that play them, the more audiences can see documentary filmmakers making great films for our enjoyment. To paraphrase an old adage, "If you see it, they will come." So make the trip to Bart & Greg's and rent a documentary?you just may be surprised at how much you'll like what you see.