Monday, August 07, 2006

Documentaries don't have to be so boring

In the last couple months I have done a lot of thinking and reading about documentary films. I have also watched more documentaries than usual, even though many of them are completely unmoving and boring. And with all the attention I've given to the concept of documentary film, one thing has stood out both in the books I've read and the documentaries I've watched: interviews.

I can only guess what kind of imagery comes to mind for most people when confronted with the word 'documentary,' but I suspect it goes something like this: People talking, interviews, yap yap yappity yap, [snore], etc. And if that is how the average person thinks about documentary, I'd say it's because most documentaries seem to be nothing more than a series of interviews. Instead of showing something interesting, they show somebody talking about something that may have been interesting. Then, when they're not showing some boring interview, they clutter everything up with narration.

(This actually just occurred to me, but I think bad documentaries are what come to mind when most people process the word 'documentary.' And although most everyone has surely seen at least one good documentary, they probably don't even think of good documentaries as documentaries at all; they probably just think of them as another good movie.)

Anyway, there is no doubt that documentaries tend to rely heavily on interviews. And only rarely does a documentary come along that realizes any kind of box office success.

Is it cause and effect or is it just correlation? Well, it's definitely correlation, but I imagine it's also a case of cause and effect. However, it is impossible to compare documentaries to feature films because they don't have the same objectives. While feature films appeal to our emotions and sense of humor, they also depend on visual effects and audio effects and other effects requiring a theater atmosphere. Documentaries depend almost 100% on the story and the visual evidence; even poor quality visual evidence. Also, documentaries don't come with all the bells and whistles and special stuff that can only translate well in a theater, so they don't require that theater atmosphere. Additionally, they cost a lot less to produce, so success can be defined on a completely different scale.

Regardless of all that, some documentaries have managed to do well in theaters; Fahrenheit 9/11 and Hoop Dreams are a couple that come to mind. And for a documentary to even make it into theaters pretty much means it has succeeded beyond anyone's reasonable expectations and made a lot of money. So why have a few managed to find such huge success while most others linger in some kind of purgatory? Here's why: Because it takes a lot more than pointing a camera at stuff to make a compelling documentary, yet it does not necessarily require photographic expertise.

Great documentaries tell great new stories; they don't just provide a new medium for old news, like so many historical documentaries. ("Here's a book about some historical event; let's make a film telling the same story, showing the same still pictures." Mega boring!) Great documentaries have great characters. Great documentaries are made by passionate, enthusiastic individuals who disregard "conventional wisdom" and write their own rules. Great documentaries are made by people who have an eye for interesting things other people never notice. Great documentaries are made by people like me.

More about this stuff soon.