Going, going, gonzo … a scene from The Ambassador, Mads Brugger’s investigation into corruption in the Central African Republic.Documentaries are erupting with creativity and David Rokach has an unusual theory to explain why. Not only have digital advances made it cheaper and easier to produce all sorts of stories for the screen, filmmakers have finally woken up to the futility of trying to capture truth on film.
”Today there is a better understanding that any documentary is a result of the subjective decisions of who made it,” says the founder of the Antenna Documentary Film Festival, which opens in Sydney on Wednesday. ”In documentary, there is a constant negotiation between reality and interpretation. Generally, we have given up on the illusion of the term ‘absolute truth’. Documentary filmmakers now have permission to do almost anything.”
This new-found liberation means filmmakers are pushing the genre to its limits. No longer constrained by linear narratives and narrow subject matter, they are free to plunder the experimental possibilities this new mindset allows.
Interactive and animated documentaries, in particular, are breaking new ground. Take The Block (sbs苏州美甲美睫培训.au/theblock), an online ”choose-your-own adventure” through the streets of Redfern created by SBS, and John and Joe, an animation about two brothers who died in the September 11, 2001, attacks that will screen at the Sydney International Animation Festival next Saturday.
One unusual example on Antenna’s program is The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army), which is largely devoid of visuals. It tells the story of a 1977 plane hijacking mostly through text on the screen and voice recordings.
But today’s documentary makers aren’t content to tinker at the esoteric cutting edge. They’re also aiming for eyeballs. Dedicated documentary festivals such as Antenna, now in its second year, are gaining popularity throughout the world and some films have even blasted into the mainstream. Lee Hirsch’s Bully, for instance, follows a string of polemical big hitters during the past decade, including Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.
Much of this shift has been driven by new technology, Rokach says. Digital cameras, which are cheaper and lighter than older bulky equipment, let filmmakers shoot where and when they want, while online outlets and social media are boosting audience demand.
”Technology has opened up more possibilities to generate and receive content,” Rokach says. ”Because of this, audiences are now able to see that documentary can take you on a journey similar to fiction film.”
Online platforms such as Vimeo hold a wealth of short-form videos, for example, while portals such as beamafilm苏州美甲美睫培训, SBS On Demand, ABC iview and the Herald’s smh.tv stream documentaries on demand.
A prime example of this digital revolution is Detropia, a lyrical depiction of the devastation that deindustrialisation has wreaked on Detroit, which will make its Australian premiere at Antenna.
Virtually every stage of its production was shaped by technology, says its co-director, Heidi Ewing. A campaign on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter, which raised more than $US70,000 ($67,550), allowed the directors to distribute the film independently to theatres rather than via agencies. The team also struck a deal with Sundance Institute Artist Services to release the film next year through digital channels, such as iTunes, Amazon and Sony.
And like Bully, which was filmed on a small Canon 5D stills camera, Detropia takes full advantage of lightweight camcorders and cameras.
”It makes the subject way more comfortable and it makes people less self-conscious,” Ewing says. ”The characters seem less intimidated and therefore it makes [the film] seem more intimate.”
Still, lowering the barriers to production creates more competition for funding and audiences. Despite growing interest, many documentaries tend to struggle financially. Last year, The New York Times reported on documentaries’ lagging takings at the box office. In Australia, there is little reason to believe much has changed since the release of an industry report seven years ago that said ”documentary production is not conducive to profit”.
Some directors have come up with creative ways to support their films. Benj Binks, the Australian maker of Mongolian Bling, an exploration of Asian hip-hop that will show at Antenna, supplemented grant funding by selling shares in his film.
”You need to be passionate about your project and you need to be prepared to [make] sacrifices,” Binks says. ”You need to be prepared to stick it out.”
But profit has never been the sole motive of documentary makers. The pursuit of stories is what drives Ashley Sabin, the US co-director of Girl Model, an observational film that will make its Sydney premiere at Antenna. She and her co-director, David Redmon, followed a 13-year-old Siberian girl, Nadya, on her journey into the modelling world, depicting the ugly side of the industry through her day-to-day life.
”Those everyday moments speak about larger social issues,” Sabin says. ”I don’t see it as an expose´ … we let the people and scenarios speak for themselves.
”It’s really oppressive when a director tells you what to think and pushes you into a corner because, to me, life is not that easily wrapped up in a bow – it’s much more complex, nuanced and grey.”
For Danish filmmaker Mads Brugger, documentary making comes down to a desire to entertain and engage audiences, no matter how dark the subject matter. His project, The Ambassador, which will also screen at Antenna, is a wild gonzo-like investigation into corruption in the Central African Republic that is as entertaining as it is informative.
”Documentaries about Africa have evolved into this pornography of suffering,” Brugger says. ”People can’t bear to watch these films any more … and yet it is important that people watch films about what goes on in Africa and become informed and involved.
”I think it’s [important] to strive for something that is completely different and unique. One of the ways of doing so is engaging people by using comedy and unconventional methods of telling stories – breaking up the pattern in a way.”
The Antenna Documentary Film Festival runs from Wednesday to Sunday at Dendy Newtown and Dendy Opera Quays.
The Sydney International Animation Festival runs from Friday to Sunday at the University of Technology, Sydney.
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