Mighty real

In 2011, Senna broke documentary history in the UK with a £375,000 opening weekend in June (it went on to take $11 million globally, having done brisk business in Brazil and Japan). It was a vintage year for long-form, theatrically released documentaries. I wrote about the subject for Word magazine at the time, but since the feature’s not online, I’ll repeat some of the salient points. Why? Mainly because yesterday, I saw three long-form, theatrically released documentaries, two brand new, one from last year. (The other one I’m going to mention is not yet out, but due in August.)

The first was Searching For Sugar Man. You’ll have heard plenty about this. Directed by Swedish newcomer Malik Bendjelloul, it is not strictly the story of “new Bob Dylan” Sixto Rodriguez, a seemingly gifted late-60s troubadour whose two albums, in 1970 and 1971, were flops in America, after which he moved from semi-obscurity to total obscurity; rather, it is the story of two wily South Africans, a record shop owner and a journalist, who set about finding Rodriguez after his songs took on a new life within the anti-Apartheid movement and he became “bigger than Elvis” in South Africa.

As with so many of the great feature documentaries of the 21st century – during which time the genre has boomed – Sugar Man has a story to tell that many people will not have heard before. Rodriguez remains obscure (or at least, he would have done if not for this documentary) outside of South Africa. He’s also big in Australia and New Zealand, although this inconvenient fact is left out of Searching For Sugar Man. Some have criticised it for editing the truth in this cavalier fashion, but it doesn’t worry me too much, as the fact remains: Rodriguez was a flop in America and was fascinatingly picked up in South Africa without anything to do with hype or marketing (and certainly unbeknown to his US record label, Sussex, which packed up in 1975 anyway). This is the essence of the story.

I won’t give any more detail about how that story unfolds, as the conclusion is all the more effective and dramatic if you remain in the dark. (Most reviews give it away.) I found myself with a smile on my face often during its modest 86-minute running time. It’s a good yarn, stranger than fiction, and says a lot about the way the record industry used to work in the pre-digital age. It also speaks of the Lottery-like nature of fame and fortune – Rodrigeuz’s songs take centre stage, always captioned, and they’re pretty good, not least Sugar Man, which was revived by David Holmes a few years back. Bendjelloul creates some very cinematic establishing footage of Cape Town, Detroit and other key locations – at one point morphing to photo-realist animation. Such bold filmmaking tricks are often used in documentary now, where the stakes have been raised, but they add to the experience of seeing it in a darkened cinema, as I did. Ultimately, though, it’s the story that will make or break.

Sometimes, as with Senna, say, or Touching The Void, or One Day In September, it’s not the outcome that matters, but the getting there. Docs built around news events, or a life story whose ending is on the statute books, are all about the organisation, or dramatisation, of information. I know next to nothing about Formula One motor racing, but I know that Ayrton Senna is dead; and such was the deft, economical skill of storytelling in Senna, I was as gripped and moved as if I had been watching fiction.

The non-fiction take is as old as film itself; indeed, the first moving pictures presented trains, factory workers and Arctic explorers: documents of real life. But though landmarks such as Triumph Of The Will in 1935 and Night Mail in 1936 enjoyed cinema exhibition in parallel with dramatic fiction, they were quickly ghettoised to the living room once television had established itself; they seemed more at home beside the news and weather.

In the 70s and 80s, theatrically released concert films like The Last Waltz and The Song Remains The Same – forefathers of J***** B*****: N**** S** N**** (not mentioning the tiny pop singer’s name online ever again!) – found a ready-cooked audience. But the true renaissance of documentary as a commercially viable cinematic form happened this century.

The epic high school basketball saga Hoop Dreams made $11 million in 1995, but in the same year only around ten documentaries even made the theatres. By 2003 – the year Michael Moore hit the polemical big time with Bowling For Columbine and James Cameron took us round the wreck of the Titanic in 3D with Ghosts Of The Abyss – the total was up to 45. A year later, try 85. Last year, 122 documentaries were released in the United States, around half of which found their way to UK cinemas.

The Imposter is out on August 24, so I will not add to the already-building hype and give too much away. I saw it last week, and interviewed its director Bart Layton for Radio Times, so I’m dying to talk about it, but can’t. Another true story that was documented at the time but is surely little known to most people, I actually remember reading a long (really?) New Yorker piece about the subject a few years ago, which turns out to have been among the triggers that turned Layton onto the idea of a possible documentary.

Like Sugar Man, the less you know the better. All I will say at this early stage is that it starts with a missing 13-year-old boy in a small town in Texas, who turns up a few years later in Spain and is reunited with his family. This all happened in the 90s – coincidentally when much of the pivotal action in Sugar Man takes place – but in gathering together all the principal players, Layton and his producers (about one of whom, more later) have created something very special. We’ll discuss it when it comes out, right?

Once again, it’s stranger than fiction. And, in many ways, not as neat. But its use of dramatic reconstruction is interesting, as my own deep aversion to the techniques of Crimewatch has completely dissipated over the past decade. I used to be a purist about this: if the archive doesn’t exist, tough. But the clever work by Kevin MacDonald in Touching The Void changed my mind. (Similarly, the reconstruction in Man On Wire, by James Marsh, was unobtrusive and subtle. This was an event, after all, that was not filmed. That said, I found the still, black-and-white photographs of Philippe Petit tightrope-walking between the Twin Towers as awe-inspiring as any newsreel.)

Perhaps the most interesting connection to make here is John Battsek. He worked as a producer or exec producer on Sugar Man, The Imposter, One Day In September and Project Nim, some of the milestone feature-length documentaries of the age, linking to key men Marsh and MacDonald (not to mention other notable docs, Restrepo, In The Shadow Of The Moon and The Age Of Stupid). Directors build the story and illustrate it using whatever techniques they feel do the best job, but producers are always the driving force, and in documentary seem to play a more hands-on role. If I’m wrong about that, tell me, but when I met him, Bart Layton put a lot of emphasis on his, including Battsek, MD of Passion Pictures, a company that’s proven itself a vital force for getting it done in the doc world.

I’ll be totally honest with you: I skipped Project Nim when it came out at the cinema last year in a blaze of publicity and marketing. The life story of Nim, a chimpanzee taken from its mother at a primate research institute and brought up “as a human” by a hippyish family in New York and paraded in the media as being able to “talk” (in fact, sign), I could see that this was a fascinating story. But it was clearly going to be rooted in cruelty to animals, and no amount of bucolic footage of long-haired Americans playing with a cute chimp in kids’ clothes was going to compensate for that. I’m afraid I gave it a wide berth. (I don’t even find animals in human clothes cute. Not even tiny hats.)

I’ve had it on DVD for months, and yesterday, because I don’t really care about the Olympics, I decided to get my act together. Directed by Man On Wire’s Marsh, it uses very little reconstruction, and then only flashes, as plenty of photos and footage were taken at the time, due to the scientific nature of the experiment. Like The Imposter, it relies heavily on talking heads, and it seems that everybody involved was happy to provide testimony. This testimony lights up the story. (If you’ve seen Errol Morris’s mesmerising The Fog Of War, based pretty much exclusively on interviews with one man, Robert McNamara, you’ll know how powerful the right talking head can be.)

The trailer hints that the experiment did not go to plan, and now I’ve seen the film, I realise how very badly wrong it went. This is a heartbreaking film, in which witnesses who seem to be the good guys turn out to be bad, and at least one bad guy turns out to be good. In this sense, over 93 minutes, you will experience a rollercoaster ride of emotion. People who are fascinated by animals also seem able to do unspeakably unnatural things to them. People who detect the chimpanzee’s closeness to humans also seem fine with putting the same primates in cages. A lawyer appalled by the abuse he felt was meted out upon Nim was also willing him to have him “perform” in a courtroom. It’s a truly unpredictable tale. I must admit, I found it well made and admirable throughout, despite my squeamishness. If anything, it’s an anti-vivisection polemic, but never feels hectoring or finger-wagging.

Nim, for all its advance publicity and “from the director of the Oscar-winning Man On Wire” tagline, seems to have made around $400,000 in the US (I can’t find figures for it elsewhere), so I’m not sure if it was a hit or not. Certainly, anyone buying a ticket to see a cute chimp in kids’ clothing and “talking” was going to be in for a shock. In general, docs are far cheaper to make than fiction for self-evident reasons. No actors to pay. Relatively easy shoots. Available archive. As such, more are being made in the hope of striking gold. It’s not tricky to explain why Michael Jackson’s This Is It took £9.7 million in the UK in 2009, knocking Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 off the all-time top spot, nor why gallery-playing ringmasters like Moore, Nick Broomfield and Morgan Spurlock help sell to popcorn-munchers what are essentially elongated editions of Panorama. In addition, Moore’s tub-thumping Democrat polemics chime with a broader disaffection for neocon hegemony and rampant capitalism among the chattering classes.

But with a biography told as simply as Senna, or as traditionally as Living In The Material World, it is surely the truth itself that attracts us. The turn of the Millennium played tricks on the human psyche. Although it was just the date that changed, the end of one epoch and the regeneration into another seemed to grant us pause to reflect on mankind’s achievements and failures – and to arrange them into Top 20 lists. Cheap archive took on a new potency. The 1990s became absorbed into a broader, catalogued past quicker than any decade in post-industrial history. Everything was up for grabs.

As our shrinking world has simultaneously grown more complex and prone to biblical melodrama – wars raging, floods rising, banks failing, news rolling, despots deposed, cities aflame, old certainties rendered uncertain on a near-weekly basis – it seems that we are increasingly drawn to a cauterised, edited version of reality, packaged up for us by painstaking documentarians. Never mind TV’s “structured reality,” this is structured reality.

And so, finally, to Swandown, which I saw as an appetiser to Sugar Man yesterday in my Olympics-denying double bill at the Curzon (and your local arthouse, if you’re lucky enough to have one, is a godsend for doc-lovers). This is less a documentary, more a document. It present events that actually happened – filmmaker Andrew Kötting and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair traversing sections of waterway between Hastings and Stratford in a swan-shaped pedalo – but in an entirely subjective manner. It is a messy, fragmented film, made on the hoof, and yet its trajectory was clearly planned, and its through-line is so precise we are actually shown maps with lines drawn on them. The result, shot through with recitations from Beckett and Lear, and – although I didn’t recognise it – a recording of Werner Herzog (who now seems exclusively to make documentaries) talking about Fitzcarraldo, whose epic quest Swandown self-mockingly mimics, is eccentric and surprising and at times wholly chucklesome.

You get to see Stewart Lee and Alan Moore in the pedalo at one stage, too, and if that isn’t a pair of filmmakers knowing their audience, I don’t know what is. (The actor Dudley Sutton also makes an irascible appearance, which is a delight.) In fact, Swandown is a delight generally, especially if you’re a fan of Lee’s self-conscious postmodernism and Moore’s twangy, good-humoured cosmic philosophy. Due to shaky captioning, I thought Sinclair was Kötting, and Kötting Sinclair to begin with, but once I’d worked it out, it actually rebalanced the experience. So, if you’re thinking of catching Swandown, and you should if you feel you’re in the right mental demographic, Sinclair is the quiet one in a fleece, Kötting the noisy, Kentish one in an unsuitable suit. The latter is, of course, the driving force, the chief pedaller and peddler.

Documentary comes in many forms. I think I have seen all of them in the past 24 hours. As with my tastes in books, I now demand reality. Fiction just will not cut it.

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