What is happening to the documentary? ?tre et Avoir and Spellbound, the two big non-fiction hits to have received recent cinema releases, are respectively about a soft-spoken French teacher and a spelling contest. They are stories which make people feel good – in quiet contrast to the US and British documentary tradition, which can be traced back to John Grierson’s GPO film unit of the 1930s, and which was developed to make people feel bad. “The camera is yours; the microphone is yours. Now tell the bastards exactly what it’s like to live in slums,” Grierson’s sister Ruby told subjects of the 1935 GPO classic, Housing Problems. That kind of proselytising zeal has both honoured and crippled the documentary form ever since.
There is no inherent bar to non-fiction films playing like feature films. But the cult of the documentary “message” has left the art of storytelling to fiction. In the 1990s, the big cinema documentaries – Hoop Dreams, Crumb, When We Were Kings – gave renewed hope for a documentary presence in movie theatres; but the films themselves still emerged from the stable of sociology.
What has been missing in mainstream cinema documentary are the variations of form and genre which fiction exploits so effortlessly. Even ?tre et Avoir, which subtly layers its meditation on time and tradition over images of seasonal change, says more about the pulling power of cinema than it does about the potential of documentary as an imaginative form. Not much of the film would be lost on television. That’s the test.
December sees the release of a documentary which must be seen on the big screen. Touching the Void is adapted from the book describing what happened when climber Joe Simpson was cut loose by his partner on an Andean mountain. The story of Simpson’s plunge into a deep crevasse, and his incredible survival, is certainly riveting documentary material. But what makes the film special is its streamlining of narrative elements to create the structure of a thriller. All extraneous material is pared away to drive a central, heartstopping narrative through a form which is less “docudrama” than pure cinema. Interviews serve a story rather than an inquiry; dramatic reconstructions are integrated with sweeping visuals; symbolic effects get viewers inside the heads of characters; and the music is movie music. Mountaineering is just the setting for a tale about mortality, human endurance and…