Much has been made of the documentary renaissance over the past few years but artful nonfiction has, of course, been a crucial part of movie culture since Auguste and Louis Lumière first recorded the reality of their surroundings. Cinema has been about observation since its birth. Documentary has been about performance since Grierson’s first documentarian, Robert Flaherty, directed Nanook to chuck his spear.
The form is one of inherent contradictions, where a dialectical tension between structure and chaos creates the space to observe the human creature and to conjure emotions ranging from empathy to outrage. Occasionally, the documentary form can create a sense of the immediate present tense and it can grab you and shake you.
As evidenced by the stunning diversity of the Sight & Sound Greatest Documentaries of All Time polls, the nonfiction form is as vital as any art we’ve collectively concocted. Filmmakers today are gifted with the technological and aesthetic freedom to pursue the boundaries of reality cinema, but it’s crucial to remember that anything we do today is merely building on the magic created before us.
This video essay is an attempt to collect a few of the sublime, upsetting, euphoric and poetic moments from a few of the greatest (and sometimes lesser known but still greatest) nonfiction films ever made. It’s a sketch of ideas, instants and impressions created by some of our most adventurous filmmakers. I love documentary. To the makers and admirers of the form, here is a simple love song.
In the September 2014 issue of Sight & Sound
Flights of reality
The past 15 years have seen a sea change in documentary culture: filmmakers have grown more boldly adventurous as audiences have woken to the possibilities of the art. By Robert Greene.