The chaos of the world has to be turned into some kind of coherent orderDavid Mitchell, co-translator of The Reason I Jump
I used to think differently about documentary. Documentaries always had their place as news, as journalism, but could they be classified as art? Seemingly populated with outsiders waxing academically about other cultures, other parts of the world, documenting ‘the real’ was what mattered, not the art of filmmaking. It was films such as Hoop Dreams (1994) and Dear Zachary (2008), which offer immersively personal experiences, that swayed my position. Documentaries can indeed be art. More so, the success of a documentary is dependent on its ability to create something I like to call ‘immersive empathy’.
Documentary has always been much more than a search for the truth. The heart of documentary is the very essence of expressive storytelling. When you think of your favourite film, painting, book or song, what is it about them that moves you? For me, it’s that power to not just entice or entertain but to make you feel. Documentaries do this too, and 2 of this year’s entries to the London Film Festival – Stray and The Reason I Jump – are great examples of the visceral power of immersive, empathetic cinema.
Stray, a nuanced essay about humanity and how society treats its most excluded, initially presents itself as a simple story about life on the streets of Istanbul from the perspective of the city’s stray dogs. Director Elizabeth Lo’s exceptional eye and exquisite camerawork help audiences to observe the city streets in a new way. Constantly hovering above pavement level, we understand Istanbul through a sea of legs, looking up at the human residents who both help and ignore the film’s subjects.
Similarly themed is the impassioned The Reason I Jump. Based on the terrific memoir of a 13-year-old non-speaking autistic boy, Jerry Rothwell’s film is infused with colour, light and immersive sound design, which artfully depict how someone with autism navigates and understands the world around them, where neuro-normative concepts of communication exist differently.
Both films are obsessed with detail, making the ordinary profound and enveloping audiences in a different yet relatable world. Interpreting the perspectives of their contributors, both Lo and Rothwell create remarkable narratives of immersion and empathy. Lo forgoes the temptation to anthropomorphise the canine contributors, allowing for a deeper emotional connection to Zeytin, the other dogs and their displaced human friends. She shows how these marginalised protagonists (both canine and human) operate within and outside the communities they are on the boundaries of.
In The Reason I Jump, Rothwell creates an all-consuming sensory experience. Ordinary occurrences such as the beat of rain or the feeling of sand become poignant adventures for both the film’s contributors and the audience alike.
In recent years, documentaries have drawn renewed attention for their experimental play with form, storytelling and film language. Developments in VR and interactive cinema have thrown audiences into new worlds and frames of reference. Such approaches can bring a sense of immediacy to the emotional and physical journey of a stranger, such as in Notes on Blindness (2016), or help us interrogate how we view disenfranchised communities, such as in Common Ground (2019). There are also archive-based films that act as time machines, transporting us to another time and place (They Shall Not Grow Old, 2018; Rewind, 2019). And there’s hybrid cinema, engaging with the appeal of fiction while remaining grounded in the documentary ethos of exploring the truth (The Arbor, 2010; American Animals, 2018).
We’re currently living in a world that feels tempestuous and increasingly divided, and so we need stories that probe and question while finding commonalities, unity and hope. Documentaries give voice to diverse perspectives and reactions to the world; they can help galvanise while also entertaining audiences through their immersive force.
Originally published: 2 October 2020