Gaming | Film | TV
Gaming | Film | TV

The rise of the documentary as popular cinema

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2014 has seen an “explosion of creativity” in a genre no longer struggling to be considered equal to fiction cinema.

Whereas feature-length documentary releases used to be small fry compared to those of the latest blockbusters, the popularity of the documentary is seemingly rising, as is the volume of fascinating new films on offer. In this year alone we have seen stunning examples, such as A Story of Children and Film, Tim’s Vermeer and The Punk Singer; Sacro GRA was also the first documentary to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Documentaries are certainly on the up.

People are turning to docs to shine a light on subjects that even socially connected viewers may not have been aware of

Traditionally, our way of gleaning information about current events has been done via the media. However, in recent years even the most respected conduits have been being rendered all but redundant by the immediacy of social media. Often what the news or the press report to us now isn’t new, but simply their spin on whatever the already tweeted, shared and instagrammed piece of information was. And it’s possible that, in the absence of traditional media revelations about our world, people are turning to documentaries to shine a light on real subjects, those that even the most socially connected viewer may not have been aware of.

The technology behind filmmaking has evolved significantly, making equipment much easier to use and gain access to. In this new era of accessible digital filmmaking, filmmakers no longer have to rely on massive amounts of funding and interest in order to get their film off the ground. One of the best recent examples is Tim’s Vermeer. Teller, the director, has cited digital technology as the reason he was able to make one of the most acclaimed documentaries of the year. He has said that the “whole film was made by about ten people” and that he and his team were able to capture over 2400 hours of footage despite often lacking a cinematographer.

tim's vermeer

This was made possible because the digital cameras only needed setting up by one or two relatively tech-savvy people, and due to recording digitally rather than on film, the production crew were able to record massive amounts of footage that would have otherwise been impossibly costly for such a small production. One of the pivotal moments of the film sees the eponymous Tim finally given access to The Music Lesson, a painting by Vermeer housed in Buckingham Palace. Access to the painting was granted completely out of the blue, when most of the already small production team had left England. The producer, Farley Zeigler, happened to have a small video camera with her, and Teller was thankful that “that key moment did get captured, but only because we have this digital video capability now”.

We have been rewarded with fascinating masterpieces which are increasingly being lapped up by an open-minded public

What is most exciting about the public’s increasing endorsement of even low budget documentaries is that it is allowing and encouraging filmmakers to mount bigger and more creative productions knowing there will be an audience for them. Although Skip Kite, the director of Tony Benn: Will and Testament, maintains that the only reason he made the film was to “be able to smoke on set”, the documentary (to be released across the country on October 3rd) has been met with much acclaim. The documentary employs the unusual use of a large, dressed studio to illustrate the life and career of Tony Benn, resulting in a sort of biographical art installation. This studio, and indeed the film, is stunningly shot by a crew largely just having come off working on Skyfall.

The ongoing success of Tony Benn: Will and Testament shows that audiences are getting behind more unorthodox and challenging documentaries, which can only lead to even further bolstering of creative ingenuity within the genre. This year has seen an explosion of creativity in a genre that has struggled to be considered equal to fiction films when it comes to cinematic saleability and spectacle. Thanks to better and more accessible technology in the hands of ingenious filmmakers, we have been rewarded with fascinating masterpieces which are increasingly being lapped up by an intelligent and open-minded public. All that’s to be done now is to keep watching, to ensure there will be more masterpieces to follow.

Read more: Is the line between documentary and fiction more blurred than ever?


Featured image: Praslin Pictures

Inset image: Sony Pictures Classics


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