1.Interior/day/a Tel-Aviv café
With a cell phone ringing in the background (“Pulp Fiction” ring tone?) a woman’s hand is seen picking up the phone and holding it to her ear.
A manly voice:
“Hey, babe. Fancy going to the new Michael Moore?”
The success of documentary cinema in recent years is unprecedented. Commercial screens everywhere have realized the lure of the documentary film and no longer hesitate to screen one. This does not suggest that the genre challenges Hollywood’s mainstream – most documentaries are still screened in small, repertory cinemas – yet no one can deny that Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine were box-office hits in the US and later in many other western countries as well. Fahrenheit was exceptional in winning the prestigious Palm d’Or award at Cannes (associated with quality fiction) with the aid of Quentin Tarantino who served as chairman of the jury. 2004 witnessed another Cinderella, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me – a box office hit that left big-studio bosses sleepless. These films have not just won financial success (and to some degree critical acclaim as well) but they became cultural media events that generated social and political public debates.
Moreover, new documentary film festivals are springing up everywhere and traditional ones flourishing and registering record attendance and revenues. No doubt, in the 21st century, documentary cinema is very much “in” and the hopeless stigma that a documentary cannot be exciting and accessible has finally been stamped out. So documentaries have never had it so good. Or have they?
A critical look at the major successes of cinema and TV documentaries reveals one main characteristic: entrepreneurship. From Moore and Spurlock to TV documentaries, their documentary power does not stem from the way the directors aim their camera at the reality, examine it, offer a personal interpretation or a dialogue with it, but instead from the fact that they are engaged in a battle – with themselves as protagonists, the camera their weapon – to change reality. They have no time for observations. They get to the set with a conviction about the wretchedness of reality, planning a shoot to confront it.
The aim is often justified. The Bush administration is indeed corrupt and warmongering, McDonald’s does feed junk to the average American, and we are dominated by corporations (who are taken on by the filmmakers of The Yesmen, another recent, biting docu-activist film). But on the road to activism they turn cinema from an end to a means, marginalizing all other forms of documentary. This “justifiable entrepreneurship” gives way to the sordid creations of television: the docu-soap locating attractive photogenic objects for sheer voyeurism, or reality TV scenes concocted by scriptwriters – copywriters who don’t live up to the name: what they truly lack is a perception of reality. Their reality is that of the advert time on any given commercial channel. If this is the situation, the question begs itself: does the success – documentary’s popularity – relegate it to a banal and shallow repertoire? Is the documentary giving up representation for situation-manufacturing entrepreneurship (whether justified or sanctimonious)?
It is in the patient observation of its characters (and possible dialogue with them) that documentary expresses its deep humanism and audiovisual dramaturgy. On the one hand, it is accepting (if not necessarily agreeing with) “the other” – the character on the screen – “as is”. The documentary enables the audience to empathize as it observes other people behaving, speaking, sleeping, getting hurt, etc. – in other words simply (though not simplistically) living. On the other, only in observational scenes can one encounter “the magic moment” of the documentary; it’s only then, when something remarkable happens in front of the spectator, that one can feel the power of dramatic stance (which doesn’t differ from any fiction) whilst still being aware of “the aura” of non-fiction. The aura lies in the eyes of the beholder, i.e. the spectator who is aware that what she sees is a representation (albeit subjective) of reality rather an invention of it. The result might be the main reason for the love of documentary and a drama that no director of realistic fiction film could possibly concoct. And if so, is documentary willingly forfeiting its most powerful weapon: the patient observation of the human condition? Is non-fiction cinema moving forward in realizing its ideological and dramatic potential or is it receding to the limitations that followed its late evolution?
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