I have never seen a dogumentary, but I want to. If you attended the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival in October, you probably know what I’m talking about. If not, I should explain that the form of non-fiction film to which I refer has nothing at all to do with canines, but is in fact a doc made according to a strict code of conduct concocted by Danish director Lars von Trier. The specifics are addressed in an article this issue, but in a nutshell, von Trier’s code challenges doc-makers to return to their roots and create films devoid of such manipulative trappings as stock footage and narration (he makes these elements seem much more exciting and naughty than I’ve ever considered them to be). A few years ago, von Trier created a similar code for fiction filmmakers known as Dogme 95, hence the reference.
At the heart of this effort is a quest for greater honesty and authenticity in docs. While it’s a sentiment I applaud, I admit I’m skeptical that films based on von Trier’s code will achieve that, or that it’s even achievable. Are these docs any more ‘true’ than, say, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine or Nick Broomfield’s Biggie and Tupac ?
Moore and Broomfield each practice a style of filmmaking that’s about as far removed from the Dogumentary Code of Conduct as you can get. In fact, their respective approaches probably have more in common with guerrilla journalism. But, both directors are well known for the provocative approach they take to their subjects, so most people know what to expect from their films, without the aid of a stated declaration up front; if not, the tone of the docs makes it apparent pretty quickly.
What audiences might not know is exactly how Moore and Broomfield construct or manipulate the presentation of the facts to make their point, which von Trier argues is a turn-off. However, if people are unhappy, they have a funny way of showing it – Bowling for Columbine grossed over US$200,000 on its opening weekend in eight U.S. theaters (impressive by doc standards), and a recent screening of Biggie and Tupac in Toronto (the premiere film of the Doc Soup series) was packed to overflowing.
Von Trier also seems to presuppose a certain set of expectations for documentaries that I’m not sure exists among most viewers, myself included. If I enjoyed a wildlife show about the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, for example, but found out later that the great footage of the insect’s southward migration came from an archive house, would I feel cheated? Nope, because that footage made it possible for me to see something I’ll likely never witness myself. As long as the context is correct, I’m not overly concerned where the producer sourced his material.
All of this skepticism may appear to run counter to my initial statement, but actually, it only makes me more curious to see a dogumentary for myself. I welcome the idea of a creative, new approach within the industry, and if greater authenticity emerges as well, that’s a bonus.