Once in a while, I see a documentary that leaves such an impression on me that I find myself thinking about it for days or even weeks. Sometimes it’s because the story was disturbing or controversial, and sometimes it’s because I’m wondering what became of the people who were featured. Only very occasionally is it because the film was simply beautiful to watch. So it was with New Scenes from America, by Denmark’s Jorgen Leth.
This 35-minute documentary short, which I saw at Sundance, has very little dialog, relying instead on the sheer power of the images and how they are organized. Leth filmed in the U.S. in 2001 – in New York on September 9th, as it turns out – so some of the footage is understandably poignant.
But, it’s not a sad film. On the contrary, it’s a charming depiction of people, places and things that are quintessentially American, as seen through Leth’s eyes.
After New Scenes from America moves on from the festival circuit, it will likely find a temporary home on TV and possibly the cinema. But, what then? Quality offers no guarantee of longevity with those outlets, particularly in an era when so many good films are made available in close succession.
Until recently, the answer for most documentaries in the same situation was ‘nothing’ – a television broadcast or a theatrical release were the only ways to reach a substantial number of viewers. But, times are changing.
As we explore in this month’s mipdoc report, DVD can offer docs a second life. The technology is available and is becoming increasingly affordable. That DVD is gaining ground so rapidly on vhs speaks to the fact that consumers crave more – more information, more options and more variety, as well as better sound and crisper images.
Make no mistake, non-fiction films will have to work hard to establish a foothold in this market. For a short like Leth’s, it might mean partnering with an appropriate fiction feature, or perhaps creatively bundling several docs together from within a filmmaker’s collection. In either case, making a DVD happen will require significant advance planning and likely the help of a well-placed agent and distributor.
Still, my guess is the effort will ultimately prove worthwhile. Too many good non-fiction films from previous eras have been lost to future generations, the reels buried in an archive house or worse. The age of the digital video disc is upon us and there’s a place for documentaries – if their makers grab the opportunity.