I have a pretty predictable Sunday night regime: The Simpsons, dinner, Malcolm in the Middle, The New Yorker, bed. It’s carefully designed to avoid anything work-related and usually it’s foolproof. But, about two months ago, The Simpsons introduced Declan Desmond, a British filmmaker (played by Eric Idle) who goes to Springfield Elementary to make a doc on the typical U.S. school. Desmond introduces himself to the students assembled in the auditorium, by saying: ‘Now, when you think of documentaries, you probably think of the Maysles brothers and Barbara Kopple.’
At this point, the frame focuses on the kids, who stare blankly back at him. Even Lisa. He continues: ‘Well, they’re not good enough to wipe my lens. Here’s a look at my work – a film I made about Krustyburger, Do You Want Lies with That?‘
A few seconds later, my boyfriend called. ‘I bet you’re the only person watching this show that got that joke,’ he said, laughing.
I’ve been thinking about his call ever since, and I’ve decided: I’m going to take that bet.
I’ve heard it said that American politicians know they’ve hit the big time if they’re parodied on Saturday Night Live. I think the same can be said of The Simpsons – and this isn’t the first time the show has poked fun at documentaries and the filmmakers behind them. There are other signs too. Recently, I’ve received calls from friends and family who’ve suddenly realized what industry I write about and are wondering if I’ve seen Spellbound or Bowling for Columbine, and might I recommend other titles. Some, who have already seen the films, actually want to talk about them.
During a panel at the Tribeca Film Festival (May 3 to 11, 2003), Cara Mertes, executive director of PBS’s ‘POV’ strand, claimed this is the second golden age for docs, and I think she might be right (the first, she said, was the ’60s and ’70s). Not only has technology made the medium more affordable, thereby opening it up to fresh and surprising new talent, but the genre itself has matured. In France, these changes almost amount to a revolution that enjoys strong support from viewers (see the French report in this issue). And, while most docs still won’t win their producers a fortune, many more are getting theatrical releases than would have even two years ago.
I do have a few words of caution, however. Happening alongside this documentary bliss is the erosion of public TV, which is under assault from the growth of commercial outlets. Although private channels are important to the doc market, commercial imperatives will always impact what stories are told, and how they’re told.
Public grants, such as the Canadian Television Fund (see the Canada report) are also diminishing. Some see this as a positive move that, over time, will strengthen the doc industry by forcing filmmakers to develop production partnerships and diversify their funding sources. But, it also means there is less money out there for docs. If industry players are smart, they’ll use the leverage they’ve earned in this ‘golden age’ to ensure all forms of non-fiction receive support in the future.
Special Reports Editor