Making documentaries appears to be an arcane, barely understood activity. Documentarists, as they are inelegantly called, are thought to appropriate private lives. Even more than journalists, they are perceived to make their living by telling lies. Documentary makers too discuss whether ‘real truth’ is subjective or not – and on the whole, they tend to believe it is – and whether it’s possible to give an account of the world without resorting to fiction. With the recent commercial success of documentaries, however, and the internationalization of the market in the art form, the tone of such discussion has begun to change. Now the question of who makes documentaries – and who owns them – has suddenly become important.
Last year, the teacher in Être et avoir, a French documentary featuring the charming Jojo and his classmates from a remote village school, sued the filmmaker Nicolas Philibert. Having been paid a small fee, he wanted a significant share of the film’s €3 million (US$3.6 million) in television and DVD profits once it became an unexpected commercial hit. He claimed rights in the film both as a performer – since he was onscreen most of the time – and author, since he had devised the classes, which consisted of his teachings. The case was dismissed in a French appeals court. Filmmakers all over the world breathed a sigh of relief.
But the argument about truth in documentary goes far beyond the way in which those who appear in films are treated. Does the camera change what it observes? What happens when the raw material of a film is shaped into a narrative? Filmmakers say that truth arises from mutual trust. But many outsiders who think that tampering with the real is inherently unreliable don’t accept these essentially moral arguments. And this accounts for the reputation of tricksiness that documentaries retain – particularly among those who make their living from print.
Many filmmakers also think that their work isn’t quite ‘real,’ however. They believe that their tales acquire a life of their own, generating a separate, unpredictable ‘truth.’ There is something in this observation, and it accounts for the richness of good documentary film. For the filmmaker Fred Wiseman, documentaries should be seen as ‘reality fiction;’ they may seem like reality as they are being filmed, but they become more like fiction through editing.
Heavy cameras and the lack of a capability to record sound simultaneously with pictures made the first documentaries stiff, over-produced affairs. Only with the invention of the 16mm camera in the 1960s did it become possible to roam freely around subjects. ‘Remember, as a documentarian you are an observer – an author, but not a director. A discoverer, not a controller,’ Albert Maysles tells would-be filmmakers.
Documentary people tend to assume that ‘reality television,’ with its ready-made plot lines and collusive victim-protagonists, has encroached on their territory. But in television, so much reliance on format has prompted audiences to demand some truth on TV amid all the fakery. Documentaries cannot compete with the sheer predictability of formats – nor can they reliably entertain audiences. But they will continue to be sought as a wild card in the hand of tv executives. Even at Discovery, a network addicted to primetime large animals, executives are hunting for demanding fare.
I used to wonder whether documentary could survive the limitless appetite of artifice of contemporary television. Now I am convinced that it will do – not so much because it is cheap, or convenient, but because it has become so interesting, seeming to go where contemporary journalism cannot. In the film about the making of Apocalypse Now, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola is heard to scream in exasperation that the future of filmmaking depends on a ‘fat little girl in Ohio… with her father’s camcorder.’ I haven’t recently received a good film from Ohio, but the new documentaries have indeed become a future that works.
Nick Fraser is editor of the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ strand. A version of this article originally appeared in The Financial Times.