Attending the Silverdocs International Documentary Conference this past June in Silver Spring, Maryland, one panel in the program leapt out of the delegate booklet as a “must see.” It was the session titled “Changing the Public Perception of Documentary,” and it featured panelists ranging from Street Fight director Marshall Curry and Dragonslayer producer John Baker, to those on the distribution front, including CrowdStarter’s Paola Freccero and ro*co international’s Annie Roney. The panel was rounded out by consultant and WhatNottoDoc.com founder Basil Tsiokos and moderated by indieWIRE founder Eugene Hernandez.
The discussion centered on how the audience for doc projects can be broadened, and removing whatever stigma the word “documentary” carries for people in 2011. Should it be replaced with something a little more… dare we say “populist?”
Maybe I’m a bit biased, being the editor of a non-fiction magazine, but from where I sit, it’s not necessarily the public perception of documentary that needs to change, but perhaps the perception of those within the industry – filmmakers, distributors, programmers – regarding what documentary is and isn’t. Being based in Toronto, I watch year-on-year as the Hot Docs festival racks up increases in attendance, with lines stretching for blocks, for docs. This year, the Toronto International Film Festival opened its film fête for the first time with a documentary – a documentary about one of the biggest bands on the planet, yes, but a documentary nonetheless.
So from my perspective, the public at large is not indulging in hand-wringing about the virtues or drawbacks of the word “documentary.” And within the industry, the debate isn’t so much about the word itself but about its definition. Alma Har’el’s entrancing Bombay Beach (one of this year’s MIPCOM Picks), has raised an eyebrow or two within the doc community, despite its winning the best documentary award at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, due to choreographed dance and fantasy sequences featuring the cast. The criticisms are akin to the fuss raised over animated documentary Waltz with Bashir upon its release.
It’s an old story. Personally, I’d like to think that the concepts of innovation and creativity aren’t exclusive to scripted properties. Granted, doc programming always has to have non-fiction at its core. But the work of pioneers such as direct cinema icon Allan King and more recently, rabble-rousers such as Michael Moore and “ecstatic truth” chasers (think Herzog), serves to push the genre forward into a new level of acceptance. Pioneers dare to not only invoke that dreaded cliché – “think outside the box” – but they blow the box apart in the pursuit of something new.
Being a pioneer is a risky business. As the saying goes, you can tell who the pioneers are by the arrows in their backs. But maybe the reason we can see those arrows is not because the pioneers are lying in the dirt, but because they’re actually walking well ahead of the rest of us, by several paces.