November 21, 2004

Year of the documentary?

By: Kelly Jane Torrance

So Michael Moore didn’t unseat George W. Bush. The director had said that the explicit aim of Fahrenheit 9/11, his documentary focusing on the Iraq war, was to defeat the president. But the electoral map barely changed after September 11, and the issue of war made little difference to Americans’ votes.

But 2004 may still turn out to be the year of the documentary. Moviegoers went out to see them in record numbers, and they were some of the best-reviewed films of the year.

Fahrenheit 9/11 could make movie history. Moore removed his film from Oscar consideration in the Best Documentary category, explaining, more than a little arrogantly, that he wanted to give other filmmakers a better chance at winning the prize. But he is pushing it forward for consideration as Best Picture–a category in which no documentary has ever been nominated.

The list of twelve films that are vying for five nominations in the Best Documentary category may be the most-watched list of docs ever. Super Size Me, a chronicle of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s 25-pound weight gain and emotional descent after spending a month eating nothing but food from McDonald’s, is the favorite. It’s also one of the highest-grossing documentaries ever, earning $11.5 million American receipts. (Of course, Fahrenheit 9/11 did rather better, with a $120-million gross–almost unheard-of for a documentary.)

Touching the Void is another entry that earned an audience beyond the usual arthouse documentary fans. The most successful documentary in British film history, it is based on the bestselling book about two climbers fighting to survive after a mountain expedition in the Andes turned bad. It was also well-reviewed–Roger Ebert declared he was “enthralled, fascinated, and terrified” by the flick.

Other films that could be nominated include Riding Giants, a history of surf culture that was the first documentary ever to open the Sundance Film Festival, and Tupac: Resurrection, a look at the life of gunned-down rapper Tupac Shakur.

That’s quite a varied list. Other recent favorites include Spellbound, about eight teenagers competing in the National Spelling Bee, DiG!, about the rise and almost-rise of two rock bands, Bukowski: Born into This, about the writer Charles Bukowski, and Word Wars, about the highly obsessive world of competitive Scrabble.

Why are people so interested in reality these days? Because this is certainly not an isolated phenomenon. Even amongst non-documentary film, the trend is toward the real, or at least Hollywood’s version of it (as “historical” films are never known for their veracity). Recent movies portrayed the lives of Cole Porter (De-Lovely), Ray Charles (Ray), J.M. Barrie (Finding Neverland), Frida Kahlo (Frida). . . The list is almost endless. And everyone knows that the television airwaves are glutted with reality shows.

Even books reflect this trend–non-fiction outsells fiction by a wide margin, a gap that seems to be growing. People are no longer as interested in putting themselves into the fictional world of a Regency Bath, a Victorian London, or even a twenty-first-century Manhattan. They seem to prefer endless books about the Founding Fathers and tomes with “Big, Fat, Stupid Idiot” in the title.

Even the documentaries are starting to follow this pattern. Some of them are serious examinations of political issues–The Trials of Henry KissingerThe Fog of War, and this year’s Control Room, a look at the media/government spin on the war on terror. But like the way political books have become, I suspect there will develop an endless series of them answering each other, as FahrenHYPE 9/11 is the conservative answer to Michael Moore. For now, however, it is the leftists who rule the documentary box office. Just this year, besides Moore’s huge hit, we had Bush’s Brain (an examination of the influence of Karl Rove), Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (on how unfair and unbalanced Fox News Channel is), and The Corporation (corporations = bad).

It was sad enough when politics became this way–two sides, preaching only to the converted, often viciously slandering the other–but now our art, our books and film, is, too.

Perhaps we should not expect people to delve into the imagination when life, or at least a dramatized facsimile of it, is handed to them on a platter. Gradually learning about character, sympathizing with people who aren’t even real, putting oneself in an unfamiliar time and place, this can all be much more work than learning about things we know are real. Using one’s imagination requires more effort–it’s one of the reasons why reading books uses more of our brainpower, on the whole, than watching television. It’s interactive.

So if 2004 does turn out to the year the documentary went from film-geek fetish to mainstream marvel, some may cheer. After all, it means the public is interested in learning whether a war is unjust, if fast food harms America, and how to spell “distractible.” But I will wonder if this was the year that Americans gave up their imaginations.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is

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