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  1. Culture
2 March 2015

Reality hunger: The documentary form enters its golden age

New ways to get film to audiences, plus democratising technology, have heralded a boom in documentaries.

By Johann Hari

In the centre of Harlem, if you walk along Malcolm X Boulevard, you will find – between Muhammad’s Mosque No 7 on West 127th Street and the Haitian Evangelical Missionary Church on West 128th Street – a small, rickety building. It contains some ragged seats, a dusty floor and a screen. I first entered the Maysles Cinema in the autumn of 2011, when I found myself living in New York and emerging from something of a cultural torpor. For a few years, I’d been lost in the mania of social media. When you are constantly tweeting, opining and facebooking, your capacity to absorb culture – and, I suspect, to think deeply – shrivels. Trying to read a novel or watch an intelligent film after two hours on Twitter is like trying to listen to a Billie Holiday song on your way out of a Slipknot concert.

That autumn, I had sworn off social media. In the Maysles Cinema and at the IFC Centre in the West Village, I started to slow down – enough to witness what seemed to me like a Vesuvius-scale eruption of an art form: the sudden moment at which it explodes in a hundred different directions and starts to burn through the culture. Everyone was talking about the “golden age of television” but another golden age had begun – that of non-fiction film-making. In a short space of time, I saw at least a dozen documentaries that were among the most exciting works of culture I had seen anywhere; and, unlike TV drama, or the novel, or theatre, it was an art form in the process of discovering new ways of showing the world, instead of (beautifully) improving on old ones.

Cinema began with non-fiction. A train filmed by the Lumière brothers pulled in to a station and the audience – or so the story goes – ran, screaming, from the flat image. But just a few years later, the French illusionist Georges Méliès was making surreal film strips in which he seems to be able to remove his own head: tricks of the moving light.

Fiction had found its way into film and soon it was dominant. Documentary cinema was trapped in the Lumière brothers’ station for almost 60 years by a technical brick wall. It was difficult to record sound and images simultaneously outside a film studio, so you couldn’t carry the camera out into the world and capture what you saw and heard. The result was that most films marketed as documentaries were, in essence, staged. The 1922 documentary Nanook of the North, which claimed to show what life was like for the “Eskimos”, was mostly a pretence: what you see are Inuit who were told to act out practices they hadn’t followed for a generation.

One of the first signs of what we would recognise as a real documentary today came in 1960, when a small film crew including the producer Robert Drew and the cinematographer Albert Maysles (the man after whom the Harlem cinema was named) started to follow two men around Wisconsin. Senator Hubert Humphrey and a younger colleague called John F Kennedy were running for the Democratic nomination to be president, standing outside factories to shake hands, offering banal speeches and generally scrumming blandly for votes. The technology had evolved: now you could record what a person did and what they said at the same time, out on the streets, unstaged. When I saw the film at the IFC Centre, I was startled by something. The people being filmed, apart from the politicians who had been briefed in advance, didn’t seem to recognise the camera as a camera. Perhaps they didn’t know it was filming them: nobody had ever seen people like them, captured randomly on screen. They are genuinely acting naturally.

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Drew’s Primary and other early films of this kind are the closest we will ever get to a time machine: watching them, we can see people going about their lives, half a century ago, oblivious to the fact that they are being watched. They are the last people in the western world not to perform in front of a documentary camera. In Primary, there is an added layer of pathos for us: when the camera tracks JFK’s head through an adoring crowd, we know that head will be opened before another crowd less than four years later.

The dominant idea of what a documentary should be was born in that brief window when many people didn’t know what a film camera really looked like. The fancy name is cinéma-vérité. The rules are fairly straightforward. The subjects don’t look at us; we look at them. We pretend the filming is not happening. The film-maker is like an omni­scient narrator in a 19th-century novel; she sees everything and changes nothing.

Fast-forward to the release of a documentary in 2012 that redefined the form – one that shows what it can do now and how far it has come from its vérité roots. In Indonesia in the mid-1960s, the military – backed by the CIA – paid an army of gangsters to butcher a million people it had labelled as “communists” (but who in reality were anyone who might oppose it). Over four decades later, the US film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer arrived in the country and, with an Indonesian colleague who can’t be named because it would endanger his life, began to shoot interviews. It took him years until he found his way into this story, the key to their film The Act of Killing.

The killers, Oppenheimer discovered, had never been punished. On the contrary, they boasted about what they had done: they were proud of it and were cheered and whooped at on TV shows when they described how they would “exterminate” the victims’ children if they dared to argue back, even now, after all this time.

Oppenheimer came up with a very simple idea. He told several of the most prolific killers that he would like to give them a budget to make a film in which they re-created what they had done – how they had seen it, how they had experienced it and how it had made them feel. His documentary follows them as they make their “film”, as they reconstruct their memories and fantasies for us.

At the centre of the documentary is Anwar Congo, a gaunt man, bone-thin and balding a little, who is always dressed impeccably, like an ageing rock star. Near the start of the film, Oppenheimer goes with him to one of the spots where he ended the lives of dozens of people. “At first, we beat them to death but there was too much blood,” he says. He talks through the mechanics of killing, explaining that he turned to a form of garroting. He adds: “I’ve tried to forget all this with good music, dancing … A little ecstasy.” He dances a small, happy shuffle-jig on the spot of his killings.

We watch as Anwar teams up with his old killing comrades. They re-create a village they burned down. “Kill them!” Anwar yells. “Burn it!” his men cry – and they do. Later, Anwar re-enacts an interrogation in which he snatched a baby from her mother and hacked out its eye before carving it to pieces. He chops up a doll on camera.

Does this movie sound like two and a half hours in the company of an unrepentant psychopath? It is much more interesting than that. As it progresses, Anwar takes us deeper into his way of seeing the world. He revered a melodramatic anti-communist propaganda film presenting the enemy as devils. “For me,” he says, “that film is the one thing that makes me feel not guilty. I watch the film and feel reassured.”

The visual world created by these killers is disorientating. One of them, Herman Koto, dresses in garish drag at every opportunity and stages a scene – using strikingly realistic make-up – in which he carves deep into Anwar’s throat. The killers emerge from buildings that look like giant, rusting fish; they dance under waterfalls.

Then something happens. Anwar’s bravado begins to fracture. He is describing acts of killing that he carried out in 1965 but by performing those acts decades later, he is cracking something within himself. It comes out in fractures and fragments and is usually followed by him shuffling back to his apparent indifference. After staging one atrocity scene, he says: “My friends kept telling me to act more sadistic but then I saw the women and children . . . They will curse us for the rest of their lives.” Soon after, he creates a scene – to the backdrop of the song “Born Free” – in which one of his victims embraces him and says, “For executing me and sending me to heaven, I thank you a thousand times.”

Anwar begins to stage his nightmares, too. Strange, ghoulish figures come to him while he sleeps. “Maybe it’s the communists who we killed in 1965?” his friend asks. “I don’t imagine it in such detail,” he replies uneasily.

What we are witnessing is the discovery of empathy, even in a mind that tried to drive it out with extreme violence and with total social approval. In one reconstructed scene, the other gangsters interrogate Anwar, tie a wire around his neck and pretend to throttle him. He stops the filming and says he can’t do that scene again. Later, when he watches the footage, he asks Oppenheimer: “Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here?”

In the only moment when Oppenheimer editorialises in the film, he replies, from off-camera: “Actually, the people you tortured felt far worse, because you knew it’s only a film. They knew they were being killed.” Anwar looks genuinely surprised.

In the final scene, Anwar returns to another of his killing spots, just as we saw him at the start. “I had to do it,” he says, bragging, as if the journey we have followed him on has meant nothing. Then, uncontrollably, he begins to retch and heave and we watch him like that for a long time.

For centuries, artists and writers have been trying to show us what it is like to be inside the mind of a mass murderer – but nobody has ever, to my knowledge, done it better than Oppenheimer. It’s a documentary so enormous that it gives you a sudden sense of what the form can do and what it could be. But, crucially, it is a shift away from the classical documentary and what we were raised to expect from it.

First, there is no pretence that Oppenheimer is capturing an unfiltered reality, the way in which Maysles and his colleagues captured the contest between Humphrey and Kennedy. Oppenheimer – to some extent, at least – created this reality. None of this would have happened without him landing in Indonesia and arranging it all. Nor is there an attempt at balance. This is a journey into a hellish head, a warped psyche – not a multifaceted portrait of a society.

There are a dozen different directions in which the non-fiction film is spinning away from its birthplace and all of them are proving to be remarkably fertile. There are dark and disorientating family stories, such as the 2003 film Capturing the Friedmans. There are campaign films: who can imagine the global warming debate without Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006)? There are thrillers: the twist in Bart Layton’s The Imposter (2012) is the only time I have ever heard an entire cinema audience gasp as one. All of them deserve serious critical attention. At the moment, only the brilliant Mark Cousins seems to be writing substantially about this form.

For me, the most interesting genre is the one Oppenheimer’s film belongs to – films that explore not only the external world but also our internal worlds and the complex ways in which they interact.

Documentaries have begun to probe the deepest question of all: the nature of human consciousness. In the early 20th century, literary modernism pushed novels and poetry to explore – in ways nobody had thought of before – the fractured, subjective, broken ways in which any individual can understand the world. There is a school of documentaries doing the same. Among these is Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, which was also released in the US in 2012 and is now available on Netflix.

When she was a child, Polley was raised by two bohemian parents who were actors in snowy Canada. We enter their world almost immediately through home videos and there seems at once to be a universal language of camcordered domesticity that makes them feel familiar: children wave at the camera and dance around, the sun glistens and nostalgia washes over us. But Polley wants to ask the questions that come to most adults at some point in our lives. Is the story I was told about my family true? Are my parents the people I think they are? Can I, as an adult, imagine meeting my parents as contemporaries? Can I know the world before I was born – the world that made me?

Sarah Polley in her documentary Stories We Tell.

In Polley’s case, there was a fracture in her story, one she had poked at in her mind like you would tease a wobbly tooth with your tongue but never really tackled. For as long as Polley could remember, her siblings had had a running joke – but it was one with an edge. The man you think is your dad, our dad, is not your real father, they would say. Your real dad is a different actor, somebody our mother had an affair with, before you were born.

It was hard for Polley to see if this meant anything, because her mother had died from cancer when she was very young. We get to know this woman in the film through home videos and through Polley’s interviews with people she tracked down – old friends, old lovers. We hear contradictory stories. This was a frustrated, unhappy woman; this was an admirable, free-spirited person. The film’s techniques are disorientating at first. All the way through, Polley’s “official” father narrates the story by reading from a book in avuncular “once upon a time” tones; we see her directing him to change how he says it, to act differently.

As the film goes on, we get more disorientated still. The home movies make us feel present in the past, but about halfway through I found myself asking: how did they get the home video of the mother meeting the man she was having an affair with? Who films their life this much? Gradually, we realise – and are eventually shown explicitly – that some of this home footage has been staged. Polley is showing us scenes that can never be found again, that are lost for ever, that she wants to see and can’t.

The technique slaps us, the viewers, into exactly the emotional state that Polley finds herself in. She is flicking through her own memory, reassessing everything she has seen, just as we are. The narrative style makes it possible for us to understand what it is to be inside her head, in a way we couldn’t if we coldly stood outside it, adhering to the rules of cinéma-vérité. The narrative style forces us to think about our own family stories – the core of our identities – in a different way. All of our childhood memories are, to some extent, conflations and confabulations. Polley has found a way to dramatise this universal truth.

The two traditions that were there at the birth of cinema – the Lumières with their steel-and-iron train erupting from the station and Georges Méliès with his fantastical visions erupting from his subconscious – are finally meeting, on the shore of the 21st century. As I sat through dozens of documentaries in the New York cinemas that are dedicated to them, I found myself asking why this golden age might be taking place now.

I spoke to 12 leading figures in the industry and found that almost all of them had a few explanations in common. To start with, the means of producing and distributing documentaries have become very democratised in the past decade. Heather Croall, the former director of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, tells me that not long ago it could cost £100,000 to get to use a professional editing suite. Now similar equipment is, in effect, available for as little as £100 on your laptop. Shooting that used to require wildly expensive cameras and film stock can be done on your phone.

At the same time, there is a new way to get your film to audiences. Cinema showings and film festivals have swollen enormously and the rise of on-demand viewing can help a niche film to find a niche audience – and then much more than a niche. For instance, the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which follows the story of a killer whale at SeaWorld from its capture in the wild to its deadly despair in its tank, has been a big hit on iTunes, where it has found a huge audience among teenage girls. The documentary seems to have damaged the SeaWorld brand irreparably: shares fell by 33 per cent, the CEO resigned before Christmas and attendance has fallen.

There may be another, more tectonic reason why non-fiction is finding such a fertile audience now. It goes back to where we started: we live in an age of endless, babbling artifice, in which we stare all day at screens, watch processed news, eat processed food and even interact with our friends through processed feeds in which we see them only at their most beautiful and their most upbeat, as if we were all PR agents now and the world were an endless press launch where the product is you. We live in a cloud, in both senses of the word.

The writer David Shields has talked about how this environment creates a sense of “reality hunger”. This mood can increasingly be seen in other art forms. The most acclaimed fiction films of the past few years – think 12 Years a Slave, or Boyhood – have a deliberately stripped-down, apparently artless, almost documentary style and so has the work of many of the most acclaimed fiction writers, from Teju Cole to Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard. The phenomenal success of the podcast Serial showed that the hunger for narrative non-fiction ranges across all media. In an age of artifice, almost everything aspires to the authenticity of documentary.

There is – it occurred to me – something that documentaries can give us that these other art forms can approach but never quite achieve. Tabitha Jackson is head of the documentary programme at the Sundance Institute in LA. She tells me: “When Marina Abramovic talks about why she prefers performance art to theatre, she says, ‘[In] theatre, you know the gun is never a real gun, the blood is never the real blood . . .’ In a sense, that’s why I find documentary so powerful. The gun is a real gun. The blood is real blood. You can be following a character for years and then they die in front of you – that’s what happens in [the documentary about Palestine] 5 Broken Cameras, for example.” So, at their best, she explains, documentaries have “everything that every other art form has – the mystery of music, the imaginative narrative potential of fiction, plus the fact it’s true. And it happened.”

That is why documentaries will, I believe, continue to rise and rise though our hyperlinked daze. A few years ago, the Chilean documentary-maker Patricio Guzmán made a film called Nostalgia for the Light. He travelled to the Atacama Desert and documented two very different things that are happening in that sand-strewn wasteland. Every week, a group of women whose brothers or husbands disappeared during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship scrabble through the hard earth, trying to uncover the mass grave where their bodies might lie. Not far away, one of the most powerful astronomy centres in the world is tracking the actions of the farthest stars.

We sometimes talk metaphorically, Jackson tells me, about how a documentary can be both a “microscope and [a] telescope” – that it can take us from the very small to the very big and show us how they are connected. “But that film literally does it.” It takes us from the close-up of a grieving human face, “and then up into the whole universe”. That is what documentary films have been doing for some time now – and I don’t know any other art form that is doing it in so many startlingly new ways. It has turned a few battered seats in Harlem, between the wailing of the mosque and the singing of the evangelicals, into a cockpit for flying between the best and worst of humanity.

Johann Hari’s new book, “Chasing the Scream: the First and Last Days of the War on Drugs”, is published by Bloomsbury

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