Festival coverage sponsored by IndiePix.
At the end of a recent blog posting, Premiere film critic Glenn Kenny wondered aloud about some of the documentaries he’d seen at the Sundance Film Festival. Summing up his thoughts on Nanette Burstein’s hit AMERICAN TEEN, Kenny wrote:
“Burstein’s trim, fast-moving film utilizes tricks and techniques that would give old-schoolers such as Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers rage attacks. The pop soundtrack, the voiceovers, the graphic collages, the ANIMATION SEQUENCES illustrating the dreams and desires of some of its subjects…none of it’s a surprise, coming as it does from the co-director of the Bob Evans fantasia The Kid Stays in the Picture, but all of it does raise the question of just how documentary is defining itself these days.”
Kenny’s questioning reflects a decades-old discussion, often fueled by film critics (and sometimes by journalists or by some within the documentary community) over the use of construction – created or recreated content - within the context of nonfiction filmmaking. Often this is accompanied with a similar name check of a veteran filmmaker, with the implicit understanding that construction represents a shift in tradition within the genre.
In fact, you can travel back to the earliest days of documentary filmmaking to find construction - from Flaherty’s staging of scenes in NANOOK OF THE NORTH to Vertov’s use of enhanced techniques such as fast-cuts, split screens and, yes, animations. Despite the existence of construction from the earliest days of nonfiction cinema, some - more recently - have come to think of documentary as an offshoot of journalism, in which the camera, the director and the editor serve as invisible observers (and reflectors) of real events.
And as Frederick Wiseman himself has noted, “There are lots of different ways to make film. I don’t believe there has to be any orthodox way to making movies., or any rules. It’s what works for the filmmaker, and, theoretically, the audience.” Rage attacks, indeed.
Where once this debate was seemingly contained between the two dominant schools of nonfiction in the mid-1900s – direct cinema (where invisibility is the goal and the ideal) and cinema verite (which implicitly recognizes that the camera’s very presence alters the reality), over the past few years we have seen a Nonfiction New Wave that rejects dogmatic strictures of form and that is, ironically, a return to the genre’s roots.
This Nonfiction New Wave not only embraces every kind of stylistic tool (and is especially fond of animation and graphic design), it also seems not to fear that space between truth and fiction, between documentary and narrative. And it was on full display at this week’s Sundance Film Festival, which, over the past several years (as seen in 2007's MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET), ZOO and CHICAGO 10, among others) has been a leading proponent of the movement.