When it comes to the line between fiction and documentary film, I agree with Werner Herzog: such a line is unnecessary, and essentially imaginary. Separating them as fabrication and fact takes something away from both: the truth that can be captured in a story written and performed well, and the art exercised by a director presenting the beauty of real events. A far more worthwhile approach is to consider both simply as films. You can learn as much about yourself watching a film from a Charlie Kaufman script as you can be entertained by Michael Moore polemic, right? And anyway, when you have people like Herzog mixing truth and untruth in all of his films – documentary or otherwise – to quite magical effect, it is sometimes impossible to choose which category the film you’re watching belongs in.
Nevertheless, bookstores need sections to separate one genre from another, and blogs do too. So here we are.
The 00s brought much wider recognition and appreciation for documentary cinema, and I would suggest two chief factors in this. The first is called Bowling for Columbine, and I’ll talk more about that further down the page. The second is called the Internet, opening up a massive global audience for all kinds of films and an ideal platform for docs – the proliferation of other media and information online makes it quick and easy to obtain as much or as little information about something as you would care to. Added to that, making a film is much simpler nowadays with digital video and cheap and powerful editing software, so legions of budding filmmakers are able to produce something for nothing and then put it online for the world to see.
I’m one of those budding filmmakers. Here are ten documentary films produced in the 00s which eventually inspired me to get started on my own movie (coming soon, watch this space…)
10. Jackass Number Two (Jeff Tremaine, 2006)
Weren’t expecting that, were you? The Wikipedia page states, “Jackass Number Two is a compilation of various stunts, pranks and skits, and essentially has no plot.” A remarkable document of extreme behaviour, voyeurism and (arguably) Dadaism, it is also one of the most entertaining films of the 00s – but only if you have the stomach to watch Steve-O attach a leech to his eyeball, or Chris Pontius insert his penis into a snake’s cage.
9. Darwin’s Nightmare (Hubert Sauper, 2004)
Perhaps the 00s’ most depressing film; certainly the one which made me feel most sick and sad at the state of the world and the human race. Lake Victoria used to be a typical African lake, basically as it would have been millennia ago, until Europeans introduced the Nile perch – a particularly large and tasty fish – into its waters. Within years the ecological balance became completely unhinged, and as this film shows, the ripples reach out from the water and into the lives of every person living in the area. While I sometimes pine for those innocent days of ignorance before I saw Darwin’s Nightmare, this is a desperately important film that everyone who professes to care about their fellow man owes it to themselves to see.
8. Waves (Li Tao, 2005)
Read my full review for a closer look, but where sweeping statements are concerned, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that this effort from first-time director Li Tao was the most enlightening and inspiring film to come out of New Zealand in the 00s. If nothing else, it was certainly the most moving, and offered a restrained yet deeply intimate portrait of the life of teenaged Chinese going to school abroad. This is something that happens everywhere from Wellington to Washington, and Tao has made the film about the experience. After seeing it, I prayed that it would reach as wide an audience as possible so the greatest number of eyes could be opened, and minds broadened. The DVD can be ordered here.
7. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)
Bowling for Columbine was the film that brought documentaries (back?) into the mainstream. Grossing millions and garnering an Oscar, it cut a swathe through the film market and brought the masses to see that they could be entertained as they were being informed. In many cases, it showed people such as myself that there are alternatives to mainstream media. Its biggest impact, however, was probably to promote Moore’s personality to the point where his next film would gross over US$100 million – staggering for a ‘documentary’ – and his movements and polemic became worldwide current events. In the wake of its cultural relevance, it might be easy to forget how good Columbine is; while Moore occasionally messes with the truth in order to keep the viewer hooked, he crafts a superb viewing experience that keeps you amused, shocked and riveted for the duration. The best moment comes when Marilyn Manson has his turn to speak and, with no pomp whatsoever, quietly sums up the entire movie.
6. DiG! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
Truly demonstrating the benefit of hard work and dedication, Timoner spent seven years following The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre and managed to edit weeks of footage into DiG!, one of the best films about music. It has at its centre the towering talents and ego of Anton Newcombe, who would surely be a bigger star than the Dandies’ chiselled frontman, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, if he followed his rival’s music business motto: “if it’s good, it’s fun; if it’s bad, it’s funny”. The film follows as the two bands start off as close friends, living and jamming together, then steadily drift apart under the gaze of Newcombe’s increasingly unhinged wild grin. Tambourine player Joel Gion’s perpetually amused attitude is a joy for every moment that he’s on screen.
For the second half of the list, click here.