Documentary: The Margins of Reality
Author: Paul Ward
Publisher: Wallflower Press
In recent years a number of excellent feature film documentaries have been widely distributed in cinemas and achieved respectable box-office takings. Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound (2002), Kevin Macdonald’s Touching the Void (2003), Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004), and Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins (2005) – to name just a few. Filmmakers such as Blitz and Spurlock in particular have exploited the cheap and easy production tools of digital video. They have found an audience because terrestrial television channels have streamlined their factual output in favour of more ratings-friendly reality programming. BBC4 has replaced BBC2 as the corporation’s primary in-depth documentary channel.
Paul Ward’s short study of the documentary form is therefore timely. Aimed mainly at film studies students and lecturers, it promises much vowing in a little over 100 pages to define documentary, examine the differences between fiction and non-fiction, and assess three documentary modes: historical, comic and animated. Ward does not intend the book to be a simple “introduction” to documentary (referring readers to a range of academic texts that have already addressed this issue in the notes and five-page annotated bibliography, some of which are available online) but proposes instead to examine the hybrid margins of the form at the forefront of its creative development.
It is a relief that Ward did not attempt an overview of the history of documentary because his own introductory material is infuriatingly pedagogic, choked with clunky academese phrases, ugly syntax, and obtrusive jargon juxtaposed with cliché. He merits inclusion in Private Eye’s “Pseuds Corner” column. The opening pages stagnate with “key features”, “key problems” and “key issues”, which are flagged up without ever being satisfactorily resolved. It will therefore be more useful as a starting-point to classroom or seminar discussions.
These preliminary flappings are all the more disappointing when Ward eventually begins to show his strength by examining a number of films in detail. His discussion of four Aileen Wuornos movies – two fictionalized films based on a true story: the 1992 made-for-TV Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story and Patty Jenkins’s Monster (2003) and Nick Bloomfield’s twin documentaries Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992) and Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003) – is shrewd and enlightening in the way it teases out the subjective and creative portrayal of her story in Broomfield’s supposedly non-fictional documentaries. The book would benefit greatly had Ward been able to offer more of these in-depth analyses.
His chapter on historical documentary focuses on relatively obscure television films about the miners’ strike, the Peterloo Massacre and the Peasants’ Revolt, which means it will have limited appeal to the general reader. He might have examined instead the recently re-released Oscar-winning Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds (1974; dir. Peter Davis) – a clear influence on Michael Moore – alongside Errol Morris’s The Fog of War (2003) and Woody Allen’s favourite Le Chagrin et la pitié (1969), each of which stretched the boundaries of the documentary medium. The chapter on comedy needed to give more space to Chris Morris’s The Day Today and Brass Eye TV series, and strangely omitted Moore and Spurlock.
Many of the recent cinematic documentary releases have raised intriguing questions about the margins of reality, about how fact is formed and recorded, and about the ability of the mere presence of the camera to make things happen. Disappointingly, Ward fails to garner a worthy harvest in this most fertile of fields.