Sometime in the late 1980s, I saw a film that changed my outlook on film-going. The film was 28 Up, a documentary directed by Michael Apted. This film is based on a series of interviews with British men and women whom Apted first interviewed in 1964 and whom he has interviewed at seven-year intervals ever since. The film allows you to watch these people growing up.
28 Up was unlike anything I had seen previously. I found it much more interesting than the fictional films I was used to seeing in the Megaplex Odeon theaters. I was astonished and delighted. I was also intrigued. I began to seek out more documentary films.
It was not easy to find them. Most movie theaters did not (and still do not) run documentaries. Eventually I found a video rental store with a decent documentary selection. That was an important first step. I was fortunate also to be affiliated with a university, and I was able to watch some hard-to-find films there.
Later, the internet came on the scene. That was a game-changer. It allowed me to find out about documentary films and festivals. In the year 2000, I discovered that one could use a Google search to find just about anything. One of the first Google searches I did was “documentary film festival.” When I typed in those words, I had no idea if such a thing even existed.
I was delighted to discover that there was indeed such a thing as a documentary film festival, and that one of these festivals, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, was held, annually, in Durham, North Carolina, not too far from where I live.
I began attending Full Frame regularly, almost as a rite of pilgrimage. Sometimes I would watch 15 documentaries in the course of four days. This was bad for my tan, but good for my mind.
A few years later I discovered Netflix, which allows me to stream many documentaries to my television set and borrow others on DVD.
I can now watch a wide variety of documentary films in the comfort of my own house. And it couldn’t have happened at a better time, because I am convinced we are living through the greatest period in the history of documentary film. While the barriers to finding and watching documentaries have been coming down, the barriers to making documentary films have been coming down with equal rapidity. Thirty years ago, only companies and insanely rich individuals could afford to buy the video cameras and editing equipment needed to make a documentary. Now it is possible to make a documentary using HD videocameras and computers you can purchase at BestBuy for a few thousand dollars.
But this is not a website for documentary filmmakers. It’s a website for documentary film lovers. I am not sure if anything quite like it exists. (If it does, could someone please send me a URL?) That is one reason why I have started this site. Most of the documentary film sites I know are industry sites. The International Documentary Association has a good website, but it is directed primarily at filmmakers. The same is true of several other films sites.
I intend to list films that I have enjoyed, and that I think others will enjoy. I reserve the right to criticize a film if I don’t like it, but I intend to place the emphasis on spreading the gospel about films I liked and think others will like as well.
I suppose my tastes will become obvious in time, but a few words by way of confession may help some readers decide if this site is for them.
I tend to like documentaries about people. I like documentaries about faraway places, niche cultures, strange pastimes, and odd competitions. I like films that take me out of the predictable world of Hollywood film – beautiful people coupling, deafening explosions, formulaic romance, violence for the sake of violence, etc. — and insert me into geographical and cultural worlds I did not know existed.
I love the films of Errol Morris. On the other hand, I am not especially fond of the films of Michael Moore. In general, I tend to like “slice of life” films more than “fix the system” films. Many years ago, the English writer Samuel Johnson noted that even the best governments can only do so much: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, / The part which kings, or laws, can cure.” That was true in the 1700s, and it is true today.
I have decided to curate this site anonymously. I am not sure if anonymity can be preserved in this age of facebook and friending, but I intend, as the British say, to “have a go at it.”
16 February 2012