Dziga Vertov, the pioneering Soviet documentary-filmmaker and the man behind the ground-breaking The Man with a Movie Camera described documentary film as ‘life caught unawares’.
It’s a wonderful capturing of the documentary film spirit and a rather poetical way of saying that there is something different to the documentary which sets it apart from, say the Hollywood or independent art-house film. That difference is truth.
A documentary catches something already happening in real life, unlike a film which reveals inner truths via fictitious portrayal. Documentaries, then, are ‘truth’ films, they deal with real world protagonists and real-world themes every bit as dramatic as those are fictional heroes tackle.
Those documentaries we revere are so often based on ordinary people in the midst of extraordinary things. For this reason, documentary film has the power to move an audience in ways even the most perfect, tear-jerking fiction film cannot reach.
But what if documentaries lose this truth? What if the boundaries become so blurred that when we think we’re watching something real it’s actually altogether more staged, more conceived, more ‘aware’?
The End of Watch staring Jake Gyllenhall is not a documentary, it’s a documentary-style film. So, too, The Bay, an unusually decent horror film shot in the ‘found footage’ style à la (REC). These films were innovative in the borrowing from the documentary-style. And so too can documentaries be innovative in their borrowings from Hollywood in evermore creative reconstructions, compositions, interviews and narration….so long as it remains ‘the truth’.
So, are all documentaries in fact ‘factual’? No. Here are ten documentary films which were not only very much aware of themselves, they contained the most blatant, flippant and preposterous lies within them.
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