The 2014 film Manakamana, produced by the experimentalists of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, unfolded in a simple pattern. Its camera would lurk alongside the passengers of a rickety tram as it carried passengers the final distance to a Nepalese temple. Each ride was roughly the same length, providing a temporal spine for its daisy chain of matching short films. After a few journeys, we knew how long we were likely to have with each new set of pilgrims, knew that we were unlikely to see them again, and that we would be given little to go on other than our own intuition and stray snatches of conversation in unlocking these strangers' secrets.
Documentaries have an obligation, above all, to tell the truth; but Manakamana and other recent non-fiction films have served as a forceful reminder that documentaries have no obligation to bore.
A documentary can be artful, mysterious, and can even ask viewers to decipher various codes it may array. Even as film cedes some of its cultural indispensability to television and the internet, the documentary has proven itself capable of its own brand of beauty and valour, dedicated as it is to not only telling stories, but telling them beautifully.
The contemporary documentary has grown in stature over the past decade, aided by the ubiquity of non-fiction films via streaming platforms such as Netflix and the increasing ease of production. The availability of high-definition cameras has made professional-quality efforts within the reach of even aspiring filmmakers.
Gone are the days of shaky camerawork and indecipherable sound, replaced by an instant, technology-aided competence that makes documentaries suitable for cable television and Netflix. And Netflix, and its competitors, like Amazon, have a bottomless hunger for content that leads them to splash out on documentary series like Making a Murderer as well as acquiring the rights to well-regarded feature-length work. The theatrical success of documentaries such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, nature documentary March of the Penguins and the environmental-themed An Inconvenient Truth have helped to create an audience for non-fiction films, with movies with lesser box-office hauls finding an audience among streaming and premium-cable consumers. Documentary is increasingly identified as a forum for wrestling with knotty social issues, or with pungent political commentary.
Are we entering a new golden age? The new documentary seeks to confound and confuse as much as explain. Efforts like Robert Greene's ontologically slippery Actress (2014) and Kate Plays Christine (2016); and Jafar Panahi's Taxi (2015), born out of the Iranian director's ban from feature filmmaking, keep secrets from their audiences, not only to keep viewers hooked but to gesture towards a fundamental unknowability that the documentary film, by its very nature, seeks to undercut. Panahi, prevented from making the films he had grown accustomed to, embraced a guerrilla attitude, shooting in a borrowed cab with lightweight cameras.
A heightened theatricality also serves as a distancing mechanism, a reminder that the truth is tantalising but ultimately inaccessible. American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer's two films on Indonesia's anti-Communist crackdown The Act of Killing (2012) and the superior The Look of Silence (2014), impose a deliberately artificial framework – of faux-movie shoots and eye exams – on their study of the unrepentantly violent. And Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture (2013) turns a similar eye on the horrific excesses of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, using clay figures to tell the story of Panh's family's suffering under Pol Pot. These films approach history from an unexpected angle, their playfulness intended to underscore the horrors they document. They are darker analogues to the political efforts of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, which required a showman's verve to win audiences over to their points of view.
At their heart, documentaries that attract viewers' attention offer access to an unfolding drama or a moment of crisis. But rather than maintain a careful distance from the human figures, as Manakamana has, films like Jehane Noujaim's The Square (2013), about the protesters at Tahrir Square in Cairo, and Steve James's The Interrupters (2011), which follows the work of an organisation attempting to prevent outbreaks of violence in Chicago, seek to understand a complex and ever-shifting set of burning issues through the lenses of people struggling to grasp their own reality. The incredibly intimate vantage points of Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman's Weiner, released this year, allow a peek into a campaign, and a marriage in crisis, as a sexting scandal sinks Anthony Weiner's bid for mayor of New York. We watch spellbound as Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin slowly begin to grasp that there will be no recovery from this latest indiscretion. This is what the new documentary can do: convey the astonishment that comes with a privileged glance into reality.
Mingling the desire to enlighten with the belief in the inherent majesty of the form, the single documentary of the past year that has generated the most conversation, argument, and historical reevaluation is Ezra Edelman's heroic labour O.J.: Made in America. Eight-hour documentaries are generally the province of film critics and other completist obsessives, and of little more than academic interest to the movie-going public at large. Coming soon after the much-loved FX television series The People vs OJ Simpson, this documentary seemed like the worst kind of overkill: would anyone really want to sit through eight more hours on a 20-year-old murder case that people had already gorged on back in the 1990s?
The answer, of course, was yes, with Edelman’s film being not just the story of the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman but of an entire set of necessary back-stories: of the Los Angeles Police Department; racial bias in 1950s San Francisco; the misbegotten official response to domestic violence; celebrity; and so much more.
Simpson was less a hero or a villain (although the film never questions his guilt) than a representative of the tangled, tragic story of race in America. OJ: Made in America was unfazed by our expectations, or by our assumptions of what sort of story it would tell. The world, it sought to remind us, is a complex and disorderly place. It would serve us well to pay attention.
Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to The Review.