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Recently I had the opportunity to watch several documentaries at dok.fest. During the course of roughly one week of watching documentaries, I made several observations. All of them reinforced my love for documentaries.

Let me share my observations with you.

1. The richness of the documentary format

One might think of the documentary format as being more constrained than that of ‘fictional’ films (romantic comedies, spy films, science fiction, etcetera). I am not arguing that that this statement is wrong, rather I want to emphasise that  the documentary format is actually less constrained than what one might think a at first sight. After all, documentaries  just record ‘what is’ and distil it into a film, right? Well, the first non-trivial point to make is that it is anything but obvious what one could mean by ‘what is’. The question is not only that of intend, i.e. what the director wants to achieve with a film and thus captures with cameras, but  it is also a question of what actually can be recorded. For instance, prior to the 1960s audio recording was so cumbersome and bulky that direct audio and film recording of scenes was rather the exception. This is, for instance, where film movements such as Direct Cinema enter the picture. Developments in film technology allowed direct audio recording of scenes beginning in the 1960s, so instead of fully narrated documentaries like those in newsreels, the viewers were, for the first time introduced to direct-recorded, voice-over-free documentaries. One of the most famous of the early direct-cinema productions was Grey Gardens. Technological progress has made direct recording increasingly easier, and it is no surprise that dok.fest saw many films of this type: from Homo Sapiens, which records deserted human habitats, over Noise, which follows the daily work at the German News Agency, to Christ Lives in Siberia, which follows the daily life of children in a cult in Siberia. These films are free of narration and rich of direct recording. (Note well that I am not implying that these documentaries are thus objective. Especially Christ Lives in Siberia is so full of gaping, observational holes that the film, in my opinion, actually becomes an infomercial for the cult, and that in spite of seemingly critical passages in the film.)

These films can be contrasted with the recently released Deprogrammed, which introduces some narration, and, on the other end of the spectrum, Michael Moore’s films (Roger & Me, Fahrenheit 911, etcetera) and Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares, which are heavy on narration.

2. Emotional engagement

Documentaries are emotionally engaging! True, films like Homo Sapiens and Noise can be watched from a somewhat detached point of view, but A Maid for Each, Children of Dictators, and Deprogrammed were engrossing and even riveting. While I am a huge fan of fiction, I have to say that I found these films emotionally more engaging than pretty any fictional film I had seen in 2015.

3. Not just one format

During a panel discussion at dok.fest with the directors and the producer of Children of Dictators, the question of length was raised in the audience. The argument made was that covering the descendants of four dictators in 90 minutes (Amin, Castro, Göring, and Pinochet) left way too little time for each of the stories. The producer used this question as an occasion for providing insight into how the material, on which the film is based, is going to be marketed. Besides the 90 minutes theatrical version, which we had seen that night, the producing company, Spiegel Geschichte, was going to send 60 minute episodes about each of the dictators. Also, releases of additional information were under consideration. Releasing different cuts of material is nothing new. After all, we have seen a fair share of different cuts of ‘big’ fictional films, for instance Blade Runner. However, what the producer of Children of Dictators envisions comes closer to seeing the entire film material as a trove, from which different films can be extracted. This might be a particularly interesting model for open-source films. I am curious whether remoulding original film material for different dissemination venues will become something of a ‘thing’ in the future.


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