Documentaries are now the most compelling thing on our screens. Julia Maile talks to five of the finest documentary-makers
A Frenchman living in Spain steals the identity of a missing 13-year-old American boy, fooling both the authorities and the boy’s family. If it was a Hollywood script, the storyline wouldn’t make it past the first reading. But proving that fact is often stranger than fiction, it’s absolutely true.
The story was the subject of the 2012 Bafta-winning documentary, The Imposter, which is just part of a growing body of work that shows truth is more compelling and more thought-provoking than anything scripted. Take Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, about an 85-year-old sushi chef who has never had a day off, and Man On Wire, which chronicles the man who danced on an illegal tightrope strung between the Twin Towers. Both of these films have reached cult status thanks to their quirkiness and originality.
The growing popularity of documentaries is part of a backlash against reality TV; we want to get the most out of our precious downtime. Watching documentaries is a more engaging, more cerebral experience, plus they’re far more interesting to dissect later with friends over a glass of pinot. The TV schedules reflect our obsession with this new age of reality; over 7.5 million of us tuned in to BBC1’s Africa each week, almost half of Channel 4’s top-rating shows of 2012 were factual, while documentary-makers such as Brian Cox have made formerly dry subjects like physics suddenly cool.
But watching documentaries is no longer confined to the sofa; we’re now just as likely to head to the cinema to see Searching For
Sugar Man (about the hunt for a long-lost Seventies music legend) as we are to watch the latest art house drama. The number of documentaries released at cinemas has almost doubled since 2007, and UK box office takings have increased from £1.6m to £11.1m. They’ve become the most talked about premieres at film festivals, with the LA Times writing, “As always with Sundance, the documentaries are the most reliable choice festival-goers can make.”
With factual fast overtaking fiction as the genre du jour, Stylist spoke to five of the industry’s brightest stars about searching for subjects, remaining objective and keeping Academy Awards on the mantelpiece.
From tacking whales in Antarctica to searching for snow leopards in the Himalayas, Vanessa Berlowitz’s role as producer on BBC1’s Frozen Planet (2012) and Planet Earth (2006) has seen her film in some of the world’s most extreme locations
“The type of documentary I work on is called landmark television; it doesn’t come out very often but when it does, it’s an event. I’m inspired by getting people to love their environment and the naturalworld, as that’s the first step to engaging in a more caring way.
Some of the things we have to do to get shots are ridiculous. For Frozen Planet we had hairy moments flying over Antarctica where we got hit by katabatic winds, which are the fastest on earth at 130 miles an hour, and the helicopter was thrown around like a pair of knickers in a tumble dryer. I saw my life flash before me, it was a real, ‘This is it. The end’ moment. I felt quite calm but also resigned.
I was pregnant while filming polar bears and was dependent on a logistics guy who I let in on the secret because he kept asking why my snowsuit no longer fitted. He’d pick up when I was getting grumpy or tired and work around it. It’s like an office job, but my office is extremely cold and far from home.
The most exciting sequence we shot was of orcas hunting together and creating giant Tsunami waves to catch seals. I felt incredibly proud as it was a huge risk; although it was first mentioned in Captain Scott’s diary, we weren’t sure it really happened and it took six months to get. My dream sequence is a feeding frenzy of thousands of blue, fin and minke whales, seals and penguins that come together to feed on krill. It’s the Holy Grail but, frustratingly, we missed it. I’m now working on One Planet, our most ambitious landmark to date."
Frozen Planet and Planet Earth are available on DVD; £16.49 and £10.49 each; bbcshop.com
Bart Layton’s Bafta-winning 2012 documentary The Imposter chronicles the 1997 case of French conman Frédéric Bourdin who stole the identity of Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old Texan boy who disappeared in 1994
“I don’t see why fiction should have the exclusive rights to suspense or tension. Documentary is a healthy genre that’s really growing; there are people who think documentary shouldn’t have drama or re-enactments but I don’t agree. There shouldn’t be rules about it.
When I first came across Frédéric’s story there were really two questions; what kind of human being would be capable of committing such a crime and what kind of a family would be capable of falling victim to it? We didn’t have any financing, but it was such an extraordinary story that it was worth putting our money where our mouth is.
In Frédéric’s version of the story he’s the victim. And the longer I spent with him, the more I began to believe that version. There was a clue in that idea as to how I should make the film; if I was being manipulated, he should be allowed to do that to the audience too.
It was difficult to find Nicholas’ family and convince them to take part; they wanted to tell their side of the story but were worried about being ridiculed for mistaking this man for their son.
As a documentary-maker you’re trying to find an answer and here I was finding loads of answers that were equally believable, but they couldn’t all add up. To search for one objective version of the truth would’ve been a mistake; the most honest thing is to allow all of those stories to co-exist and be in conflict with each other and for you as a viewer to come up with an objective decision yourself. If you’ve seen the film you’re as well placed to figure it out as I am.”
The Imposter is available to download now; £9.99; itunes.apple.com
Cynthia Wade’s Oscar-nominated 2012 film Mondays At Racine tells the story of two sisters who open their salon each month to offer free beauty services to women undergoing chemotherapy. Her other credits include 2010’s Born Sweet and 2007’s Oscar winning Freeheld
“There are two kinds of focumentary makers. The activists who start from a definite point of view and want to send a message, and the storytellers who fall in love with a story and it’s really about the people. I’m a storyteller first.
It took two and a half years to film Mondays At Racine and it was impossible not to get emotionally involved. The presence of a camera in the room changes the dynamic, so you have to walk a fine line between being the filmmaker but also having incredible intuition when you’re capturing people at their rawest and most vulnerable.
I’m really proud of Born Sweet because I broke out of the traditional documentary mode. I was tired of being reactive and chasing what’s happening in front of me, as opposed to being proactive and setting shots up. The film is about a Cambodian boy dying of arsenic poisoning who wanted to be a karaoke star; I wanted to challenge myself to go to a place where I’d never been, where I didn’t know the language and direct a crew to make a documentary shot like a fiction film.
I won an Oscar for Freeheld, about a dying policewoman who fights to leave her pension to her female life partner. Believe it or not, the Oscar is wrapped in a shawl in my closet. I don’t like looking at it because as great an honour as it is, you can’t rest and need to think about getting funding for your next film. This is a body of work and a lifetime career.”
Mondays At Racine is out this year; Born Sweet is available on Vimeo; vimeo.com. Freeheld is available on DVD; £19.29; freeheld.com
They were billionaires, now they shop at Walmart; Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 film Queen Of Versailles documents the riches-to-rags story of the eccentric Siegel family. Her moving 2006 documentary Thin chronicles the lives of four women at an eating disorder clinic
“I always get emotionally involved. I’ve always gone with the attachment parenting perspective. I have a personal connection to the subjects which helps create empathy, particularly in a project like Queen Of Versailles where a lot of people are not going to have empathy with those characters.
I never go in with a plan. I met Jackie Siegel [who was building the biggest house in America with
her husband David] when I was photographing Donatella Versace but I was more interested in her. About a year into filming, I discovered they were in the same position as many other Americans, having debts greater than their assets and no way out. At that point I realised the story wasn’t just about one family, but about the overreaching of America and mistakes that led to the financial crisis.
With Thin I spent a year getting access to the clinic but didn’t know what the story would be. Building trust was key; people with eating disorders have a high degree of social contagion, so if you offend somebody or do something that interferes with their privacy or treatment, you have to address it. When it became clear Shelly [an anorexic nurse who had been hospitalised 10 times] would be a main character, it got harder to film. With Thin I went in with questions; I don’t normally come out with answers, it’s about provoking conversation.”
Queen Of Versailles is available on BBC iPlayer; bbc.co.uk. Thin is available on DVD; £13.91; amazon.co.uk
In his 2011 documentary Bully, Lee Hirsch takes an unflinching look at how bullying touched five children and their families. It caused controversy in the USand is still awaiting a UK theatrical release date
“I think you’re seeing a lot more creative choices being made in documentaries, and you’re seeing them have more success commercially. More feature documentaries are being made, which is producing new talent all the time.
I was bullied as a kid and carried those memories into adulthood. It took a long time before I was read to make the film as it meant going back to that space for me. At one point during filming I had to intervene; I’m not a classic journalist in that sense but it got to the point where the movie became secondary and I had to let people know what was happening.
You’d be surprised at how quickly the kids lost interest in us filming; they went about their lives ignoring the camera quicker than I anticipated. The other factor, which is quite sad, is that the kids had become used to being able to bully Alex, who is the central story in the film. They’d done it for such a long time without adults stepping in.
I became closest to Alex’s family partly because the kind of things that happened to him happened to me. In a scene with him and his mom I remember sobbing as I was filming. It’s been wonderful to watch him transform from a shy bullied child who couldn’t speak without his bottom lip shaking to being a kid who’s outgoing and gregarious. The other day at the NO BULL Teen Video Awards he was freestyle rapping with Sean Kingston. That was pretty fantastic.”
Bully is available on Blu-ray and DVD; £13.91; amazon.co.uk