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Mobile screens to go out to rural film fans
Monday March 8, 2004
Britain's silver screen is to follow the example of radical stage
producers 50 years ago who mounted an entire theatre on ex-army
lorries and trundled it out into the culture-starved countryside.
A gap in cinema provision has triggered the plan for modern successors
to the celebrated 'Blue Box' whose convoy of vehicles could
be converted within a few hours into a 200-seat auditorium.
The proposal will be announced today at the start of an attempt to bring
new releases to villages and market towns at the same
time as urban cinemas. A Lottery grant of £500,000 will pay for
portable, high-quality digital equipment which will allow village halls
and rooms in rural pubs to become cinemas for the evening.
The move follows last week's release of statistics which showed that
people in many rural areas had almost more chance of
appearing in pictures than going to see them. "Our initiative will
provide surround-sound and a perfect digital picture, and all the
clubs will need is a bare wall to project the film against," said Peter
Buckingham, head of distribution and exhibition for the UK Film
Council which will administer the scheme.
The programme hopes to stimulate the creation of more countryside film
clubs, using church groups, young farmers' clubs and the
Women's Institute to increase demand. The UKFC, set up by the government
to promote the domestic film industry, will offer up to
80% of costs to groups applying for mobile equipment with a ceiling of
more info on Rural British Isles
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers
Back to reality
They were once seen as earnest exercises in propaganda. Now
documentaries are packing out the multiplexes.
Why? Simple, says Blake Morrison. They give us what Hollywood won't -
Friday March 5, 2004
I'd been meaning to see Touching the Void since its release in early
December, but by late January it was down to a daily showing
at my local multiplex, a sure sign it was about to disappear. The
following week, resigned to waiting for the video, I noticed it was
back to three screenings a day. You had to book to be sure of getting
in, even so. When I finally saw it, in February, every seat was
The box office success of Touching the Void is hard to credit. It is,
after all, a documentary. That was partly why, despite the
glowing reviews, I'd dragged my feet - because the word suggests
something earnest, pedagogic, propagandist, short on colour and
narrative excitement, and more suited to the small screen than the big.
Documentary, said its most famous British exponent John
Grierson, is about "the creative treatment of actuality". And, according
to TS Eliot and Hollywood producers, humankind - or the
portion of it that spends Saturday night at the movies - can't bear very
Yet the actuality of Touching the Void is its greatest asset. Much of
the film consists of interviews with Joe Simpson and Simon
Yates about the catastrophe that overtook them in the Peruvian Andes in
1985. To reconstruct that climb, shot on location in Peru
and the Alps, the film's director, Kevin Macdonald, uses two actors. But
the actors speak even fewer lines than Colin Firth in Girl
with a Pearl Earring - all we hear from them are grunts, gasps, screams
The film keeps cutting back from the snow to the real-life protagonists
as they relive their experience. Rather than breaking the
spell, the presence of these men, unfussily filmed (simple headshots,
against a plain backcloth), adds to the intensity of the
experience and deepens the psychological drama. We know Yates and
Simpson survived because they're there, at the campfire, to
tell the tale, but that doesn't lessen the suspense.
Beautiful to look at and gripping to watch, Touching the Void enlarges
one's sense of what documentary can achieve. Though
there's no political or ethnological impulse behind it, its story of
isolated human figures battling against the wintry elements is as
committed to fact as the first great documentary classic, Robert
Flaherty's 1922 Nanook of the North: we hear the clink of crampon
and ice axe, see clouds pouring over summits, and are told all about
Andean snow, its meringues, mushrooms, cornices and
flutings. There's no need for a shaky camcorder. The deal is that this
really happened. Any hint of lying or fakery and the film would
Macdonald is not alone in extending the documentary tradition. Next
month sees the release in Britain of two other compelling
examples. In the Oscar-winning The Fog of War, under the gaze of
director Errol Morris, the former US defence secretary Robert
McNamara looks back over a career that took him and his country into the
Vietnam war. And in Andrew Jarecki's Oscar-nominated
Capturing the Friedmans we watch the destruction of a family as two of
its members, a father and son, stand trial for sexually
These two films are as different from each other as from Touching the
Void. But there are important strands in common. All three
rely heavily on interviews: as the subjects painfully revisit events
from years ago, they narrate to, plead with, explain and exonerate
themselves in front of the camera. All three films forgo the assistance
of an omniscient narrator, and let the subjects tell their own
stories. Most crucial, through a variety of techniques - testimony,
photographs, newsreels, 8mm home movie footage - all three
constantly remind us these stories are true.
The resurgence of documentary is a phenomenon few could have predicted.
The battle for a place in mainstream cinema outlets
was lost half a century ago, and in recent years, as reality TV has
taken over the schedules, the question has been whether
documentary can survive even within mainstream television.
Britain has always been rich in documentary-makers - from Grierson and
Humphrey Jennings to Nick Broomfield and Molly Dineen.
But since the mid-90s, the space for documentary on television has
increasingly been given over to programmes about self- or
home-refurbishment - how to improve your cooking skills or your life. So
marginalised have documentaries become that the idea of
them attracting large cinema audiences, or being borrowed as DVDs and
cassettes from video stores, seems wildly implausible.
Yet this has begun to happen. Among prime examples of the revival are
Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, which extends the
territory - idiosyncratic investigative reportage - Moore first occupied
with Roger and Me; Spellbound, a documentary about the 1999
US national spelling bee, which draws us into the stories of eight
competitors and the very different families and communities to
which they belong; Etre et Avoir, which traces a year in the life of a
French rural school; and Startup.com, which follows two
childhood classmates, Kaleil and Tom, from the launch of their internet
venture in May 1999 to its demise on New Year's Day 2001.
Mix these in with the biopics (Iris, Sylvia, etc), politico-historical
reconstructions (One Day in September) and some outstanding
sport and music documentaries (When We Were Kings, The Filth and the
Fury), and it begins to look as if more people are
watching fact-based movies now than at any point since the second world
It would be easy to get overexcited. I can't see The Fog of War or even
Capturing the Friedmans enjoying the same success here
as they have in the US. And the crossover into biopic and drama-doc
(which also includes the part-acted American Splendor) is
precisely what directors like Kevin Macdonald, purist about their
contract with an audience, seek to avoid. But the hunger for truth -
the need to hear what Seamus Heaney calls "the music of what happens" -
seems genuine enough. And since documentaries are
so cheap to make, there's every reason for producers and distributors to
get behind them, so long as the outlet is a multiplex with
bums on seats, not the enclave of a film festival or cultural studies
The public craving for authenticity explains the predominance of
non-narrative fiction - memoirs, life writing, popular history, plays
made from the transcripts of court cases - in recent publishing and
theatre. Reality TV was another response but it hasn't met the
demand, since its reality quota, never large, is now minuscule. Feature
films can't satisfy it either. When directors are answerable
to committees or an invisible chain of command, the prospects of them
achieving authenticity in their movies are diminished.
The budget for Touching the Void was a modest £1.5m. Any US studio
optioning Joe Simpson's book (as one has now done, to
make a fictionalised version with big-name actors) would spend 10 times
as much. But the bigger the budget, the less control for
the auteur - and the fainter any semblance of reality.
As the popularity of the Lord of the Rings trilogy shows, the vogue for
documentary hardly signals a revulsion against fantasy. But
what orcs, wizards and special effects can't accommodate is the need for
believable stories and recognisable dilemmas - and for
characters whose lives go on after the lights have come up.
"Joe continues to climb to this day," the end of Touching the Void tells
us. And, rightly judging that we'll we want to know whether
things have turned out OK for the protagonists, the closing credits of
Startup.com reveal that Kaleil and Tom have now started a
dotcom to help distressed dotcoms.
Fiction sometimes provides a similarly reassuring epilogue - as in
"Reader, I married him" (Jane Eyre) or "Viewer, we did it just
once but I had his baby" (Cold Mountain) - but in the end, after all the
tears, we know novels and feature films are just stories. What
documentary-makers do by appropriating the devices of traditional
storytelling - especially the use of reliable narrators - is to bring
an emotional power to the form that pioneers like Grierson didn't
envisage or (seeing it as part of the Hollywood star system)
In the days when documentaries were made by behalfers - the socially
concerned few speaking on behalf of the silent majority - the
mission was to change the world or inspire a sense of nationhood. To his
colleague Edgar Anstey, the crime of Humphrey
Jennings's wartime classic Listen to Britain was that its elegiac beauty
would "not encourage anyone to do anything at all". Now
that documentaries (Michael Moore's apart) are no longer politically
engagé , pleasing an audience, rather than trying to improve it,
seems less of a crime. Even Moore is anarchic and gets his message over
with a sense of humour that Grierson, with his Calvinist
solemnity, would have distrusted.
Because the stories that documentaries choose to tell aren't determined
by focus groups, they're a place for surprising things to
happen and for difficult issues to be explored, whether the morality of
war, or the rights and wrongs of pushing your kids
(Spellbound), or appropriate sexual behaviour.
Jarecki has said of his film about paedophilia, Capturing the Friedmans,
that it's designed to provoke rather than lead us to a
conclusion: at the end, we're not supposed to think something in
particular, "just to think". His method is to lead us through the
same twists and turns he must have gone through with the Friedman case,
allowing us to assume x, then pulling the rug from our
feet with y, then qualifying that with z - and so on until the end of
the film, when we're still left puzzling over the guilt of both father
Jarecki succeeds brilliantly, because he had access to tapes and videos
made by the Friedmans themselves, a family of manic
talkers and inveterate home movie-makers. In the shock of seeing his
father on sex charges, the eldest son, David, began filming
the family, and went on doing so up to and beyond the trial. The home
footage, intercut with local news reports and later interviews,
gives a unique sense of drama - we see the family agonising, confessing,
denying and playacting, before they know what sentence
will be passed. The footage is so intimate that at one point David, in a
video diary, warns: "This is private - so if you're not me, you
really shouldn't be watching this, turn it off."
Voyeurism is an inescapable part of the modern documentary. Ours is an
era of lost inhibitions. There's a pleasure in seeing people
exposed to danger or embarrassment: no more shame or stiff upper lips,
let the tears flow and the skeletons be brought from the
cupboard. Jarecki understands that. Part of the frisson of watching his
film is a sense of encroachment. How come we're being
allowed in on this stuff? Why is the family (one of the three sons
aside) so cooperative? And yet there's nothing exploitative about
Jarecki's method. He respects his subjects - and respects his audience
to make up its own mind.
This doesn't mean that his film is so wide open as to lack a point of
view. Jarecki highlights the untrustworthiness of one witness to
the alleged sex abuse by filming him lying on a bed as he makes his
accusations, his face in half-shadow and with what looks like
an erection beneath his shorts.
Morris's The Fog of War - subtitled Eleven Lessons From the Life of
Robert S McNamara - works similarly, balancing admiration for
McNamara's willingness to examine his past against condemnation of his
complicity in the Vietnam war (and, by extension, Bush's
in Iraq). The film begins with two brief sequences, from the 1960s and
now, that show McNamara as a media manipulator and
control freak, whose sincerity isn't altogether to be trusted.
To bring us exclusives, documentary film-makers, like journalists,
depend on a mixture of luck and cunning. Morris had it in finding
an octogenarian statesman, with all his intellectual faculties intact,
who could be persuaded to be interviewed over 23 hours rather
than, as originally agreed, a mere two. The resulting film has earned
McNamara a new attention and affection that he couldn't, at
87, have expected.
But it would be surprising if he didn't feel a little traduced by
Morris. He comes across in the film as fiercely intelligent and (less
predictably) deeply passionate; one section shows his chin trembling and
eyes filling as he recalls the the death of JFK. But other
shots - of a tough old sonofabitch, with a predator's lower jaw and
crooked teeth, cantankerously wagging his finger and stubbornly
avoiding awkward questions - are less forgiving.
Every journalist, Janet Malcolm famously said (and her comments equally
apply to the documentary film-maker), "is a kind of
confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness,
gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse". This
seems too harsh.
Simon Yates is reportedly ambivalent about Touching the Void, and had a
difficult time on location in Peru. But the film is
scrupulous in avoiding any criticism of him as "the man who cut the
rope" and he emerges from it as winningly as Joe Simpson.
"The relationship between director and subject can become very intense,"
Macdonald says. "It's a bit like therapy, with lots of
transferences going on. It's easy to feel guilty."
Jarecki makes a joke of his guilt, and of his subjects' motives in
courting publicity, by beginning his film with the song Act Naturally:
"They're going to put me in the movies/ They're going to make a big star
out of me."
It's reality TV, though, with its 15 minutes of stardom, that's the
bigger Judas. A documentary made for the cinema, shot over a
lengthy period and based on a degree of mutual trust, needn't diminish
its subject. Which is another reason for the appeal of
documentaries like Touching the Void and The Fog of War - they don't
leave us feeling cheap for having watched them.
Authenticity is a tricky business. The average television documentary
isn't big enough to work in the cinema: there's not the depth
or originality. Equally, cinema documentaries may have to be edited down
for television. Watching a videotape of Touching the Void
at home, a fortnight after seeing it at the cinema, I noticed the music
more, and the leisureliness, and the mythical subtext beneath
the facts, with Joe Simpson as the archetypal wounded hero. It seemed a
lusher, more romantic film.
Where it scores, wherever you watch it, is in its narrative power.
That's the trick of the current wave of documentaries, even
essayistic ones like The Fog of War. They know a good story when they
see it (Nick Broomfield's Aileen Wuornos film, for
example, is the direct forerunner of Monster). And they've discovered
methods of storytelling that encourage us to think and feel for
ourselves, rather than feeding us the party line.
"If documentary is going to be significant," Paul Rothe wrote in 1935,
"we must make films which will move the people and not just
amuse our fellow directors." Take the word "the" out and that could
stand as a manifesto for current practice.
· The Fog of War is released on April 2, and Capturing the Friedmans on
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers
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