Documentaries are perhaps the truest cinematic art form, mainly because there are no concrete rules for how they are to be made. People expect documentaries to tell the truth – and that’s about it. Because of this minimal expectation, filmmakers can do anything and everything they want to achieve that goal (assuming that’s even the goal, but that’s another discussion). True, many documentaries are boring and procedural, like the ones on BBC about cheese making, but when actual filmmakers make documentaries the results can be exciting and unexpected.
Consider these two legendary narrative filmmakers: Orson Welles (director of Citizen Kane, the supposed best film of all time) and Agnes Varda (a major figure in the French New Wave). Towards the end of their careers they turned to personal documentary filmmaking.
About 10 years before his ashes were spread across a bull farm in Andalucía, Welles made F for Fake. On the surface this is an investigation of forgeries in the art world, but quickly it becomes an outright celebration of forgery and deceit as a way of life, with cinema as the ultimate form of deception. F for Fake joyfully manipulates the audience to question what is real — yet at other times what is presented as fake might actually be real. Welles takes goofy delight in this PT Barnum role, hilariously dressed in a magician outfit at one point. Welles’ questioning of authenticity never descends into a boring discussion of postmodernism — that happened a decade later — nonetheless it might not be for everyone. But it’s better than learning about how cheese is made.
And speaking of documentaries about food, in the last few years several scathing films have been made in America detailing the sad state of corporate food production. While these documentaries are important and fill a gap, they’re really closer to journalism. Consider instead Varda’s The Gleaners and I. Varda focuses her film on a centuries’ old French practice of “gleaning,” or taking for oneself the leftover crops that commercial and professional farmers can’t profit from. This is legal in France, which seems shocking to the American sensibility of private property. Varda starts with gleaning as her premise and then continues to expand her scope as the film moves from the country to the city. She finds gleaning in unexpected facets of modern life. Rather than appearing didactic, her film moves elegantly, finding poetry in these unconventional lifestyles. And like Welles, she sees everything as a celebration of cinema.