For 100 years, the cinema has been the place we go to escape. Whether your taste runs toward romantic comedy or a galaxy-traveling blockbuster, the movies let us step out of our own lives and into a fantasy world for a few hours.
Documentary film does something else entirely. Rather than offering a temporary passage out of daily existence, documentaries bring us into a place, personality or predicament, giving us fresh perspective on the world we share. Through the camera lens, we can walk the globe in other people’s shoes.
Though documentary films generally aspire to present “life as it is” (as one early theorist suggested), skillfully edited footage “taken from the raw” can be as compelling and persuasive as fiction. “Nanook of the North” (1922) and “Triumph of the Will” (1935) are both considered filmmaking classics despite their directors’ controversial methods. By mid-century, however, the parallel developments of French cinema verité and North American “direct cinema” had introduced the ideal of pure observation, often with no narration. One landmark of this style was the Boston lawyer Frederick Wiseman’s “Titicut Follies” (1967), which documented the inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane. “Don’t Turn Your Back on This Film… If You Value Your Mind or Your Life,” read the theatrical poster.
As Hollywood in the 1970s turned toward the kind of realism invariably described as “gritty,” documentarians canvassed an ever-wider expanse of human experience. D.A. Pennebaker helped establish rock & roll culture as fertile ground with his punctuation-challenged Bob Dylan profile “Dont Look Back.” The Maysles brothers – like Wiseman, Bostonians – brought us into the eccentric lives of the mother-and-daughter Beales in “Grey Gardens,” and in 1983 “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance” debuted the wordless, compilation-style meditations known as the “Qatsi” trilogy, which inspired a new generation of poetic filmmaking.
Documentaries found the mainstream with titles such as Michael Moore’s debut, “Roger & Me” (1989), a personalized lament about the state of the auto industry; Pennebaker’s “The War Room” (1993), a glimpse into Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign team; and the gripping high school basketball chronicle “Hoop Dreams” (1994). As our political discourse has fractured into a thousand points of contention, prominent documentaries of the past decade have polarized opinions about climate change (“An Inconvenient Truth”), fast food (“Super Size Me”), gun control (“Bowling for Columbine”) and the public school system (“Waiting for ‘Superman’”), to name a few.
In recent years, the proliferation of digital filmmaking has remade documentary film as a uniquely democratic medium, putting the power to bear witness into the hands of anyone with a handheld camera and a laptop computer. We’re in the midst of a documentary boom, with the number produced annually expanding from a tiny fraction of the film industry to nearly 20 percent of all titles.
That’s where documentary film festivals have flourished. The vast majority of documentaries do not have any kind of studio backing, distribution or premium cable TV connections. They are labors of love in the truest sense of the term, and they deserve to be seen. Whether they take you – as some of our films do this year – into the private anguish of Japanese parents after a nuclear meltdown, a Maine man’s obsessive mission to build a Spanish-style galleon, or a shy Liverpool teenager’s secretarial duties for the band that would become world-famous as the Beatles, a good documentary film will pull you all the way in.
James Sullivan is the author of four books, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a regular contributor to the Boston Globe.