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Film: Documentaries

By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES Winter 2013

Documentaries illustration

Those in the know refer to them as ‘docs’, meaning of course, documentary film. They are, in a way, a sub-category of the corporate made films we associate with big studios and bog box office. At film award venues docs place in their own division of filmmaking for short and feature length works. Big studio productions provide us with make-beleive reality, the docs give us the real goods. And there is seemingly no object, thing, person, event that cannot be subjected to documentary scrutiny - even if there is one for such was “Dadetown” in 1995, a sociological study of a town that doesn’t exist. You can get hooked on docs and their remarkable ability to attract you to things for which you have absolutely no interest. My first experience was to be reluctantly lured by Godfrey Cheire’s 2007 “Moving Midway”- essentially a course in how to move a 155 year old plantation mansion from one place to another.

Unless a doc is intended to take a belligerent view of a hot topic current issue as those of Michael Moore’s or of iconic historic concern as those of Ken Burns’ the general film audience will not come up against docs in their local theaters -- nor are they so intended. Free-lanced or commissioned working docs got o showings on the speciality television channels- travel, nature, science, education, nature and the like. Despite their near anonymous role in film they can yet represent some of the best qualities of professional filmmaking. Documentary film from Robert Flaherty’s 1922 “Nanook of the North” to Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles” have received well deserved honors. The appeal of the docs may lie in the hidden voyeur in all of us, the more off-beat, the more inconsequential and mundane, the better. The 2012 “American Scream: Halloween in Fairhaven” records the thirty days leading up to the main event over which three of Fairhaven’s citizens are determined, one might say, insanely determined to infuse this Massachusetts Norman Rockwell appearing town with the spirit of Halloween through the inspirations of their home and yard decorations. Who would make such a film, who was it made for? Well, for that matter how to account for “Bag it” in 2010, one hour and eighteen minutes of the life cycle of a plastic bag. How did I get caught up in a 2008 “Between the Folds”, an hour or so of origami and mathematical theories? Or worse, an hour and a half of 2008 “September Issue” and the fuss and bother of getting out another issue of Vogue Magazine. And what are “Buskers”? I had to know - street performers it turns out.

I know the feeling, all right. I have a secret desire to make a doc. Driving by old houses along country roads there comes the urge to enter each one and examine the interiors, how furnished, does it look ordered or careless. what might be guesses bout the house’s inhabitants and how they live. Oh, not the plastic sheathed houses, only the all wood ones, needing perhaps a bit of paint, a new shutter, a house that is age worn but not yet defeated and still livable. The people would never be present in my doc. What we can know of them is only revealed in the things that fill their homes. I harbor a suspicion that some secrets may turn up- maybe not bloody rags or bones- but something surprising, I’ll make a bet on that.

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