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Pride and Prejudice

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Whether you've got something to say about George Bush, the corporate world, or the weeds in your backyard, a documentary is the hottest ticket in town right now.

Ask a Generation X-er what it used to be like going to the movies. If they saw Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Flying High in the cinema complexes of one of Australia's capital cities, they probably sat through a boring twenty minute short about grass skiing or (if they were lucky) a Tom & Jerry cartoon.

With the rise of the suburban multiplex, pre-show shorts fell out of fashion and the documentary was relegated to festivals and arthouse screenings too hip for anyone who liked Independence Day or thought George Lucas was a visionary.

It all changed in 2002 because of a portly guy from Flint, Michigan, and suddenly the Spider-Man's and King Arthur's at cinemas found themselves alongside Spellbound, Capturing the Friedmans and Touching the Void. Suddenly documentaries were hotter than A-list stars.

The Tide is High

The most recent (and best) entry into the genre is The Corporation, made by co-director Mark Achbar (the man behind Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent), and while he admits he and other documentarians are riding the crest of Michael Moore's wave, he also points out the popularity of documentaries is cyclical, and now they're feeding success to each other.

"This isn't first time feature documentaries have been shown in cinemas," Achbar says during his recent Australian promotional tour. "My earliest memory of a feature documentary was called Hearts and Minds, a great anti Vietnam War statement which played in cinemas in the US. The more satisfying film experiences people have of documentaries in the theatre, the more likely they are to come back and see another one, so whether it's a political documentary or Touching the Void or Spellbound, just the idea of going out to the theatre to see a film that's not fictional is becoming more accessible."

The Political Spectrum

Of course, docos are no longer about CWA knitting clubs or deep sea fishing on weekends. They're hard hitting, at times intensely political, and as Void and Friedmans have shown us, they capture slices of real life that are truly stranger than fiction.

After his broad salvo against the American way of life in Bowling for Columbine, Moore's next film zeroed in on the one man he more or less sees as the root of all evil in America. Audiences took to the controversy in droves, giving Moore box office figures a tanning salon full of action film producers would be salivating over.

The firebomb political documentary has become such a strong subgenre that websites like filmstoseebeforeyouvote.org have sprung up around it, but is it a true documentary?

The most in your face example is Fahrenheit 9/11, where Moore makes no bones about his motivation. But isn't it the case that in making a political documentary, it'll inevitably be influenced by your politics? The Corporation, for example, would be a very different film if made by Nike or Halliburton.

"Objectivity is a myth," Achbar says. "It's not something I aspire to. I acknowledge my point of view, but just because I have a point of view doesn't mean I'm incapable of being fair to points of view I disagree with. That's why half the forty interview subjects are corporate insiders."

But don't you have to be careful not to let your film turn into a personal soapbox? "It depends how large you want your audience to be," Achbar thinks. "If it's a purely one-sided rant, I think it's going to be less interesting as a film."

The Documentary Duality

Just as popular is the documentary where you're not championing a point of view (political or otherwise), but letting the events simply tell the story. As a documentarian, not only need the same filmmaking talent as a feature director (like the ability to edit your material to maximise it's cinematic impact), you have to let the story tell itself, with little of the control over the story you enjoy in fiction.

Filmmaker Eddie Martin is shopping his documentary Jisoe around after meeting with initial success at festivals. In stark contrast to Moore and Achbar, Martin adopts what he calls a 'fly on the wall' approach, following the life of a young Melbourne graffiti artist and his struggles with both his lifestyle and the law.

Martin has a definite view on how involved the filmmaker's beliefs should be, but knows what he's up against when controversy – like sex – sells.

"It depends on the filmmakers, but documentarians are usually trying to present a point of view," he says. "Popular documentaries like Bowling for Columbine and The Corporation do that, and documentaries that have something loud to say will always be more accepted by the mass market because subtlety is hard to sell.

"If you know were the filmmaker is trying to take you, the story can often be lost, but I'm more interested in documentaries that uncover a story."

It's Still Just a Movie

But the big question is; what are you – a movie director or an activist with something to say? In Mark Achbar's case, you're both ("I'm an activist who uses the media, or I'm a media activist – I'm not sure which," he laughs).

But the difference between writing a dry political or social thesis and making a movie that is intended to entertain as well as inform is skill as a filmmaker. Obviously there's a lot more research to be done – it's probably about half the job if you're doing something politically motivated – but don't forget the most important element to a good movie; the audience.

"It's all storytelling, and you have to engage people intellectually and emotionally," Achbar says. "It helps to engage them with humour, visually and through sound. Using all the elements, you're playing with the same medium but you just have a lot less control compared to drama. You're shuffling the cards you're dealt as opposed to designing your own deck from scratch.

"And all the thought and planning and design in fiction is very front-loaded. It's all about the script and the casting. The editing is not as critical as in a documentary, because you start with ideas about what you want to do but the bulk of the piece's meaning will come together in the editing."

To Eddie Martin, it's what documentaries are all about. "Finding a balance between staying true to a story and keeping the audience engaged is the art form in documentary making.

"Regardless of whether or not a story is real, the rules for entertaining an audience are very similar for documentary and drama. There are also moral and legal responsibilities to your subject (s). I can easily make a story that's engaging for the audience, but if it's slanderous or gets my subject into trouble, I've failed as a documentary maker. There has to be a line where non-fiction becomes fiction or drama."

Story, story, story.

Of course, having Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Michael Moore in your film helps. One of the criticisms against Fahrenheit 9/11 was of preaching to the converted, and The Corporation would be much the same if it wasn't for the equal screen time given to CEOs and stock traders who are able to (by turns) fall on their own swords or reveal themselves to be human.

But whether you're pushing a barrow or not, the best documentaries of the last few years have succeeded where a million 20 minute shorts on hang gliding from the late 1970s failed – they tell a story.

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