Documentaries are too often not treated as films proper. They’re talked about less as a type of film than a totally separate art form, shunted off in the back somewhere. No documentary has ever been nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. I realise the Oscars have a pretty blinkered point of view, but even other forms of cinema ghettoised at the Oscars have gotten some Best Picture nominations: thirteen films not in the English language, only a handful of horror movies, just three animated films, but not a single documentary. It’s kind of insane, if you think about it.
Part of it is that way too many documentaries are not made like films proper. Far too many rely so heavily on their subject being of interest that they don’t make the telling interesting in its own right. You just film a bunch of talking heads saying what happened and call it a day. I’m not criticising documentaries as a whole, here – lots and lots and lots of fiction films are visually lazy and uninteresting, and if the subject is strong enough, a documentary can be great whether it’s boldly ambitious or just talking heads telling you what happened. I recently watched a TV documentary about Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and even though the talking heads were more or less entirely boring and terrible, I still enjoyed it because it had lots of clips of Nichols and May sketches. But I think that exact strength allows us to imagine that documentaries are good if their subjects are interesting, that nothing much else goes into it. It allows us to buy into the division of documentaries from the rest of filmmaking. I think all the time about Michael Moore’s frustration at being called a “documentarian”, rather than a documentary filmmaker, since it’s not like people call Martin Scorsese a fiction-atarian. (The irony, of course, is that Scorsese is an accomplished documentary filmmaker too, but most of the time nobody talks about his documentaries in the same breath as his fiction films.)
I love Asif Kapadia’s documentaries in part because there’s no way that anyone, even subconsciously, could think of them not as “real” films. His 2010 film Senna – about the life and career of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna – is a sports movie in the truest sense, following his rivalry with Alain Prost like Rocky and Apollo Creed. Senna was followed by Amy, his Oscar-winning documentary about Amy Winehouse, in 2015, and Diego Maradona in 2019. Senna, Amy and Diego Maradona form a trilogy both thematically and stylistically: each is a chronicle of creative genius and the pressure of fame, pieced together from archival footage.
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