By Stephen Philip
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Return of the Real

This article is over 15 years, 10 months old
Why has there been a revival of realist conventions in modern film?
Issue 304

How can we understand the renewed attraction of documentary realism for audiences and filmmakers? In certain cases documentaries have become hugely popular beyond activist circles. Cultural commentators Denis Duclos and Valerie Jacq, writing in Le Monde Diplomatique about the Cannes 2005 film festival, noted the renewed interest in documentary style in a range of films – including fiction. Have audiences had enough of self-referring cinema? They probably want to rip apart the shiny cellophane of modern life and see the world as it really is or ought to be.

In France, Duclos and Jacq note the runaway appeal of the slyly political Etre et Avoir. From the US there have been the more polemical thunderblasts such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, The Corporation and Supersize Me. A more offbeat but nonetheless effective film was Mondovino, about the impact of globalisation on the wine industry. These documentaries have surprisingly reached a theatrical audience, catering for a hunger for direct, immediate, sometimes impassioned and polemical information in an exciting narrative format.

To be released in April, Wal Mart: The High Cost of Low Price has garnered exceptionally high praise from US critics because they know that a sizeable proportion of their readership will flock to see another hard-hitting anti-corporate documentary.

Is this interest in documentary realism an aberration, or rooted within the form of cinema? One of the earliest of films is entitled Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) – a short film which riveted audiences who were simply fascinated by the unembroidered reproduction of events and seeing real people with whom they could identify. Since then the sight of workers on the big screen is often only a fleeting presence, a mere shadow, but we still find moments to glimpse ourselves and our ideas reflected to us on the screen.

This impulse within working class audiences for the documentation of the real seems to emerge at times when a society goes through enormous ideological turmoil and also has the wherewithal to make films. It’s no wonder, then, that historically the left has often been associated with documentary’s resurgence. In the 1930s Communist Party linked filmmakers formed film organisations such as the Workers Film and Photo League in Britain and the US to make films explicitly about the class struggle.

After the Second World War leftist filmmakers in Italy broke with its fascist past (the Marxist Italian director Luchino Visconti called it the “cinema of corpses”) to critically re-examine society and portray ordinary people in sublime tales of rare poetic beauty. This revolution in “de-dramatised” storytelling was to prove hugely influential across the world. In the US the legacy of neo-realist aesthetics combined with other factors, such as light 16mm cameras, to produce the 1960s documentary movement called Direct Cinema. Its purpose was to find out “by watching how things really happen as opposed to the social image that people hold about the way things are supposed to happen”.

In the militant late 1960s and 1970s the “cinema of engagement” drew upon the realist aesthetic, from Third Cinema – which tried to link film production with the self-determination struggles in the Third World – to the independent left wing film movement in the US and Europe. The declaration of film producers, San Franscisco Newsreel, sums up the ideas of the time: “In our hands film… is a weapon to counter, to talk back and to crack the facade of the lying media of capitalism.”

So let’s go back to the current period, and the compelling nature and appeal of realism. Consider director Michael Winterbottom’s overarching artistic principle to show life as it really is. It is the principle which probably unites his films In This World, 9 Songs and The Road To Guantanamo. Fernando Meirelles, in The Constant Gardener, uses documentary footage of shanty town poverty to powerful effect.

Radical filmmakers today are less interested in the dogmatic self-reflexive gestures of 1970s modernism – they simply want to present urgent looking images. Reproducing images of reality is not the only credible way of showing a truth. There are other modes of storytelling that can also expose the contradictions of social reality. But for now it’s time to pause and reflect as Realism Is Back, And With A Vengeance, Part IV.

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