From skateboarding in Illinois to covert filming in the suburbs of Damascus, documentary films are enjoying mass-market appeal – and cashing in at the box office too. We meet the genre’s talents.
Sitting in: Nitehawk Cinema, New York
Latest: I Love You, Now Die
“I want to make films that are part of the zeitgeist,” says New York-based film-maker Erin Lee Carr. The fact that much of her work tells grim true-crime stories says much about how dark the spirit of the times has become. Her documentary Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop follows a policeman accused of kidnapping, while Mommy Dead and Dearest is about a matricide; both found success on Hbo. Her upcoming titles are no less unsettling: At the Heart of Gold examines abuse in US gymnastics, while I Love You, Now Die, a two-part documentary about Michelle Carter, an American woman accused of encouraging her boyfriend’s suicide, premiered at sxsw in March.
Viewers have always had a taste for the macabre but, now that Netflix and the like have caught on to the success of shows such as Making a Murderer and Mindhunter, the floodgates have truly opened. For Carr there’s more than morbid curiosity behind the current popularity of true-crime programming: “We are all naturally investigators,” she says. And documentaries offer information we can trust; everything on Netflix and Hbo is verified by a secondary source. While the US media demonised Carter, I Love You, Now Die gives viewers an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the events behind the trial. “These people are not victims, not perpetrators, not villains,” says Carr. “They are human beings.”
Carr often includes herself in films as a voice behind the camera. She believes that the ability to listen carefully is a female trait – and is one reason why many documentary film-makers are women. “They are careful about assessing the danger of a situation and thinking about something in a new way.” Ultimately, she says, film-making empowers women. “That’s why I started doing this.”
Sitting in: Cinema at Covent Garden Hotel, London
Latest: Minding the Gap
There might be no better place to tell a gritty story about young men coming of age than a disenfranchised rust-belt community in Trump’s America. First-time film-maker Bing Liu’s Oscar-nominated documentary Minding the Gap follows three male skateboarders as they carve through Rockford, Illinois, avoiding security guards, hopping fences and occasionally grazing a knee. Liu weaves a highly affecting story as the characters reach adulthood.
“The question I wanted to answer was, ‘How do we grow up into decent men if we haven’t had decent role models?’” says Liu, perched on a seat at Covent Garden Hotel’s in-house cinema, before the UK premiere of Minding the Gap. Filmed over five years, the film focuses on Keire Johnson, 17, a high-school dropout working as a dishwasher, and 23-year-old Zack Mulligan, who is adjusting to life as a father. As the story progresses, Johnson must come to terms with the death of his violent and estranged father; the audience is also introduced to Mulligan’s abusive behaviour towards the mother of his child.
These stories are filmed by Liu in the style of cinéma vérité: everyday scenes are captured with no intervention from the film-maker. The film is at its most poignant, however, when Liu steps out from behind the camera to interview his mother. We learn that it is Liu’s own history of abuse at the hands of his stepfather that prompted him to make the film. Though breaking the divisions between subject and film-maker might confound some audiences, Liu felt that the film’s integrity depended on it. “People will always judge the film-maker’s decisions,” he says. “But my job became to give you context as to why I made them. I felt like putting myself in there might help my case.”
The success of Minding the Gap comes from Liu’s complicity in the characters’ lives and his ability to shape a story around their experiences. “The first thing I look for is emotional accessibility,” he says. “If the people in my films are open and willing to process the things that happen to them with me, I think, ‘Wow, you haven’t spoken to anyone about this before but you’re willing to go there with me.’”
Liu believes that we are entering a rich era for documentary film-making, where character-driven stories provide artful representations of the society we live in. “Documentary films are becoming more story-driven and more like feature films. And they are more accessible. We understand things through empathy and emotion, not through information.”
His top tip for making a film? “Pick something that is going to enrich your life because you’re going to go through so many obstacles, rejections and failures and you’re going to feel hopeless,” he says. As Minding the Gap shows, it can also enrich the lives of others.
Sitting in: Cinelux, Geneva
Latest: Avant la Fin de l’Été (Before Summer Ends)
“The only real material that interests me in cinema is the human, its needs and its soul,” says Maryam Goormaghtigh from the screening room of Geneva’s Cinélux, a cinema where her own film has been on the programme. “There is a reality we share as human beings. When there is a camera to capture that, it’s marvellous.” For her own explorations of people’s characters, the director has settled on making creative documentaries that often straddle the line between reality and fiction. They are true to life but borrow from the aesthetic and narrative codes of feature films for their emotional appeal.
“Documentary cinema is an institution in Switzerland,” she says. Born in Geneva in 1982, she was drawn to directing as a child: her father gave her his Leica camera as her first tool. “I captured the everyday, rather than shooting little fictions,” she says. She later enrolled at the Insas film school in Brussels, which is known for its documentary focus, but dropped out to shoot the footage that turned into Le Fantôme de Jenny M, a medium-length effort about the fraught sale of a family property.
A haunting sense of nostalgia runs through her films. “They’re eclectic and always linked to my personal experience,” she says. While learning Farsi in Paris, Goormaghtigh (who has Iranian roots) met three Iranian men at a bar. For four years she chronicled their everyday life. When one of the men decided to move back to Iran, the trio set off on a farewell road trip across France; Goormaghtigh joined them, with her camera in tow. Footage from that trip became Avant la Fin de l’Été, her first feature-length film, which premiered at Cannes in 2017. Warm and intimate, it won the Emerging Swiss Talent award as well as being nominated for the Swiss Cinema prize and the International Press prize for the best Francophone film.
Though she plans to move further towards fiction, there are also (as-yet-under-wraps) plans for more documentaries, including a potential follow-up with her Iranian characters. “I take reality as my starting point and go from there,” she says. “For each film there is a form that needs to be found. I do not rule out any, as long as there is a camera and a desire.”
Goormaghtigh recently experimented with Fashion Geek, an online documentary series on technology in fashion made for Arte France. But, she says, her films are best enjoyed on the big screen. “When you watch on your laptop you have emails pinging, your child waking up; at the cinema you’re forced to stay until the end.” It’s also where people experience emotions together. “Laughter entails more laughter. When my film was shown at Cannes there was a lovely echo around it. It would not exist if people watched it on their little screens.”
Sitting in: Bafta’s 195 Piccadilly, London
Latest: On the President’s Orders
Over the past few years, UK film-maker James Jones has collected many awards – including two Emmys, three DuPonts and a Rory Peck – for documentaries on topics ranging from life in North Korea to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Mosul, a tour de force made with co-director Olivier Sarbil, cemented Jones’s reputation for blending compelling stories of real consequence with cinematic style. The pair’s latest film, On the President’s Orders, offers a glimpse inside the world of the police in the Philippines as they carry out president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, which prompted a wave of killings.
Both films prove the importance of access for documentary-making. “Without the access you can’t make films,” says Jones, in the café of Bafta’s London screening room. He points to scenes in On the President’s Orders that closely shadow a police precinct. “With the police chief in the Philippines, our timing was good,” he says. “There was a drive to show the media that they’d changed.”
Though the crew never hid their aims from the police chief, Jones’s main subject had surprisingly few reservations about opening up – but it wasn’t all luck. “We spent a lot of time hanging out at the police station so we just built bonds with the cops,” he says. “The strength of the film is that – because we had that trust – by the time we came to ask tough questions we got a true insight into their rationale for killing.” Working so closely with sources can, however, raise some ethical concerns. “The thing you’ve got to be careful about is whether filming encourages behaviour that’s different from what would happen if you weren’t there,” he says. “We filmed in the jail, where the jailer beat prisoners with a stick. There was a worry: is he doing this for our benefit?”
Non-fiction narrative films have benefited from great exposure thanks to the likes of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon – but Jones has noticed some Tinseltown tropes creeping into documentaries too. “In the past documentaries were more didactic or a bit dry,” he says. “Now good cameras are cheaper so documentaries can use the same cameras as movies. They look slicker and they borrow narrative devices from movies.” Sometimes, however, the line between truth and fiction becomes blurred. “I think there is a strand of documentary-making that is less transparent and less journalistically rigorous,” he says. “If I’m watching a film and I start to feel manipulated or deceived, the power of the movie backfires.”
Jones worries that the rapid rise in the popularity of documentaries could attract even further fudging. “Some people love the craft of film-making, which is fine,” he says. “But don’t make films about subjects when you are not interested in the facts.”
Sitting in: Metropolis Cinema, Beirut
Latest: Still Recording
Between 2011 and 2015, as Syria descended from revolution to war, Ghiath Ayoub and several friends filmed more than 450 hours of footage of their daily lives in Damascus and its suburbs. Ayoub saw the power of using video to document the conflict in a country where tight state control on freedom of expression reigns. Ayoub left Syria for neighbouring Lebanon in 2013, halfway through filming. The footage was smuggled across the border on seven hard drives and, after years of editing, became Still Recording.
Ayoub co-directed the film with Saeed al Batal (now in Berlin), Beirut-based Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts and a French and a German company. “Before 2011, very few pictures came out of Syria,” says Ayoub, sitting at Beirut’s Metropolis, which screened Still Recording. “Now there are millions of pictures and videos. That is one of the successes of the revolution: through images, the world outside saw what the dictator was doing.”
Ayoub’s debut film primarily focuses on the lives of two friends: co-director Al Batal and fine-arts student Milad Amin. The pair are separated, with one in the besieged Eastern Ghouta suburb (controlled by rebels at the time) and the other in central Damascus (controlled by the government). The documentary won the Audience award and the Fipresci award at the Venice International Film Critics’ Week. Ayoub is now guiding other Syrian film-makers and developing a new film focusing on a Syrian born in 2018 who discovers pictures and videos of the conflict.
Much of the imagery in Still Recording is predictably hard-hitting – but there are also moments of absurdity and black comedy. Its off-tripod style of filming reflects the fauda (chaos) in which the team shot. “That’s part of the storytelling; a stable shot wouldn’t belong,” says Ayoub. The group knew the risks of filming in Syria: media has become a powerful weapon in the conflict and all belligerents have restricted and persecuted journalists. Yet Ayoub recognises the importance of exposure at the cost of war.“That’s the price you pay for speaking the truth,” he says. “In Syria the price is very high; we’ve seen that.” The film documents the moment that one of the crew, Abu Kinan, is shot by a sniper. The sequence is among those that lend the production a cinematic quality. This is not a neat news package; it’s a raw account of Syrians’ reality.
Ayoub is not deterred by accusations from President Assad’s supporters that film-makers working in rebel areas have shown fabricated images of death and destruction. The team didn’t want the film to appear to be propaganda for the rebels either. “It makes me work more, with teams, telling stories – it’s a case of documentation,” he says. “Still Recording is about fighting against falsity.”