In the recent National Film Board produced documentary Discordia, there's a brief scene within a scene, a tiny flicker, that could define the newest wave of documentary-making.
First a little background: Samer Elatrash is a central figure in the film, a charismatic student leader at Montreal's Concordia University. He's active in Palestinian causes and helped to lead what turned into a violent demonstration in September, 2002, instigated by opposition to a planned speech by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The riot that ensued kicks off the film.
Noah Sarna, another central character,is the president of Hillel, Concordia's Jewish student association. There is no love lost between the two men. In one segment of the film, Elatrash who is on the losing side of a student election, congratulates Sarna, who is on the winning side with a half-hearted pat on the arm.
Then comes an extraordinary shot. Behind Elatrash's back, Sarna leers at Elatrash. It was one of those split-second emotions we all feel at times, and Sarna quickly stopped himself. But the small video camera, held low in the dim light, caught it: a mere second or two in the nearly 200 hours of video footage that filmmakers Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal shot over the course of a year at Concordia. That second of footage defined the film and was made possible by new filmmaking technology and the philosophy behind it.
Small digital cameras provide a new kind of intimacy and immediacy between subject and observer that young documentarians are trying to capture. It's not so much a break from the old methods of documentary-making, but an expansion of the genre.
It's all about finding a fresh approach to documentary storytelling. "The way we shot a lot of the film was that we held it [the camera]against our waist, instead of our shoulder. That effects how the film looks, because it gives you a connection with the characters," said Mallal, who was an intern at the NFB when he and Addelman came up with the idea to make a film about the political tensions at Concordia.
They chose from the start not to use extra lighting, and they eschewed traditional equipment such as intrusive boom microphones, relying more on lapel microphones and what they describe as a "low-impact style" bringing the viewer closer to the subjects. "So you are hanging out with the characters and the filmmaking [itself] There's not as much distance between the directors and the people we are filming," Mallal said.
It shows a drive, particularly among young documentary makers, to obtain what Tom Perlmutter, director general of the English program of the NFB, refers to as a deeper level of "authenticity". Yet, it doesn't mean that all young doc makers want to emulate the genre's agent provocateur, Bowling for Columbine's Michael Moore.
"It's safe to say I wouldn't want to be like him, at all," Mallal said. "We are trying to take something that's complex and tell a story out of it, about people and how people change. It's not really about us and what we think about the world, or what we think should change."
In fact, recent works by young filmmakers suggest that the easy accessibility of high-quality video cameras and home computer editing programs requires a new degree of cleverness and care in how a story is told. It's not enough to point and shoot interesting footage, Perlmutter says. The news media is everywhere, and now young documentarians are questioning the ability of the documentary genre to be purely objective.
In Discordia, for instance, newspaper clippings and TV footage are juxtaposed with the lives of the characters, showing how the media has oversimplified the confrontations between politically opposed students at Concordia.
Other filmmakers take the question of objectivity a step further by throwing the viewer into someone else's perspective. The 2002 film, S.P.I.T Squeegee Punks in Traffic, made by Montreal filmmakers Daniel Cross and Mila Aung-Thwin, is built around footage shot by the film's subject himself, a homeless young man, Eric (Roach) Denis. The filmmakers gave him a camera and let him show us what he sees.
"The terminology that I've used is that the Roach cam breaks the windshield, and then my camera gets the reflections of the people's lives from those broken shards of glass," Cross said.
Cross also said that the scenes that he and Aung-Thwin shot, which comprises about two-thirds of the film, is a little more objective. "But they are not overly objective to the point where I go behind his back and interview the other side. When I get involved and work with a subject like that, I decide that I'm not going to retreat behind them and get other points of view that are going to weaken their points of view," Cross said.
He and Aung-Thwin are involved in a similar film that has Inuit teenagers shooting their own footage and telling their own stories, while Cross is also working on another project that involves travelling across Canada to record as many unedited, video testimonials as he can of people living on the street. The aim is to put it on the Internet, effectively taking the documentary out of the cinema and television and releasing it of time constraints.
"What I'm trying to do with the Internet is to work on having a more diverse voice, and it can be interactive -- actual web-page blogs and bulletin boards, stuff like that," Cross said.
Then there are filmmakers who are experimenting with the genre by using animation to broaden the scope of the subject matter. Vancouver-based Ann Marie Fleming's well-received film, The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, retraces the life of her vaudeville performing great-grandfather by piecing together a highly engaging tale out of people's dim memories, old photos and other scraps of information, as well as footage of Fleming's own travels in finding the story.
Working with precious little actual footage of Long Tack Sam, Fleming (who is known for her experimental work) uses animation to cleverly bringing old photos to life. For instance, an illustration of the magician in a textbook comes to life and performs an entire magic trick. Or a photograph of Long Tack Sam moves and suddenly his facial expression changes. Thereby, Fleming injects a certain magic of her own.
"This is a collage film almost, with a pretty strong narrative. And I guess, if anything, I think the film tries to structurally mimic what I thought his act would be like, because he did a variety act and he was always changing things. Like when the animation comes on again, you know something's going to happen," she explains.
Animator Chris Landreth has also recently made the 14-minute film Ryan, shot entirely with computer animation, documenting the troubled life of Ryan Larkin, himself a celebrated animator in the sixties and early seventies who fell on hard times and substance abuse. Landreth puts himself as a character into the film, but adds surreal touches, such as the drastic deterioration of Larkin's face, while Landreth, for example, has "hands coming out of his head, [and]a halo pops up out when he gets too sanctimonious."
Like Fleming, he is applying typically non-documentary techniques to the documentary genre.
As Fleming said: "I'm interested in documentary as film, and film as an art form. It's really important to me, especially for this kind of subject matter, because it's his [her great-grandfather's]art." To make a more straightforward documentary wouldn't have captured "the whole sort of frisson" of his life, she said.
It's the whole idea of getting ever closer to the truth, at least how we perceive it.
Expanding the genre
The film industry has evolved rapidly during the last few years. Advanced equipment, production methods and distribution have each contributed to the evolution of modern documentaries.
Digital video cameras - cutting the cost and strain of shooting hundreds of hours of footage.
Websites - creating a place for all the extra scenes and outtakes before the DVD comes out.
Animation - expanding the truth-telling into imagined and metaphoric scenes.