Documentaries in vogueAs the 10th edition of Film Southasia (FSA) chugs ahead in full swing, documentary makers and enthusiasts are eager to celebrate and share the art of storytelling that documentaries are. But they have the rest—those new to the genre or non-inclined towards non-fiction films—wondering just what is it about these films that draws people to them.
As the 10th edition of Film Southasia (FSA) chugs ahead in full swing, documentary makers and enthusiasts are eager to celebrate and share the art of storytelling that documentaries are. But they have the rest—those new to the genre or non-inclined towards non-fiction films—wondering just what is it about these films that draws people to them.
Documentaries, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, are “films, or television or radio programmes that provide a factual report on a particular subject”. While Sir Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), an English filmmaker, once quipped, “In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.” If we are to truly appreciate the essence and impact of documentaries, and their artistic virtue, we need to understand its core. Simply put, documentaries portray the reality of a subject with a unique perspective, backed by facts and real-life cast members. The small crew behind the camera—directors, cameramen and a few others—are neutral listeners who find ways to weave pieces of factual information together to reveal stories of the subject, people, places, and events to the viewers.
This is also how documentaries differ from feature films. The latter also requires directors, producers, camera crew and cast members but they essentially employ dramatisation of fictional scripts conceived by imaginative storywriters. The closest they come to portraying reality is when they turn to biopics or real life events.
Documentaries are so intrigued by the truths of human conditions and real life circumstances that they dare to do away with fiction entirely. Documentary makers churn out the tales reflecting different facets of reality, which otherwise slip through the cracks of mainstream conversations and movies. Here lies the refined craft of documentary filmmaking.
But that’s not where the pull of this craft is limited to. Besides the style directors use to put together the chronicles into a complete story, the way they plan their shots, the framing and composition, and also their unique perspectives on the matter—which they ultimately intend for their audience to relate to and think about together—have fashioned it into a popular art that has now become part of a global subculture.
Which is why, FSA has, since 1997, been organised every two years in order to partly revere and partly cherish the stories of South Asia, to share the art and craft of documentary makers along with their perspectives and opinions through screenings, discussions and workshops, and to introduce the new generation freethinkers to join the legacy, so that they will be informed and changed, and few will be inspired to take on the craft themselves.
It is the revealing of the truth of our societies—of a Nepali intellectual’s mysterious disappearance, of a Nepali family’s story of trying to break free from poverty, of a
Sri Lankan journalist divided between professional values and family pressure to find stability, of an archaeologist’s race against time to save a 2,000-year-old ancient Buddhist site in Afghanistan from Chinese mining operations and Taliban threats—and of many individuals and events who would have otherwise remained unnoticed and unheard of. These stories are for us to learn and be informed from, to acknowledge the intricacies of human lives, culture, ideologies, passions and conflict, and more, to form a relation with those on the screen and take documentaries as parts of our lives and not as mere interpretative visual instruments.
They help us think independently, and encourage us to accept the realities beyond our comfort zone and the world we selectively access, because without these stories of our brothers and sisters, and of our land, where are our connections to our own conditions and notions take root, what are we if not living drones in this digital world?