It Always Comes Back To Herzog

Amen, Caryn, have you been reading my blog?

Every week seems to bring another mediocre documentary, coasting on the strength of its content and its similarity to a better, more artistic film. Even as the genre leaps out of its niche, it is suffering from a tyranny of substance over style.

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“Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Rom�o Dallaire,” follows the former United Nations general back to Rwanda a decade after the genocide he and his peacekeeping force were helpless to prevent. This harrowing film is more effective than last year’s overrated Oscar winner, “Born Into Brothels,” which begins as a heart-wrenching vision of children in Calcutta’s red-light district but turns into a self-aggrandizing account of efforts by the film’s co-director, Zana Briski, to help them. The sight of impoverished children is always touching, but it doesn’t always make a good movie.
Digital technology has made filmmaking so cheap and easy that now almost anyone can point a camera at a difficult father or a wicked stepmother and call it a movie. And more of them are making it into theaters. Nielsen EDI, which tracks box-office data, found that 50 documentaries were released in 2002 and 53 in 2003 – a number that jumped to 80 last year (a rapidly growing chunk of the 500 or so films typically released each year).

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There are still documentaries transformed by an artist’s vision, though.
Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” (opening in August) is built around video shot by Timothy Treadwell during 13 summers spent living among grizzlies, before he was eaten by one. Mr. Treadwell’s own hyperactive commentary would have made for something like a nature film on acid. Mr. Herzog’s editing and narration turn it into a study of Mr. Treadwell’s outsize, self-invented character, and of the motives behind such heroic posturing. In the flood of cheap-and-easy nonfiction films, “Grizzly Man” is something increasingly hard to find: a documentary with imagination.

I’ll let you know about the substance-to-style ratio at Silverdocs next month…

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