All in all, 2014 was a great year for documentary filmmaking with some brilliant work having been released by both returning professionals and new talent fresh out of documentary filmmaking school. We also saw a few definite trends emerge and a few that were further cemented with last year’s output, and the most notable one is the increased amount of character studies which are being released.
The Rise of the Portrait
For a while now, character-centric documentary films have become a staple of the industry but this has reached influx levels very recently. However, it’s for this very reason that not all character studies are good—some filmmakers have seen the success of such emotional documentaries featuring colorful (and often tragic) subjects, and feel that it’s a magic bullet guaranteed to make for a great documentary.
Due to the slew of documentaries of this ilk, it’s no longer enough to point a camera at someone with an interesting story. Audiences have had their fill of these, and require a cherry on top in order to become fully engaged.
That said, thanks to the inherent nature of humankind’s love of storytelling, character study documentaries aren’t likely to lose their appeal – all we’re seeing now is that they have to be told exceptionally well in order to stand ahead of the competition.
And that is still achievable given that the subgenre offers a robust framework on which to tell a great story – character documentaries lend themselves extremely well to narrative story structure, can be less complicated to shoot (though not always) and often the story can unfurl in unexpected ways even as it’s being told.
NYFA’s Year in Documentary Film
In addition to the above trends, a number of instructors and students from NYFA’s documentary school have found significant success and awards season recognition for their documentary work. Curriculum Advisor and Master Class professor Geof Bartz edited the HBO documentary Larry Kramer in Love and Death that recently debuted at Sundance and was an Oscar contender this year. In addition, documentary graduate Muhammad Hamdy, who DP’d on the Oscar-nominated film The Square last year, had his most recent film We Are The Giant short-listed for this year’s Oscars.
A number of other films directed by NYFA instructors were also featured in this year’s Oscar race including Jeremy Xido’s much buzzed-about film Death Metal Angola. In addition, instructor Hilla Medalia produced the acclaimed documentary and Oscar contender Dancing in Jaffa and wrote and directed The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. And recent One-Year Documentary graduate Colleen Shaw’s short documentary All in my Head: The Patrick Stein Story was short-listed for the Best Documentary Short Oscar.
An even more recent documentary trend which has formed as an offshoot to this is the idea of ‘community’ documentaries – that is, exploring a subculture (usually Internet based) which is misunderstood by the mainstream.
Documentaries covering video gaming and religious subcultures (think King of Kong, Indie Game: The Movie, For the Bible Tells Me So and Jesus Camp) seem to be especially rising to the forefront of documentary filmmaking, which seems to correlate with how both topics have risen in popularity over the past decade.
Again, this trend for documentary filmmaking isn’t likely to go away given that there are bottomless depths to plumb in terms of subject matter.
Top 5 Must-Watch Documentaries of 2014
Unfortunately, the Golden Globes have eschewed the idea of an award for documentaries again this year (the last time it recognized the work of documentary filmmakers was 1977), but there were many documentaries in 2014 that would surely be eligible for such an award if it existed.
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Wire star Brandy Burr under the microscope, examining her decision to leave the show to start a family before trying to re-enter the limelight once again… but what starts off as a simple premise ends up twisting and turning in huge, unsettling ways.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
The Edward Snowden story was always destined to be retold on celluloid in some form or another, but thankfully Citizenfour was the one to do it justice. This is hardly surprising given that the documentary was created by Laura Poitras, the woman Snowden reached out to in order to expose the United States government whilst she was making a different film on government surveillance (and thus making her implicit in the dramatic—and, by turns, horrific—tale which rapidly unfolded).
The Case Against 8
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
A documentary covering a lengthy series of judicial proceedings may not sound incredibly engaging on paper, The Case Against 8 is truly deserving on a list of the top 5 must-watch documentaries of 2014. The fight for marriage equality which went all the way to the Supreme Court is a surprisingly emotional and deeply human one, with directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White carefully balancing the legal backstory with the relatable points.
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
The Jerry Sandusky scandal was one of the most explosive stories to have hit the headlines in the last decade. Emmy Award-winner Amir Bar-Lev manages to not only cover all the angles (and failings) behind this sensitive story, but also deftly explores the wider issues surrounding “team spirit” and the seeming invincibility of sports stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
For decades now, Frederick Wiseman has been an underrated master of cinéma vérité. His thirty-eight documentaries so far have primarily concerned themselves with exploring the workings of various major institutions—a ballet company, an air force training base, a major hospital—but last year’s study of London’s National Gallery might be one of his finest masterpieces.