Over the last decade, documentary films have made great strides in establishing themselves as an accepted part of the cinema-going experience, but those that make it to mainstream theaters or the shelves of Blockbuster are the tip of a massive iceberg, a veritable mother load of audiovisual content dealing with anything from marginalized social groups to environmental disaster.
The 8th Taiwan International Documentary Festival (台灣國際紀錄片雙年展) is a showcase for some of the best recent content — opening on Oct. 19 and running through to Oct. 28 — with screenings at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (國立台灣美術館) in Taichung.
Speaking about the selection of films for the event, curator Jane Yu (游惠貞) said that as with any film festival, the aim was to provide a showcase of the best and newest material. In addition, as the festival screenings are in an art gallery, a selection of the films were also chosen to highlight shifts in the aesthetic and theoretical foundations of documentary filmmaking.
This is particularly pertinent at the present time due to the great changes that are taking place in the realm of documentary filmmaking.
“In addition to films that fit comfortably into a standard definition of a documentary film, we have also selected many films whose style challenge this definition or push the boundaries of what has been accepted as the format for a documentary film,” Yu said.
Segments like Experimental Documentaries in Taiwan (影像跨界的交會) pushes this idea with a selection of films from directors not normally associated with documentaries, such as Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮), and incorporates contemporary artists such as photographer Chang Chien-chi (張乾琦), to expand the discourse associated with the documentary film.
“The definition of a documentary film changes with what audiences can accept. In the past, one of the major criteria was that a documentary had to focus on real people or events. The discussion was then usually about what constituted ‘real.’ What we see is not always real, as this can easily be falsified. Fictional formats of presentation might actually present a more ‘realistic’ picture of events. It’s an endless discussion, and I feel that documentary films actually have greater scope than fictional filmmaking in the variety of ways they can choose to present their material. This discussion, over the last decade, has greatly broadened what audiences can accept as documentary film,” Yu said.
Another major change is the context from which documentary filmmaking emerges, now that virtually everybody carries some form of video recording equipment on their person.
“In the past, a person with a camera was a specialist, carrying a camera was a badge of a particular profession. Now anyone can pull out a cell phone and take pictures. Our awe of the visual image and the mysteries of filmmaking have been irreparably undermined. People are making recordings all the time. We might imagine that with everything going on record in this way, we could now live in a world without injustice. But ironically, for the younger generation at least, the main focus of the camera is themselves. This age of the ubiquitous camera has become an age of narcissism. Narcissism has always been part of documentary filmmaking, as the subject of the documentary can lead the director on, and often the director might be unaware that he has surrendered control to the subject,” Yu said.
These issues are highlighted in two elements of the film festival, the first in DIY (Document it Yourself), in which self-made films reveal new depth of intimacy for filmmaking, and the second in the segment on artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未), in which Yu admits that in the film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, it is the subject of the film who virtually directs the director to make the statements he chooses to make. “Ai uses the camera of the director (Alison Klayman) to say the things he wants to say,” Yu said.
“These are huge changes. These films are all very different from what used to be accepted as a documentary film. Of course, the traditional documentary that recorded events as they happen as a means to fight injustice is still very much alive, and it continues to have great value. It’s just that new things have been added to the mix, making documentary film much richer and more varied. This is a time of efflorescence for the documentary film,” Yu said.