Brave new worlds where the camera never lies

Many films at next week's Sheffield Doc/Fest rely on the techniques of fictional film-making. It's as valid a way to get to the truth as any, argues Kaleem Aftab

There's a common misconception that the aesthetics of a documentary are, by necessity, shoddy. Fiction films are said to be in the "documentary style" when they are shot with a handheld digital camera, shakily following protagonists around with little consideration of framing or of how glossy the final picture will look. The rationale is that the need to capture the moment, the essential truth of a narrative, is paramount, necessitating a point-and-shoot style.

This style of filming is often held up as proof that the director is taking a journalistic approach, providing a balanced view of events and delivering both sides of the story. The instinct is to accept images like those found on the news as more truthful than a composed shot. The same kneejerk reaction presumes that because something is beautifully framed, it's staged or fictional. I found myself questioning the recently released Danish film Armadillo, which followed Danish soldiers in Afghanistan, for this very reason.

The idea comes from the cinéma vérité strand of documentary film-making, influenced by the work of Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock, D A Pennebaker, and Albert and David Maysles. A retrospective of the work of Leacock and of Albert Maysles runs at next week's Sheffield Doc/Fest, including a rare screening of Maysles' 1968 classic Salesman, about a door-to-door salesman trying to offload copies of The Bible.

This visual impression of the "truth" has created problems in recent times with the rise of subjective documentarians like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. The moustachioed American Spurlock became an international celebrity when he took issue with the fast-food chain McDonald's over its policy of supersizing portions. Highlighting the detrimental effects of a diet of burgers and fries, Spurlock put his health at risk to make his point.

He uses the same personal approach in his latest report, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which opens the festival in Sheffield next Wednesday. With gusto and an eye for the comic, Spurlock investigates the omnipresence of marketing in Hollywood, taking particular issue with branding aimed directly at teenagers in blockbusters. Spurlock's approach eschews the traditional documentary tools of archive footage and talking heads, and instead places the director at the centre of the picture as he tries to raise $1.5m to make his new film, funding it entirely through product placement and advertising.

His has been described as a Gonzo approach to documentary film-making, in which personal memoir is more important than expert opinion. The film-making, especially in the boardroom scenes, is of the run-and-gun variety that has become the status quo in documentaries. It's clear that Spurlock doesn't care too much for balancing his argument, but he also cleverly takes advantage of the idea that "the camera never lies", filming in a style that usually gives the impression of objectivity and fair-mindedness.

In fact, the debate about whether documentaries show an "objective truth" was lost many years ago when even practitioners of direct cinema such as Frederick Wiseman began arguing that it was impossible to make a film without personal editorial opinion. Now a growing number of documentary film-makers are making documentaries with visuals that are far more pleasing on the eye. Rather than diluting the truth, when used in the right manner, composition and staging can enhance the understanding of reality and better put across the intentions of the director.

The most eye-catching example showing at Sheffield is Bombay Beach, which won the best documentary film award at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. Bombay Beach is located on the east shore of the Salton Sea in the Colorado desert of California, a rusty relic of the post-Second World War development boom that is often seen as the flipside of the American Dream. The 2010 Census put the local population at 295. The Israeli-born director Alma Har'el, most famous for her work with the band Beirut, discovered Bombay Beach by accident while scouring for locations for a music video. She spent the next year making the 160-mile drive from her LA home at frequent intervals, befriending the protagonists as she turned the camera on them.

Her film concentrates on three principal characters – Benny Parrish, a young boy diagnosed with bipolar disorder; CeeJay Thompson, an aspiring American teenager who takes refuge in the area in an attempt to avoid gun crime; and Red, a former oil worker who has lost none of his lust for life despite his advancing years. The characters run into trouble with girlfriends, the law and each other.

Har'el's roots as a music video director and photographer are much in evidence as she depicts the lives of the protagonists with ethereal images that highlight their sense of isolation. The sense of heightened reality is reinforced by dance sequences involving Bombay Beach residents that punctuate the action. There's no attempt in these sequences to depict them as real, but they achieve a more important goal, making physical the mental states of the characters. The influences of Pina Bausch, Israeli actor Shaike Ophir and the films The Village Trilogy by Laura Taler and Reines d'un Jour by Pascal Magnin are clearly felt.

Despite the choreographed scenes, or perhaps because there is no attempt to hide their fictionality, the movie manages to feel more authentic and observational than most documentaries shot in vérité style. The director doesn't appear to be pulling the wool over our eyes. "I am positive that more than ever people should feel free," says Har'el. "There are so many narrative films that use a documentary 'aesthetic' to create reliability or realism. There is no reason that documentaries should not use other aesthetics to convey the film-maker's impression of the reality that they are documenting."

Nonetheless, there remains an issue of credibility for documentaries that are filmed with visual panache. Harmony Korine's Gummo comes to mind when watching Bombay Beach. Korine is a fictional film-maker who has always used a documentary aesthetic to blur the boundary between truth and fiction. It works especially well in his 1997 movie about a group of children living in the aftermath of a hurricane in Ohio. Their sense of nihilism and boredom is reflected in the residents of Bombay Beach, as is their ability to find beauty within harsh existences.

Visually inventive documentaries have a distinguished forebear in the work of Werner Herzog. His latest films, Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, will screen at Sheffield, but it's 1992's Lessons of Darkness, featuring burning Kuwaiti oil fields seen from an alien perspective, and 1971's Fata Morgana, set in the Sahara desert and featuring the songs of Leonard Cohen, that Bombay Beach most resembles.

Har'el pulls off a soundtrack coup of her own, supplementing the songs of Beirut lead figure Zachary Condon with some from Bob Dylan. He was persuaded to release some tracks after seeing rough footage of Har'el's film.

Elsewhere at Doc/Fest, music will be most prominently represented in Jarvis Cocker's Musical Map of Sheffield in which the lead singer gives an audio-visual introduction to the city of his childhood. Music and Yorkshire also combine in the documentary We are Poets, about a Leeds poetry slam.

Also a must for music fans is Beats Rhymes & Life: the Travels of a Tribe Called Quest directed by True Romance actor Michael Rapaport, while Steve James's The Interrupters tells the tale of a group of former Chicago gang members who are part of an experimental anti-violence programme called CeaseFire. The group's attempt to stop conflicts escalating into violence through the power of spoken word was filmed over the course of a year by the Academy Award-winning director of Hoop Dreams.

Bombay Beach is one of several films that will travel straight from Sheffield to the Edinburgh Film Festival. The documentary film festival has moved to a summer slot and the two festivals have joined forces on many titles, holding coinciding UK premieres. It's a case of one of the most successful and unique UK festivals trying to help a Scottish counterpart that has somewhat lost its way in recent years. In an attempt to freshen up, Edinburgh is placing greater emphasis on its documentary strand while controversially ditching its competitive strand. It's going to be a big summer for both festivals.

Sheffield Documentary Festival (www.sheffdocfest.com) 8 to 12 June

FOR REAL: FIVE TO WATCH AT DOC FETS

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