Five documentaries that broke the mould
Friday 31 October 2008
Housing Problems by Sir Arthur Elton (1935)
'Housing Problems' was the first step towards cinéma verité film-making. It wasn't itself verité, but it was the first film that saw real people giving interviews, and the first time people were interviewed on location (in this case, their kitchen).
From it, you get a strong sense of people in the Thirties and the kind of English they spoke, which was very different from the language we speak now. It was a mould-breaking film. The sound-recording devices would have occupied the entire living room, they were so massive, but Sir Arthur Elton managed it. It was a fantastic achievement, and it's still incredibly moving if you look at it today. The couple talking about the story of the rat is an amazing piece of film-making.
Titicut Follies by Frederick Wiseman (1967)
I think 'Titicut Follies' is one of the finest cinéma verité films. It was shot at an institution for the criminally insane in Massachusetts. What was remarkable wasn't just the cinematography, by Bill Boyne, but the fine line between sanity and insanity it demonstrates. There's a scene where someone is giving an amazing analysis of the Vietnam War, and halfway through the shot you realise the guy is standing on his head. Then his analysis goes completely mad, and you realise that the separation between brilliance and madness is very fine. It's not only an excellent example of the cinéma verité genre, but also an amazing analysis of these kinds of institutions.
Home from the Hill by Molly Dineen (1981)
This is about an old cavalry officer, Colonel Hilary Hook, who's forced to return to the UK after being thrown out of his home in Kenya. The film is an analysis of the end of colonialism in the late Seventies to early Eighties, through the experiences of this fascinating character. Hook went straight from public school into the cavalry, played polo and had lots of servants. From his comfortable life in Kenya, he's thrown into a tiny bedsit in Henley, where, for the first time, he has to shop for himself and open cans of baked beans. You fall in love with Hilary Hook, but also gain the sense of one, rarefied world coming to an end and the start of a new one. It's extremely funny and moving. Molly Dineen developed a very close relationship with Hook, and what comes across is his complete honesty and sincerity. He never hides a thing from her.
Waiting for Fidel by Michael Rubbo (1974)
Mike Rubbo goes to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro and decides to put himself in the film. He never gets to meet Castro, yet you get an amazing analysis of Cuba, delivered in a really funny way. Half the dialogue involves Rubbo wondering what to ask Fidel and footage of fights with his producer back in Canada. It becomes a kind of diary. You get real insight into how Cuba was working, how aloof Castro was and his contempt towards foreigners at the time. I don't think Rubbo could have approached it any other way. Fantastic, underappreciated – and the film that persuaded me to make myself a character in some of my own films.
Sisters in Law by Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi (2005 )
Another 'breakthrough' film, but in a different way. It's really about the power of two women in Cameroon, a traditional, male-dominated society, and what happens when the first female judge comes to the country. It's an absolutely amazing observation of Cameroonian culture. The film is extremely informative and has enormous humour and human insight. Beautifully shot and put together by Kim Longinotto, it is, put simply, as good as observational film-making gets.
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