Stranger than fiction

When We Were Kings Leon Gast (PG) Microcosmos Claude Nuridsany/ Marie Perennou (U) By Adam Mars-Jones

Two outstanding screen documentaries, released this week, show that non-fiction film is flourishing internationally, but also that reality is a shifty thing, whether in the human or non-human round. When We Were Kings, a film about the "Rumble in the Jungle", the Ali-Foreman heavyweight title bout held in Zaire in 1974, and Microcosmos, a lyrical account of daily life among insects in a French meadow, demonstrate in their very different ways how little reality there is in reality film-making.

It's almost a quarter of a century since Muhammad Ali at 32 beat 25-year- old George Foreman, with the first and last knock-out of Foreman's 76- fight career. The reason for the long delay in the film's release is that the director, Leon Gast, was originally planning to film only the black music festival that was part of the whole circus, and then found himself saddled with an embarrassment of riches when an injury to Foreman caused a six-week postponement of the fight. Gast has been processing the footage piecemeal since then, and has given the material a new dimension by acquiring other people's footage of the fight itself. Eventually he called in another director, Taylor Hackford, to interview commentators who had written about the event - Norman Mailer and George Plimpton - or who had a different perspective to offer: Spike Lee laments the historical ignorance of black culture, and suggests that Muhammad Ali was making a major statement by going to Zaire. As he points out, there was a time when referring to a black American as an African could land you in a lot of trouble, but Ali talked in terms of going back to the home country of the black man.

Ali was undoubtedly an inspirational figure, though the credit for establishing the idea of African identity in mainstream black culture should probably go to Alex Haley's Roots, published a couple of years later. What When We Were Kings does vividly demonstrate is Ali's extraordinary way with an audience or an interviewer. He more or less invented the soundbite, but his formulas, however bombastic, sound spontaneous. What he seems to do is strike a pose of self-belief, sell it to an audience, and then buy it back in all good faith, so that what started out as a performance ends up as something more substantial.

Muhammad Ali is by now an elder statesman, whose physical deterioration, as the film is careful to stress, is unaccompanied by any loss of mental quickness. No one in the film identifies his condition (Parkinson's Disease) by name, nor links it, as medical opinion does, with the punishment he took in the ring, though Ali's strategy in 1974 was essentially to enrage his opponent, and then allow himself to be pummelled until Foreman's energy was spent.

The whole story is full of bitter ironies that aren't exactly suppressed but are certainly eclipsed, with the film-makers' connivance, by the charisma of the champion. In what sense was the expedition to Kinshasa a pilgrimage, when the promoter, Don King, had promised Ali and Foreman $5m each, a purse that only Zaire's dictator Mobutu was willing to provide? The location of the fight was only in the most limited way a rebuke to American priorities, since the contest took place at four in the morning, for the convenience of viewers in the States.

It's possible at this distance to feel real sympathy with Foreman, who arrived in Zaire to find that Africans assumed him to be white. His skin tone was actually darker than Ali's, but somehow he still represented America as against Ali's Africa. Even Foreman's choice of pet and travelling companion - an Alsatian - was unfortunate, since that breed was associated with the police in the days of colonial administration. He was the younger and stronger man, but in terms of image he was at a great disadvantage, and the six-week war of attrition played its part in his downfall.

No one on the trip to Zaire could have been in doubt about the nature of the government. When Foreman cut his eye and needed to heal up, Mobutu wouldn't allow any of the visitors to leave the country - how's that for hospitality? Now his regime is unravelling, and he is accused of using the national resources as his private purse - of crimes not different in kind from spending $10m on consolidating his position with a public relations exercise.

At one stage in the film, a commentator remarks that Ali was a consummate politician. This is certainly true, if politics is defined as the realm of effective gestures. When Ali tells the Zaireans they have more dignity than blacks in America, it is a statement without content. He may be on African soil, but he is dealing with an imaginary Africa, which is assumed not to exist except when he's addressing it. When We Were Kings is a fascinating film to watch, but it deals in a virtual politics. It "raises consciousness" without being willing or able to confront uncomfortable facts.

Meanwhile in Aveyron, the bugs are stirring. Microcosmos, directed by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou, is an absolutely astonishing nature film - or rather, virtual nature film. The insects are shown in unprecedented detail, but the element of manipulation latent in all such documentaries is now dominant. It's fine, for instance, that the film-makers should want to show a beetle rolling its ball of dung - partly to demonstrate that this is a clumsy and even comic procedure - but disturbing to learn that they had suitable beetles sent by post from the south of Spain.

What's on screen is no longer primary material but something staged to illustrate observations made elsewhere. Some shots required 40 takes. The film-makers want to correct the impression that insects spend all their time mating or eating each other (or both at once), but they substitute their own highly stylised version of insect behaviour. Alarm bells should ring when we're told that in some cases the real sounds "ring false in relation to the images", and have been faked. What sort of nature film is so willing to improve on nature?

It's partly the absence of a commentary (apart from some poetic prose delivered by Kristin Scott Thomas) that makes Microcosmos seem like something made as light entertainment for professional biologists. The didactic element in nature films may be inhibiting, but in the absence of instructiveness nothing is left but a slack-jawed amazement. When documentary sets out to be pure spectacle, it sets itself up in a competition with fiction films that it can only lose. Would many viewers even know if one of these implausible creatures had been computer-generated from scratch?

Both films open tomorrow

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