What Got Me Into Watching Documentaries?

It took me a while to get passionate about the documentary film genre. The first film I ever watched was about insects that carry various illnesses. I hallucinated the mosquitos at night, fearing the creeping dangers of malaria. My grandmother explained to a 6-year-old me that this dangerous disease doesn’t occur in Lithuania. However, next time to avoid such consequences, I switched channels once I heard the intriguing voiceover and similar imagery come up. Until more recent discoveries, I associated documentary films with the style of storytelling where this suspenseful voice from ‘above’ tells about the threats and unquestionable ultimate truths about the surrounding world.

This blog post is here to hopefully prove that the documentary genre is vast and can cater to different tastes, especially if you got disengaged from it somewhere along the way.

I was guided back to documentary films by discovering verbatim theatre. It is a type of performance that is based on personal testimonies or events that occurred in reality. I got drawn to the productions of DV8 (Physical Theatre company led by Lloyd Newson) – where the personal testimonies are told through physical movement.

Watching the interpretation of various topics that occurred in reality, proved to be a very engaging experience. This study of actuality doesn't only aim to re-enact, but rather interpret and provide a deeper insight into the mental processing of various personal experiences. Different social, political, and historical contexts are often added to the flow of the performance. This type of engagement with surrounding stories encouraged me to seek similar occurrences in films, as the verbatim theatre wasn’t always easily accessible. That’s how I started looking into documentaries once again.

DV8, Joy Constantinides in Can We Talk About This? (photo: Geroge Nagy)

Even though documentaries didn’t provide the same viewing experience as witnessing verbatim theatre, I was fascinated by their ability to engage with actuality in often more sensitive, observant, undisruptive ways.

One of the first documentaries I watched was Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time. It's a slow study of an artist Andy Goldsworthy, who travels to far corners of Scotland and creates art with such materials as ice, leaves, and stones. The film combines three elements - the technical creative process, reflections on past/future, and the documentation of art slowly dissolving back to nature, back to its primal form. I remember laying in my bed late at night, watching sculptures made out of stone being swallowed by a tide and Andy talking about loneliness and loss that occurred in his life. It was new to me, that watching a documentary film can be a very personal experience. Opposite to rigid factual documentaries that sort of 'dictate' your thought process and feelings, I found a type of documentary film that was inviting the audience to contemplate the content together with the filmmaker and the contributor.

Well-made documentaries have a great power to reveal, question, and interpret actuality. Similar to the verbatim theatre, you observe a phenomenon of the elements merging - the contributor, their story, and the director's interpretation. When you watch a documentary, you get two interacting angles – the actuality itself and the way it is seen through the camera.

Currently, I am mostly fascinated by character-driven, reflexive, and experimental documentaries. What about you?