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The Documentary Conundrum- Cinema express

The Documentary Conundrum

Once considered the highest form of modern art, documentaries have now lost their pull and appeal to feature films and their commerce. Experts and filmbuffs give their thoughts on how to change this

Published: 27th April 2023

One of the earliest motion pictures documented workers panning out the Lumiere factory. They exit the system and jut out into snapshots of history. It spanned 46 seconds. On December 28, 1895, Louis and Auguste Lumiere screened the history they caught on the cinematographe to an enthralled audience at the Salon Indien du Grand Cafe in Paris. A minute later, the viewers wanted it to be screened again. 

Two centuries ticked away. In the meantime, evolution ran its course. Last month, a viewer walked out of a theatre because the scene dragged out without reason. Workers moving out of the frame is no longer material for amusement until it serves a definite purpose. Times have changed. 

We recently saw Viduthalai-I, the latest Vetri Maaran film, provoking, and even agitating sections of the audience. “The movie was just great, the treatment was spot-on; the background score just stoked up the intensity of what was on moving past on the screen. However…” an elderly man amused by the film told his friend during the screening interval at a PVR theatre in Chennai. “… It felt like a documentary more than a feature film…” the excitement meter hurriedly whittled down in him. 

This is a classic instance in which a viewer, initially luxuriated in awe at the craft brewing on screen, initiates a probe into the validity of the very own wonderment they felt by dint of the “documentary-esque” treatment. 

“Documentaries just don’t work for me. Period. I would rather prefer a feature film or TV series to such excesses of reality. Fact-based narration pulls your mood down until and unless the subject in hand arouses curiosity,” says Rahul, a student of arts proud enough to admit to averaging at least two films a day on OTT. “The docu-series MH370 pulled it off. So did All of those voices, which is one of the few documentaries that deserved a theatrical release. A nosedive into the careers of celebrities is a go-to. Otherwise, it is meh… awareness needs to be spewed out of socially relevant films, but not at the expense of the entertainment factor,” the young film buff adds. 

Amid the critical acclaim and attention documentary films have amassed lately, it is high time the makers and the audience call in for a roundtable discussion to hammer out the ways to tackle the stigma that shrouds and sets boundaries to moving pictures of non-fiction, film buffs maintain. 

All That Breathes fared well at the US box office. It was nominated for the Oscars. The audience here would have thoroughly enjoyed watching it on the big screen. Even then, the release would have been limited. A host of factors, including production quality, treatment, and the pre-release buzz, restrain documentary films from making it big at the theatres,” says Shiladitya Bora, film producer and the founder of Platoon One Films. “Not all are keen on watching non-fiction on the big screen. Perhaps that is why documentaries are still swarming within the bounds of film festivals, workshops, and a niche audience. Just a couple of good documentaries a year would not change the industry. It needs to be a comprehensive process. Over the past three years, we (India) have had a good run in the international arena, with at least one documentary getting nominated for the Sundance or the Oscars. The documentary makers ought to cash in on it. Indian documentaries are generating a buzz with the high footfall; the momentum needs to be on an uptick. Most often, the initial buzz for documentaries on social media and OTT platforms ebbs away soon after the release,” adds Bora. 

Post discussions on the scope for documentaries to be released in theatres, Shiladitya Bora recalled his stint in PVR Cinemas during which he was involved in the distribution of a few documentaries. Based on analytics, “pockets” with a set of dedicated audiences in cities were ferreted out, Bora figures, adding that the PVR Director’s Rare mustered audience from all corners to the likes of blockbusters, non-fiction, and short films.

A manager at PVR Cinemas, on conditions of anonymity, said they hardly receive documentary submissions, and, as of now, they have set no strategies to promote documentaries. “The budget and production quality are the primary factors that contributed to documentaries being screened less. First of all, a film needs to get a censor certificate to be released in theatres. It amounts to spending cash. Also, most documentaries have their running length fixed between 40 minutes and one hour, which is not substantial enough excite a regular viewer,” the PVR employee said. 

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