Saturday, March 26, 2011

Response to Nick Fraser's "Why Documentaries Matter"

Perhaps I am so much of a doc outsider that I don’t understand why folks have been fawning over Nick Fraser’s recent Guardian piece "Why Documentaries Matter", but I certainly don’t get it – the piece seems a bit reactionary and unimaginative. Perhaps this is because it is playing to a general audience that he wants to imagine a world without documentaries, though this seems a trite gimmick.

There seem to be two main emphases in the piece: first, that “documentaries are among the most valuable, neglected cultural forms of our times” and second, “will [quality] documentaries…be adequately funded in the squeeze on television budgets.”

The first point is obviously meant to set up the second. Docs are valuable, and if you don’t think so, it is because you are one of those neglecting/undervaluing them - you’d miss them if they were gone. Not the most compelling set-up, but I’d imagine he is also leaning heavily on the various British titles listed as popular (though I have no idea how they are consumed). It would seem that these first titles listed are playing to an anti-intellectual, or at least very broad audience – hey, don’t knock The Secret Millionaire or  “no body of theory exists to legitimise docs”. Huh? Is there a body of theory that anywhere legitimizes anything? Anyway, sure, no theory here, move along, feel safe with your doc.

But, of course, a funny thing happens halfway through the piece - in addressing the question of a documentary future with tightening television budgets, he presents the strawman of AA Gill’s suggestion that ‘anyone can do it with the cheap technology that is available.’ This seems to me a gimmick to instill fear in a future of amateurs running roughshod over documentary – we’ll save this discussion for another time. Suffice to say, Fraser here shifts from a very vernacular conception of docs as nature shows and reality programming to a film like – you guessed it – MAN ON WIRE, but also MARATHON BOY – it is these “low-budget, clever” documentaries “appealing to small, passionate audiences” that he seems to care about most.

And in all this huffing about turning noses up at reality programming and fearing budget cuts for (quality) documentary, what is lost is any real sense of the funding landscape. Sure, intuitively we know that public funding for documentary, and the arts in general, is in trouble – but wouldn’t it be cool to see some data on the trend? Further, there are the dozens of foundations that support the industry – what have their funding trends been? Fraser states that he’d “like to know how their independent spirit can be conserved and nurtured”, but this seems a rather empty thought shared. Not only in light of the lack of trending data, but in ignoring the two gorillas in the room: crowd-funding and Oprah. Not to mention that despite the suggestion that funding is drying up, (too) many have buzzed that this past year was the best ever for documentary.

Though I’d also love to see greater public support for the arts, it seems that documentary, at least, will be fine.

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