Australian factual programming of all kinds is probably more popular on television than it has ever been, but less stand-alone documentaries are being made, which lessens the chance of them reaching cinema audiences.
Adventure and wildlife documentary is a crowd pleaser on IMAX screens but, for decades, fiction films have dominated mainstream cinemas. That said, the work of contemporary US filmmakers such as Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), and significant works such as An Inconvenient Truth, have reached mainstream audiences in numbers that get close to many Hollywood pictures.
Australia documentary hits on the big screen are particularly rare: Mrs Carey's Concert is the exception not the rule.
Last week in Adelaide, Ruth Harley, chief executive of government film agency Screen Australia, told the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) that the value of local documentary production in 2010/2011 – 430 hours worth $133 million – was the highest on record and such shows as Seven's The Force – Behind the Line, ABC's Wide Open Road and SBS's Go Back To Where You Came From were ratings hits.
But while series are flourishing, stand-alone documentaries are not: the annual average over the last 5 years was 74 hours, down from 88 hours in the previous 5. Some also believe that life is tougher for independent documentarians wanting to make distinctive “authored” work, unconstrained by the needs of television.
A smaller pool of one-off documentaries lessens the likelihood that film distributors and exhibitors find material special enough to take a risk on. They ask themselves: can we create enough buzz to entice people out of their homes to see this?
What makes documentary special enough is hard to define. Said AIDC guest Nick Fraser in his keynote address: “The primary purpose of documentary is not only to tell the truth but to tell the truth incredibly beautifully.”
The commissioning editor of the BBC flagship international documentary strand Storyville, which has backed four Oscar winners, has just written 30,000 words on why documentaries matter for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
It is clear from listening to him and watching clips from recent Storyville documentaries (including If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Tabloid, Fire in Babylon and The Interrupters) that he believes documentaries should be bold or playful or daring or inventive in approach – and always get deep under the skin of the subject.
“Documentaries increasingly do the job that great reporting and great writing has always done: they tell us what we are and what the world is like,” he said.
Fraser argues that the documentary form came into its own in the mid-1990s with the advent of small cameras and inexpensive equipment, but that good work is not being produced more often because many don't know the difference between objective reporting and propaganda. He also says that documentaries are in a precarious position because of the challenges of finding audiences.