Thursday, September 12, 2013

Documentary Provincialism

I flagged this on Twitter, but about a month ago, Anthony Kaufman had a terrific column at the Sundance blog attacking US provincialism concerning documentary film.
The U.S. media’s provincialism is nothing new, and clearly extends to the subset of film journalism, as well. At Sundance, year after year, critics rightfully crow about the superiority of the festival’s American competition docs, but often short-change the festival’s superb World Cinema documentaries. We can’t entirely fault the press—at festivals, there’s never enough time to see everything. But in the media’s coverage of docs, there continues to be a gross under-appreciation of the innovation and artistry that thrives in docs from overseas.
Kaufman articulates, probably better than I could, a sentiment I've been feeling since stumbling on a strain of recent festival documentaries in Europe. There are two separate issues here. On hand, American film culture is provincial in general, so that for instance, the local art cinema in Philadelphia will play foreign films but only occasional ones of a certain genre and production value. While the academy provides a counterpart to this tendency, particularly in area studies, US film studies tends to relegate many national cinemas to the periphery. I'm guilty of much of this, and claim no ability to rise above it.

A second issue, alongside this, is a short term devaluing of national cinema movements which really deserve additional attention. And this is the level that Kaufman's article really speaks to me. There really is something vibrant going on in European festival documentaries right now - both in aesthetic innovation and a reinvigorated public sphere sometimes lacking in US documentaries. While their fictional counterparts of the major auteurs and the "slow cinema" movement are central to the discussions of US cinephiles, I don't see a corresponding engagement in documentary film culture.

It's a matter of time and attention, to be sure, and I'm faulting film-culture more systemically, not any individual. But thankfully it's a matter also rectifiable.

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