Keeping it real: Documentaries have shed their dowdy image and emerged brighter and more dynamic than ever

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By Ghita Loebenstein

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Last month, a documentary opened the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time in its history: Davis Guggenheim’s U2 profile From the Sky Down. Soon, the Bloor Cinema in Toronto will reopen its doors under the stewardship of Hot Docs, and will almost exclusively screen documentary films.

No longer just the domain of classrooms and BBC wildlife enthusiasts, documentaries are now some of the most anticipated films around. Like horn-rimmed spectacles and high-waisted jeans, documentaries have shed the negative connotations of their image, emerging defiantly sexy and innately cool.

“Documentary has gone from being a stigmatized word to a coveted brand. Everywhere you look, from instant streaming services to inflight entertainment, you see a documentary strand performing strongly,” says Thom Powers, programmer of TIFF’s Real to Reel documentary lineup and artistic director of a weekly documentary series in New York called Stranger Than Fiction. “I think the name underscores the popularity of docs,” he says of his series. “They are stranger and often more satisfying than other entertainment.”

The past 10 years have seen an increasing number of documentaries play in mainstream cinemas. As well, TIFF and other festivals have expanded their documentary programs, and doc-dedicated festivals such as DOXA and Hot Docs have risen in profile. Directors such as Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have become hot box-office property. Where last decade, something like Justin Bieber: Never Say Never might have been a badly made bonus DVD, this year Bieber’s little 3-D tour tale took a staggering US$98 million at the box office worldwide, making it the third-highest grossing documentary of all time (behind March of the Penguins and Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11). By comparison, in 1991, at the height of her popularity, Madonna’s tour doc Truth or Dare earned less than US$30 million. But in the early ’90s, documentary wasn’t cool.

“Docs used to have a medicinal association for many people—they taste bad but are good for you,” says Chris McDonald, executive director of Hot Docs. “Now they have shed their nerdy reputation. They are hot. Or at least nerdy-sexy.”

Now that they are well and truly in fashion, several documentaries have recently focused on fashion—and many of those have revealed unexpected beauty. In 2009’s The September Issue, it was Grace Coddington, rather than Anna Wintour, who illuminated the screen with her wild artistic flair. High-profile portraitures include Valentino: The Last Emperor (2009) and last year’s L’Amour Fou, which gave insight into the extravagant lives of Yves Saint Laurent and his long-time partner and lover Pierre Bergé. Overshadowing both of those was this year’s Bill Cunningham New York, which focused on the venerable New York Times street-style photographer. The doc offered a stunning portrait of a true artist, aesthete and humanist who approaches fashion with absolute modesty.

As part of its image revamp, in recent years documentary directors have been pushing the medium’s creative possibilities. They are employing more lyrical and artistic styles (Man on Wire, Rize), embracing 3-D technology (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Pina), enlisting powerful public figures to voice a cause (An Inconvenient Truth) and provoking audiences to question the medium itself (Exit Through the Gift Shop, Catfish). “I think it speaks to the vitality of documentary that filmmakers bring so many different approaches to reinventing and sometimes subverting the form,” says Powers. “But it takes a rare combination of talent and perseverance—not to mention luck—to produce a work that can play alongside the best of world cinema in a festival like TIFF.” This year, the festival screened a bumper crop of new work by big names (Werner Herzog, Jonathan Demme, Morgan Spurlock, Nick Broomfield and Jessica Yu) that will almost certainly screen in cinemas soon.

Even if they don’t, doc lovers have new ways of watching films outside of theatrical release. Many documentaries now release exclusively on DVD or VOD, and online platforms such as Netflix and iTunes allow filmmakers to get their films out quickly, straight into viewers’ living rooms (or onto their iPads). Last year, Hot Docs launched its own iTunes channel. And with the acquisition of the Bloor Cinema, which will be one of the only cinemas dedicated to documentary in the world, Hot Docs hopes to offer filmmakers some real alternatives to finding an audience beyond the festival setting. “One of our key goals is to show more docs to more people,” says McDonald.

No longer just the domain of the intelligentsia, the documentary form is taking its stories—whether big, beautiful or curious—and having a moment of its own.

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