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Glimpsing the overlooked

September 23, 2008

I love films about small things. That’s not to say blockbusters don’t take my fancy, but I have a special fondness for film-makers who find an off-beat subject and create something magical out of something miniscule. There are film-makers who do this in fictional genres, however the stories I find most rewarding are found in documentaries.  It’s not that truth is stranger than fiction; it’s more that the “truth” as recorded and presented on film sometimes resembles well-written fiction so closely.  I find it hard to imagine having the vision to commit months, even years, to following a subject, hoping that at the end of it you will be able to craft a film out of hours and hours of footage and I am so grateful to the film-makers who do this as their work offers insights other media cannot attain.

Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly did this beautifully with both Rats in the Ranks and Facing the Music.  I’m not even sure why I first saw Rats – a documentary about local politics in a New South Wales shire certainly doesn’t sound that appealing – but it is absolutely riveting.  I’ve seen it a few times since and have wondered what the directors would have done had events gone differently during the election.  Having since seen Music, it is clear that Anderson and Connolly had a gift for selecting subjects and allowing them space to live out their dramas.

Without some stab-in-the-dark documentary choices, I would never have found the music of Daniel Johnston, the songwriter and artist who was the subject of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, or seen the amazing animation of either Ryan Larkin or his “biographer”, Chris Landreth.  I wouldn’t have been touched by the story of the homeless Jimmy Mirikitami and his benefactor, Linda Hattendorf, and I wouldn’t have given more than a couple of seconds of irritated thought to the people working in Indian Call Centres.  I would not have considered the existence of parrots in San Francisco as worthy of more than a few lines in the Tales of the City series and I certainly wouldn’t have imagined feeling anything but, perhaps, disdain for grown men feeding their obsession with Donkey Kong.

All these films present glimpses of people living their lives.  Some live lives of struggle – against alcoholism, precocious talent, mental illness, poverty, dislocation – and some lives of triumph (sometimes, although rarely, over those obstacles they’ve struggled against).  Some live the kinds of lives we live, and it’s heartening to find poetry in ordinary circumstances.  Experiencing the lives of others in this way provides a balance to that other “reality” – the reality of instant celebrity, of yearing for a much “grander” recognition.

All this is by way of saying that I’ll take King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters over King Kong, any day.

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