TV UK, 24 October

The Sheffield International Documentary Festival: Brits on Japan and the end of the voiceover.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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Last week’s Correspondent (BBC2 on Sunday) was about the Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori: young men who withdraw from the world and spend their lives in their bedrooms.

The cases shown were extreme, but I wondered how unique the problem really is. When I was growing up there was a boy who lived downstairs who came pretty close, refusing to go to school and spending most of the day in bed, rising only to tinker with his ZX Spectrum.

The reporter Phil Rees had very definite ideas about the uniquely Japanese causes of hikikomori, which he made very clear. We were shown Japan’s notoriously rigorous education system, and warned that the pressure to succeed could become unbearable, and that those who failed simply had nowhere to go.

Rees’ polemic against Japanese culture grated with me, especially given his implied preference for the British accommodation to failure (albeit disguised as ‘excellence for all’). But the advantage of a clearly authored documentary is that you are able to disagree with the author, who generally feels obliged to provide some evidence for his or her argument.

Having spent the past few days at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, I can report that this sort of thing is well out of fashion at the cutting edge of documentary. None of the films I have seen so far has a voiceover, much less one that tries to explain or argue about what is being shown.

‘I’m a filmmaker, not a journalist’, explained Andreas Horvath, in answer to my question about the lack of context or explanation in his film about the recent foot-and-mouth outbreak. Fair enough: The Silence of Green is a beautiful meditation on mortality, belief and the pastoral, owing more to John Constable and Samuel Barber than Jacob Bronowski or John Pilger.

By combining sound from a local church service with grainy footage of animals being slaughtered, he conjures a weird and frightening pre-modern world in North Yorkshire.

But Horvath then referred me to the opening and closing lines of his film: ‘We will never know the truth.’ It is not so much that there is a division of labour between documentary journalists and more aesthetically inclined filmmakers, as that the latter reject everything about the former. ‘This is an old discussion’, he reminded me. And it seems that those in the know abandoned the search for truth long ago.

Leonard Retel Helmrich’s The Eye of the Day follows an Indonesian family in 1998 and 1999, a time of political instability and economic chaos. We see the family struggling for food and arguing about the election, but there is no attempt to explain how the situation came about, or even what is actually going on. Again, fair enough. Maybe the viewer is expected to know these things, and maybe it doesn’t matter. There are great pictures and a genuine sense of vitality.

I don’t object to films that are simply beautiful, quirky or touching, though I reserve the right to roll my eyes when all three happen at once. Most of the documentaries I’ve seen here work on their own terms, and some are fantastic. But documentaries can also tell us more prosaic truths about the world, and that is a valuable thing.

Yes, it’s difficult to represent and explain complicated realities, and certainly people get it wrong. But documentary-makers should not be afraid to come out of their bedrooms now and again.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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