Personally, I feel the most interesting of these is the avant-garde or experimental documentary. Often featuring little to no dialogue, these films rely on imagery and montage to create visual tapestries of a place/environment, a culture or an experience. In my eyes, this represents the documentary in its purest form. Uncensored observation meets expressive organization. Of course, these films don't always hit the mark (Take General Orders No. 9, for instance. While a nice idea, the film was a misjudged, overly-prosaic exercise in navel-gazing, in my opinion). However, when they do find the right balance, something transcendent can be achieved and I'd like to take this opportunity to highlight three of my favorite examples.
|MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA|
I would describe the entire experience of watching the film as: riding a mechanical monster through the sinister waters of an alien planet on which no dry land exists. No part of the film is fantasy, but that odd sense of mythologizing and the notion of creating a surreal narrative out of real life footage works its way into every aspect of Leviathan, from the otherworldly glow of the debris in the underwater sequences, to the way the nets look and sound when lowered into the waters at night (like a lengthy, metallic tongue) to the way the birds are shot (an intense low-angle shot bobbing up and down in the sea, as the creatures glide along just above and occasionally dive violently into the water, hunting for what treasures the trawler has excreted). The sea takes a toll on the people, the ship takes a toll on the beings of the sea and the aesthetics of the film emphasize this mutual harshness. Many will find it tedious, but as far as I'm concerned, it's one of the most impressive documentaries of the last decade.
If it's not already obvious from the write-ups, all three of these films come highly recommended from me. Experimental documentaries have the unique opportunity to engage with audiences on both a visceral and intellectual level and they must be celebrated for this reason. It's important to note that they do not necessarily stand above all others, though (as my use of "pure" maybe alluded to earlier). Hoop Dreams is ambitious and heartbreaking, Grizzly Man is a fascinating character study and Grey Gardens is compellingly voyeuristic. All of these films are brilliant, but none of them stayed with me quite like Man with the Movie Camera, Koyaanisqatsi and Leviathan have...
...and I think there's something to be said about that.