Friday, October 24, 2014

The Found Footage Phenomenon

While it can be traced back to the 1980's with Cannibal Holocaust, the found footage film has proven itself to be the genre of this generation. Invigorated by the success of The Blair Witch Project and kept afloat by the likes of Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity series, found footage has become hugely popular in the last few years, largely manifesting in the form of horror films. The low cost of production  has drawn young indie filmmakers and studio executives alike, and in a time when most people have easy access to cameras, the appeal has been widespread. However, signs of overexposure are starting to show. We're beginning to be saturated with found footage I think we've all heard the complaints and the calls for a return to traditional horror filmmaking. I know that I'm getting tired of it, so what can be done to inject some new life into the approach?
Let's start by breaking down a classic. I only just watched The Blair Witch Project for the first time a week ago and despite some skepticism going in, I was thoroughly impressed by the film. Without a doubt, it earns its reputation as the king (or is it queen?) of found footage horror and there are many reasons for this. First of all, the realism of the piece is outstanding. Unlike most films of its kind made today, a lot of care was put into making the audience buy the events as true. This is how it was sold and this is also how it functions cinematically. Video quality is grainy and the editing is choppy, stopping and picking up in the way that you would expect actual footage to be arranged. There is no omniscient camera filming the action from alternate angles- everything we see is filmed by the main characters. Nothing of the possibly paranormal forces is ever witnessed. All of the horror originates from the insinuations of creepy faraway audio and the monsters the audience imagines in the darkest corners of the screen. It's also psychological and emotionally charged by the frustrations of the characters. An immersive, strongly unsettling experience is what The Blair Witch Project is and if more contemporary found footage took its lead, the fatigue of the genre might not run so deep.
Taking a complete 180, I'm going to talk about a film I just watched the other day called Snow on tha Bluff. It's found footage, but it is horror of a very different kind. The film follows a man named Curtis Snow in his daily life in "The Bluff", an extremely poor and crime-riddled area in Atlanta. At the beginning of the film, he steals money and a camcorder from a trio of naive college students passing through the Bluff, looking to score some drugs. The stolen camcorder is our means of vision throughout the rest of the film and what it captures is uncompromisingly realistic. Although it stumbles in a few areas, Snow on tha Bluff must be praised for its incredible believability. It swerves into documentary territory on multiple occasions and I'm actually not entirely convinced that everything in the film is fabricated. Ultimately, it serves to highlight something that the vast majority of found footage films never even bother to approach: real world issues. The "stars" of the film are real people living in the Bluff and playing themselves and the film tackles subjects of fruitless crime and cyclical poverty in a very, very raw way. Now why can't more found footage work like this? If found footage in horror allows the audience to empathize with the characters experiencing the scares, then Snow on tha Bluff proves that found footage can also make the audience step into the shoes of a real person and live out their reality.

As evidenced in The Blair Witch Project, found footage horror has the ability to be realistic and frightening in the right hands and the example of Snow on tha Bluff introduces an element of social commentary and real world connections that could take the found footage to new heights. A case can be made for the genre being merely a fad, but I personally think it will be around for awhile, so let's see if we can make it better and stretch the cinematic capabilities to their limits.

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