Widening what makes an arts documentary means the audience’s horizons are widened, writes Alistair Harkness
PEOPLE have long wrestled with the question of what constitutes art, but a new film festival in Glasgow adds another dimension to the debate. In billing itself exclusively as an “arts documentary festival”, the inaugural BBC-sponsored Art Screen event – part of the Glasgow International art festival – raises the issue of what exactly constitutes an arts film.
“I think the film itself has to be a piece of art,” suggests Julien Temple, whose new film Rio, a psychological exploration through images and music of the titular Brazilian city as it prepares to host the next Olympic Games, opens the festival. “You have to approach it in the same way as a painting or a symphony.”
Temple, who kicked off his career with his genre-defying Sex Pistols film The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle, has always taken his lead from the creative potential of cinema (as well as the rule-breaking anarchy of punk). With Rio, he continues his recent interest in making films about cities that are also centres of great music – see also Requiem for Detroit?, London – The Modern Babylon. In each, the music of the city in question is used to narrate its history. “The music has to be the narrator rather than some stupid TV voice-over, because the emotional tidemarks of a city through time are recorded in its music,” says Temple.
Temple’s freeform approach – juxtaposing archival footage, interviews and music in the editing room until the story reveals itself – is a world away from the kind of scripted, explain-all documentaries about art which are frequently found on TV. But there is something to be said, too, for dialling down the artistic personality of the filmmaker in order to let the subject artist’s own voice come through. That was the approach Nick Abrahams and Turner Prize-winning conceptual artist Jeremy Deller took with their film about octogenarian performance artist Bruce Lacey, The Bruce Lacey Experience.
“We knew we wanted to make a fairly straight film,” says Abrahams. “This sometimes annoys people because they want it to be more arty, but in some way Bruce’s personality dictated how the film would be.”
Because they could work with Lacey, for example, they didn’t just want to focus on his past. “We wanted to show that his art was his life, that his entire life was being lived as this continuing work of art.”
That exhibition quality highlights another important function of a good arts documentary: shining a light on underexposed art. With Rio, Temple wanted to give a sense of the political and social complexities of Brazilian music in advance of the global exposure the city will soon receive. Abrahams, meanwhile, wanted to make a film about an obscure artist to show that art isn’t any less valid just because its creator has avoided fame. “It can alter your reaction to an artist and their work when you realise they’re doing it because they can’t not do it,” he says.
But can a film that isn’t explicitly or even tangentially about art also be considered an arts documentary? That question is raised by the inclusion in the festival of The Big Melt, a non-linear, experimental film about British steel, co-directed by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and filmmaker Martin Wallace.
“I think it boils down to the duality of film as mode for documenting something, but also as mode of expression,” says Wallace. “For me, the best documentaries have something in the way they get their subject across to their audience that could be classed as art with a small ‘a’. It’s done with a view to giving people an engaging experience as opposed to merely transmitting information.”
The fact that The Big Melt was first screened last summer as part of an “audio visual gig” in which an orchestra of disparate musical styles performed the score (the live recording of this is now the score you hear on the film) is also a further indication of the way in which the concept of the arts documentary has broken free from the strictures previously associated with the format.
“The idea that arts documentaries are about celebrating some pre-agreed canon of things is fractured now, forever, in a good way,” says Wallace. “People are open to all these more interesting things that perhaps wouldn’t have got much of a look-in before.”