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2013

While Iím loath to make the sort of predictions that are weighed down with a sense of finality and will haunt me in the coming years as not only incorrect but downright foolhardy, it seems as though 2013 was the first year in which documentaries surpassed narrative film in their significance not just to the changing face of cinema but also to social conversation.

The most basic and obvious of these changes is the impact documentaries have on the societies they set out to depict. This is nothing new—after all, a documentaryís primary purpose should be to elicit some sort of response, either personal or widespread--but with technology not only preserving new controversies but opening up new ways in which we examine old ones, the documentarianís role is more important than ever--as archivists, investigators, prosecutors, and crusaders. With The Central Park Five, Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon reexamined the titular 1989 rape case and, in doing so, not only exonerated the five young men but also reaffirmed the rights of free speech and investigative journalism--or, if you prefer, investigative filmmaking--through their own ensuing court case, which was resolved earlier this year. Blackfish, a look at the indecency with which human beings inflict themselves on nature, only to watch as their Frankensteinian creations turn on other people, prompted SeaWorld to defend itself against accusations that it was enabling the tragedies documented by the film. And Jason Osderís Let the Fire Burn reconstructed the events surrounding the domestic bombing of Philadelphia activists by the cityís own police force, an act for which no one was officially punished; itís a startling diagnosis of how fear and anger can become more, especially when instilled in those whose power is threatened, and its relevancy spreads beyond the Philadelphia city limits.

The next layer--and the one that is especially relevant to an increasingly globalized world--is the democratization of filmmaking, as embodied by social media and the $400 film studios most people now carry in their back pockets. This change not only enables first-hand accounts of important events to be captured and distributed in real time, all without the burden of bulky equipment that can easily be broken or emptied, but it puts the responsibility--or, perhaps, the tools--for democratic change back in the hands of the people who need that power the most. We see this in The Square, about the revolution in Egypt; Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, about the totalitarian tactics being employed in Russia; and God Loves Uganda, an account of right-wing evangelical colonialism and hate-mongering in Africa, among others.

But the most significant advancement in documentary filmmaking this year, and the one which allowed the genre to transcend its fictional brethren, is how nonfiction has begun to absorb elements of fiction in the pursuit of greater truths, not just for the customary sake of coherence, but willingly. We see this in two diametrically different films: Sarah Polleyís Stories We Tell, in which she documents the truths and lies surrounding her family, and Joshua Oppenheimerís The Act of Killing, in which Oppenheimer and his anonymous collaborators persuade Indonesian war criminals to reenact their crimes in a cinematic genre of their choice. Both films are in their own way cavorting with meta by challenging us to see how the lies personified by cinema often are the only keys to truth--that by documenting a motherís affair or forcing unrepentant killers to relive their worst offenses as hyperstylized Hollywood fantasies, we are able to uncover what is to be believed about ourselves and the choices we make. This is something Errol Morris has been approaching for years, but in 2013 a handful of filmmakers and crew manage to add an entirely new layer and purpose to what a documentary should be and can do.


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