There was a time when the purpose of British documentaries was to chronicle reality – to tell the truth. Britain led the world in truth-telling. Our documentaries, particularly the fly-on-the-wall sort pioneered by Paul Watson and Franc Roddam's The Family (1974), were revered across the world. Although the director and the crew were crouched hugely in the corner of some beleaguered household, mouthing: 'We're not here! Don't look at us!' whenever somebody forgot to ignore them, these films purported to document real life.
Of course, mutations of this form of documentary have been occurring around the world – in a small and habitually ignored manner – for some time, but almost invariably outside of Britain. Jean Rouche did it – in France – with Chronicle of a Summer (1961), in which he wandered around asking people if they were happy. Leni Riefenstahl famously turned the study of people into a study of beauty and resilience: an examination of the human form as demagogue. And in Sherman's March (1985) – my vote for the finest marriage between documentary and art – Ross McElwee was commissioned to make a historical documentary about the American Civil War. A week into shooting, however, his girlfriend left him. So he spent the money he'd been given tracking down his old girlfriends, chatting up new girls, wondering what went wrong and whether he should shave off his beard. Once in a while, feeling guilty about not pursuing the historical documentary he set out to make, he lazily films a monument or two. Eventually – and this is a long film – these two disparate strands begin to mutate. It was the women of the Deep South who conspired to demolish General Sherman's bloody Unionist march. It is the women of the Deep South – with their efficacy and their fortitude – who take Ross McElwee into their homes and tell him where he's going wrong.
But in Britain, the documentary's emphasis has historically been on facts, rather than form. We have always been a reticent, bottled-up nation, so when the public was given permission to let it all pour out, they did. This wasn't theatre. The Americans, by all accounts, lie through their teeth to get onto Oprah: they give themselves ailments and predicaments they didn't even know existed. But British truth was - and is - something far more genuine. Indeed, in the glory days, so much truth poured out there was no need to distil reality through the filters of metaphor or symbolism. There was no need to turn things into art.
In the mid-60s, Michael Apted began filming a series of documentaries charting the progress, at seven year intervals, of a bunch of British children. By the time I saw them, he had made three: 7-UP, 7+7 and 21-UP. I was at Jewish summer camp, and they showed us all three in one go. Some of the children in the films were privileged. Some were working-class. One wanted to be a jockey. One ended up, at 21, sitting in a horrible cafe in the middle of nowhere, staring out of the window, hardly breathing, like a statue.
This was extraordinary for us, watching 14 years flash by in three hours, watching disappointments germinate, the seemingly arbitrary handing-down of prosperity and failure. Of course, there was nothing arbitrary about it. Michael Apted's films were about the inevitability of destiny. We watched 14 years go by on screen, and we saw them go by, in reality.
For Gillian Wearing's recent film, 10-16 (1997), she taped seven children, from the ages of 10 to 16, talking about the world around them. With characteristic childish innocence, the youngest child recalls climbing trees with his cat. Pretty soon, though, things start to disintegrate. An eleven-year old says: 'First I hit people on the arm and then I kick them in the legs and then I punch them in the belly... I don't think many people like me that much.' The 16-year old talks about his stretch marks and his acne: 'It was like I'd been given this horrible mask to wear, and some kind of clown's body.'
Seven adult actors were then employed to lip-synch the testimonies. So the identities of the children are concealed, and the whole thing becomes something else. In the adult frames – the likes of which these voices will one day occupy – we see reminders of their futures, and our pasts. When the 16-year old is lip-synched by a man in his 50s, one gets the startling sense that it could be the adult talking. The fuck-ups that germinate in our teenage years stay with us forever.
Essentially, Wearing's and Apted's films cover the same territory. With both we experience a similar heady feeling of time rollercoasting by, telling us a compressed, concentrated version of a similar truth. But although both films are dealing with reality, Wearing's is a deformed reality. We aren't really seeing the years shoot past our eyes. She is an artist. She didn't need to spend half a lifetime with her interviewees: she uses her imagination, and she allows us the opportunity to use ours.
This is, of course, a rather stock observation of what art is all about, but it is something that we journalistic documentary makers are not allowed to do. There is a fine line, in our world, between using our imaginations and getting sued for libel. The truth is, I think artists have it easy. When was the last time you saw an episode of Brookside in which all the characters stood around muttering: 'There's a scum of the earth contemporary artist hanging around outside. Why can't they just leave us alone?'
But the Brookside characters have a point. If we journalists were good people we would do everything we could to not be unfair to the people we chronicle. But we pretty much always fail. We fail for two reasons:
(a) Because there is an all-pervading urge to turn people into metaphors or symbols, and people are not metaphors or symbols, they are people.
(b) We want to put the best bits in. And our interpretation of the best bits almost never correspond with our interviewees'.
I remember sitting in an editing suite with Neil Crombie, who I made a series with called The Ronson Mission about five years ago. We were looking through the rushes of some film featuring a man who had named all his budgies after members of the Nolan Sisters, if I remember rightly. And we were cutting him up and splicing him about. And in the midst of this, I said: 'Neil. Are we being fair to this man, or are we just making him look stupid?'
And Neil said: 'Jon. Look at it this way. One interviewee suffers, but millions are entertained.'
First published in Issue 36