Success has bred success for U.K. documentaries, with a new wave of filmmakers inspired to explore the form by previous breakout British hits.
Bart Layton, who made his feature debut with “The Imposter,” winning twice at the British Independent Film Awards, says Kevin Macdonald’s “Touching the Void,” which won the BAFTA for British film in 2004, opened his eyes to the potential for theatrical docs.
“It was as compelling, as gripping, as escapist as any thriller,” Layton recalls.
When he was developing “The Imposter,” which recounts the scarcely believable story of how a 23-year-old French-Algerian conman persuaded a Texan family that he was their missing 16-year-old son, Layton was determined to appeal to an audience that wouldn’t normally watch a documentary in the cinema.
“Films like ‘Senna’ and ‘Man on Wire,’ and hopefully now ‘The Imposter,’ have opened more doors for documentaries,” he says.
The snowballing success of such British films finally forced BAFTA to introduce a dedicated documentary category last year. After only having three nominees last year, when “Senna” took the prize, BAFTA is set to allow five this year, in recognition of the creative strength of the category.
“The Imposter” and “Searching for Sugar Man,” both co-produced by Blighty’s doc powerhouse Passion Pictures, are among this year’s leading contenders after making the Oscar shortlist. Macdonald’s “Marley” biopic is a pedigree entry, while other high-profile Brit docs include Julian Temple’s “London: The Modern Babylon” and Stevan Riley’s “Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007.”
With 52 films qualified for the race, BAFTA’s documentary chapter also has a wide global selection in a vast range of styles to choose from, ranging from the Palestinian Territory’s “5 Broken Cameras” and Chile’s “Nostalgia for the Light” to American docs “West of Memphis,” “The House I Live In,” “Bill Cunningham New York,” “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present.”
Many of these films push the boundaries of the art form. That’s what Layton sought to do with “The Imposter,” mingling real interviews with dramatized memories, and putting an unreliable narrator at the heart of his film.
“This story was stranger than fiction, and it warranted a treatment that was stranger than documentary,” Layton says.
Such innovation is helping docs to connect in new ways with cinema audiences. “People are realizing that documentaries can give them the experience that they demand from movies,” Layton says. That, in turn, is drawing more filmmakers to experiment with factual stories.
“You can make a TV documentary that’s watched by four million people, but they are not all in the same room,” Layton notes. “Being in a cinema with 1,200 people who are all watching your film is an amazing thing.”
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