Book Review: Watching the World: Screen Documentary and Audiences‏

Title: Watching the World Screen Documentary and Audiences‏

Author: Thomas Austin

With Watching the World: Screen Documentary and Audiences, Thomas Austin provides the reader with an accurate account of documentaries recently screened around the world. As far as documentary interest goes, Austin’s book probably represents one of the most up-to-date works on the documentary rise both among cinema goers and TV audiences.

Screen documentary has experienced an unbelievable growth in popularity in these last few years. The reason behind this extraordinary golden age for documentaries is basically the main focus of this book. This interesting academic research covers widely acclaimed documentaries such as Etre et Avoir, Touching the Void and Capturing the Friedmans amongst others. To do so, the author utilizes a system of questions and answers to get into audience tastes along with his own academic research that serves as back up for the vox populi that he gathers.

Thomas Austin’s study of documentary and audiences is timely, as there are now more documentaries in the cinemas and consequentially more audience interest in them.  The films that Austin discusses at length belong, as he sees it, to that documentary ‘boom’ of the last decade. The documentary ‘boom’ is, above all, a commercial categorization, and Austin’s case studies are those documentaries that can be deemed popular especially for their extraordinary success at the box office. Thus, films that did not gross very much, but which were nevertheless part of the boom in documentary production such as The Fog of War (Errol Morris’s film about Robert McNamara) or Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette’s lacerating autobiographical home movie) are only mentioned. Although Austin states at the outset of Watching the World that his main focus will be ‘documentaries viewed at cinemas and on home video and DVD’, there is also one chapter (the last) on wildlife television documentaries.

Taking a closer look at the documentaries analyzed in this engrossing work, Austin investigates and assesses several documentaries. In Etre et Avoir’, director Nicolas Philibert has followed a year in the life of an infant school in rural France: one teacher and a dozen or so little kids, aged from four to ten, all taught by the old master M Georges Lopes in one room. In Touching the Void instead, the main topic tackles specific politics and the concept of location. The analysis of this film shows how a geographical remote place can become a source of inspiration for the more common demands of everyday life. And Andrew Jarecki’s documentary Capturing the Friedmans, which relies heavily on videos and footage from the family’s life during Arnold and Jesse’s last months of freedom, looks into troublesome human relationships. This is the story of how, in 1984, after US customs intercepted child pornography addressed to the main character and family man Arnold Friedman, a disturbing secret was revealed to an entire family.

Watching  the World is a very valuable account of how audiences and academics, with an impressive amount of well-researched material, look at this cinematic art form today which seems to be living its ‘golden age’. In terms of documentary surely there is still more to be (re)discovered, but definitely Austin provides a rare opportunity to start this journey into this fascinating process of documenting reality, with the ultimate merit of bringing to the foreground a remarkable list of the most recent non fictional successes.

Nicola Marzano

Paperback: 215pp
Publisher: Manchester University Press
Language: English
ISBN: 978 07190 76893


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