Film: Escape to reality

THE received wisdom has always been that most people go to the cinema to escape from reality.

That was why documentaries were a waste of popcorn, wasn’t it? Who wants to pay for more gritty reality – usually distressing – on their night off? But the huge increase in audiences and docs on screen in the last two years needs explaining.

Docspace, the Edinburgh-based documentary network, has run new audience research in Spain, Netherlands, Austria and Scotland to explain the resurgence of excitement and audience figures for documentary.

We discovered that, yes, everyone goes to the cinema to escape. But, and this is the key – ‘escape’ means two things: for the lovers of mainstream cinema, it meant relaxation with predictable storylines. For the documentary lovers, it meant being able to focus attention away from distractions, and have the attention repaid with the pleasure of learning something new.

So, you can escape from Western stress by immersing yourself into another country, another reality, another moment in history.

Docspace’s most recent screening, in Edinburgh, of China Blue, by Misha Peled, gave us a concrete example of this. After watching this diary of the young Chinese women who work up to 21-hour shifts making the trousers we love to buy so cheaply – at least one woman rushed home to rip up her blue jeans. The measure of a successful big screen documentary is not the facts that it shows us – but how much it make us want to engage with the facts.

Documentary is a particularly complex art form. Because it is often unscripted, and almost always filmed as it happens, each shot often contains more information than the director can realise consciously at the time. Those shots are edited as metaphor, for identification, as argument, as pleasure.

When this volatile mix works, it creates a visually and emotionally-rich experience for the audience. It operates at a deep level, between perceptions and values, and sends us back to the world, re-energised and reconnected.

Docspace is about to further extend the audience’s cinematic reconnection with the world. We are developing the interface between screen, director and audience. Audiences in Edinburgh were able to talk to Peled, in Amsterdam, after the screening of China Blue.

The debate was beamed through the internet onto all our screens. An audience in Austria also got involved.

It was technically intermittent since we heard rather than saw Peled answering our questions, but I think this is the way cinema will go. Our escape to the cinema will connect us more creatively with the films and the people who make or star in them, and more directly back to the world.

On Saturday, September 30, we take this one stage further with ‘World Playtime’, Docspace’s first screen creativity workshop where the audience’s response to a documentary turns them into screen stars themselves.

During the Discovery International Film Festival for Children and Young People in Dundee, the audience in this interactive experiment will be children, whose response, through animation, silhouette, painting and model-making, is filmed and encoded straight to the screen.

Venues have welcomed these digital innovations. The sophistication of this digital network open the possibilities in, say, Sutherland to become fully connected to Europe and beyond – particularly to areas situated at the margins of Europe. With such equipment, Sutherland inhabitants can collaborate in the creation of new documentaries about their life with other thinkers, creators, visionaries, from other corners of the globe.

Docspace has succeeded in taking documentaries to new audiences in new venues. Our challenge now is to develop ways to bring audiences and screen into even more creative communication. The venues are ready: are the rest of us?

Amy Hardie, director, Docspace


For more information about the Discovery International Film Festival for Children and Young People, contact 01382 909900.