20,000 days on Earth – a documentary?

We were just making a film

Not only is Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s film on Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth a great film, it’s also an interesting point of discussion in terms of what makes a documentary and at what point is a film in or out of the doco genre. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer.

This film is beautifully shot (Erik Wilson) and edited (Jonathon Amos) using constructed scenes such as Cave visiting a psychoanalyst, him driving around Brighton, England hosting Ray Winston, Kylie Minogue and ex-Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld and rolling out of bed in the morning dressed conveniently in his jeans. It captures some sense of his writing process, the collaborative creation of his songs and what it means to him to be a song-writer.

But is it a documentary? And does that matter? David and Margaret have a useful discussion about this when they reviewed the film on The Movie Show (ABC, 12/8/2014). David calls the film a ‘hybrid documentary’ arguing that it has scenes that are staged and not documented and therefore is not strictly a documentary. An example of this is certainly the scene where Cave has a session with psychoanalyst and best-selling author Darian Leader. This is clearly a contrived scene rather than a sneak into a private session with Cave’s personal shrink. But at the same time it brings out some fascinating stories for those interested in Cave’s song-writing drivers and impulses. We learn that Cave’s father read him the start of Lolita when Cave was a young boy impressing on his son the beauty and richness of Nabokov’s prose. And we are reminded of the impact of his father’s death on the 19 year old embarking on a career of music and drug-abuse. Margaret counters David’s argument stating that

‘…it might be a set up but it still is recording something real, which is documentary to me’.


So what do the film-makers say? In an interviewwith writer/directors Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth on the same Movie Show segment, Jane Pollard says:

‘… we didn’t think, oh we’re making a documentary, or you, you know, we didn’t think what we were making, we were just making a film.’

Interestingly this is the first feature length film for Pollard and Forsyth, video and sound installation artists who have collaborated on major projects together since art school back in the 70’s. I think this is the key to the ‘is it a documentary’ debate. Pollard and Forsyth come from a collaborative place where performance and music play a large part. They have worked with Cave on previous videos around his music and are clearly interested in creating a visual, aural essay on Cave rather than attempt a straight ‘observational’ documentary.

A documentary film is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as:

Using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual report on a particular subject

But I think this film really challenges this definition, particularly what we can call ‘real events’ and what we understand in the 21st century as ‘factual’.



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