Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old affirms trend of top filmmakers turning to docus to tell their stories

With documentaries, filmmakers like Peter Jackson, Martin Scorsese are finding new ways to tell old stories

Gautam Chintamani March 28, 2019 14:59:04 IST
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old affirms trend of top filmmakers turning to docus to tell their stories

A period film can momentarily transport you to any era but imagine finding yourself in the middle of a real-life event that took place a hundred years… imagine reliving the exact moment in history with the same emotions that were experienced by people who are no longer there to share their stories. Filmmaker Peter Jackson has managed to do just that in his documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. By using state-of-the-art technology and old footage from the BBC as well as the Imperial War Museum, he recreates a story of men who fought World War I. An emotionally rich documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old became more poignant when Jackson not only colourised the archival footage but also used the original audio recordings from survivors — which were recorded for BBC memorial broadcasts and erve as the ‘narrator.’

Peter Jacksons They Shall Not Grow Old affirms trend of top filmmakers turning to docus to tell their stories

A still from They Shall Not Grow Old. Getty

Following the success of his WWI documentary film, Jackson is now slated to do the same with previously unseen footage of The Beatles during the making of their final album, Let It Be. The filmmaker’s second archive project would be created from 55 hours of never-before-seen footage and 140 hours of audio recordings and use the same film restoration techniques that made They Shall Not Grow Old a technical achievement. Jackson promises it will be the ultimate “fly on the wall experience” where a time machine would transport the viewer back to 1969 to sit in the studio and watch “four friends make great music together.”

Jackson has joined a group of notable filmmakers who have found refuge in the documentary film format when it comes to telling a compelling tale. In the recent past, Martin Scorsese has routinely returned to the documentary film to satiate his creative urges that are often let down by the traditional film format. He has explored the lives of three exceptional musicians — George Harrison in George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011), The Rolling Stones in Shine a Light (2008) and Bob Dylan in No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005) — besides feature-length documentaries on Elia Kazan - A Letter to Elia (2010), Fran Lebowitz - Public Speaking (2010) and the history and influence of the New York Review of Books - The 50 Year Argument (2014). Having started as an editor on the iconic rockumentary Woodstock (1970), Scorsese has always maintained a healthy balance between making feature films and documentaries.

Besides Scorsese, there have been a host of great filmmakers who have constantly made documentary films including Krzysztof Kieślowski (Talking Heads, Seven Days a Week - CITY LIFE - Warsaw), Spike Lee (When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Kobe Doin’ Work, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise, Go Brasil Go!), Werner Herzog, who has perhaps made more documentaries than feature films, and Claire Denis, whose documentaries are as poignant and fearless as her cinema.

One can attribute the increase in the number of classic filmmakers moving more towards the documentary film to the average age of the viewer getting younger. It’s telling how Scorsese’s documentary output in this century has been more prolific than his feature films. Many of these filmmakers are from a school where the narrative is crafted from the so-called rubble (read story), which considering the films today is more reflective of the documentary format.

Today’s studio executives have grown up on a staple diet of blockbuster films and for them, things such as narrative and story are best defined by what they have read in film school. Imagine a Scorsese or now a Peter Jackson trying to ‘convince’ a young executive with an elevator pitch — by the time they would come to the meat of the story, the executive would expect to know all about the future sequels, prequels and reboots. In such a scenario, it’s hardly surprising that a Werner Herzog is more kicked with the prospect of making a documentary about traveling to McMurdo Station in Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World) — or Jackson wants to find new ways to tell old stories.

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