Shining light on the Illuminations Season

Blog by Jonathan Melville | 04 Dec 2008

A look at an exciting new season of documentary films making their way to Edinburgh’s Filmhouse this December.

It’s fair to say that the last few years have seen the documentary film make something of a comeback. It all started around 2002 when a rotund Everyman called Michael Moore, fresh from hassling the US authorities every week on the small screen in cult show TV Nation, decided to go widescreen with his look at what happened one fateful day in Columbine High School and how his country came to worship the gun in Bowling for Columbine.

Virtually overnight, documentaries became cool again with films such as Capturing the Friedmans (2003), The Fog of War (2003) Supersize Me (2004), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006) all capturing public and media attention, often putting the blockbusters released around the same time into the shade.

So it’s all credit to Edinburgh’s Filmhouse as it launches its new Illuminations season tomorrow (Friday 5 December), a packed programme of 14 documentaries which are cinematic enough to deserve some time on the big screen.

But where to start? Well, depending on your tastes, there seems to be something for even the most discerning viewer. Top of my must-see list are The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) and critics favourite Modern Life (2008).

The King of Kong... is a zippy little documentary (it’s only 79 minutes long) which provides an insight into the mysterious world of arcade gaming, focusing mainly on two players Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell, as they compete to become World Donkey Kong Champion. While that may not sound the most exciting idea for a film, this gem almost defies categorisation, its David vs Goliath-style plot and three act structure making it as exciting as any scripted movie, the fact that it’s all real making it more relevant to the viewer.

The complete opposite of Kong’s high-octane storyline is Modern Life, the third part of director Raymond Depardon’s trilogy following the daily life of farmers in the valleys of Lozere, Ardeche and Haute-Loire. Although I haven’t seen the first two films, I was immediately captivated by the grace of Depardon’s camera, his slow movement along rural byways and mountain passes leaving the viewer both relaxed at its tranquillity while curious about what lies at the end of each road.

Depardon’s interest in his subjects means he’s happy to let them talk for themselves, avoiding flashy camera moves and focusing more on the emotional and financial issues that arise from living such quiet lives. You might not feel energised watching Modern Life, but you will feel you’ve had a privileged insight into a lifestyle slowly dying out. Luckily parts one and two of the trilogy, The Approach (2001) and Daily Life (2005) are also showing as part of the festival.

Also on offer is a special focus on the work of Japanese documentarian Shinsuke Ogawa by Edinburgh-based filmmaker Mark Cousins, with films Sanrizuka – Heta Village (1973) and Dokkoi! A Song of the Bottom (1974) making an appearance at the Filmhouse in coming weeks.

With a look at Iranian women’s football in Football Under Cover (2008) (a UK Premiere) and a focus on one Israli man’s obsession with his Volkswagon Beetle in The Beetle (2008) alongside a handful of other features just waiting to be discovered, it’s well worth taking a look at the Filmhouse website to see what piques your interest.

The Illuminations season runs from Friday 5 until Thursday 18 December – visit this page for full details.