2011 was the year of the documentary: from Formula 1 to an albino crocodile, or a small pile of abandoned Christmas presents in a North London flat, films experimented with the documentary format, combining contemporary footage with the powerful force of the archive, or blending the real and the constructed into a heady mix. These were films that posed unexpected challenges to the big-budgeted, steroid-spun mainstream.
The attempts to creatively reconstruct – even resurrect – people and times past, openly playing with the fluid and imaginative lens of history and memory linked Carol Morley’s startling history of contemporary isolation (Dreams Of A Life) to Clio Barnard’s brilliantly contentious fusion of truth and fiction in a Bradford estate (The Arbor). Werner Herzog’s reclamation of 3D as a means to deliver us to ancient history shared something (Cave Of Forgotten Dreams) of Asif Kapadia’s celebration of low-grade 90s TV footage (Senna) – a celebration of the new in the old, and the old in the new.
The documentary films of the past year clearly illustrate that in film, the truth benefits from this creative, malleable approach to history. For after all, as legendary Scottish documentary filmmaker John Grierson said, the documentary is ‘the creative treatment of actuality’.
In an astoundingly ambitious new series of 12 feature-length documentaries titled The Price of Kings, Spirit Level films have brought this creative counterpoint – between historical ‘truth’ and memory – into a sharp political focus. Melding archival footage with interviews with some of the most prominent (and controversial) politicians and activists alive, the series delves into the careers of the most divisive characters of recent political history, starting with late Palestinian leader and Nobel prize winner Yasser Arafat.
At the UK premiere a moving introduction from his wife, Suha Arafat, was followed by an impassioned plea from the Palestinian ambassador who perfectly summed up the protracted struggle that the film was to address; he said – ‘we are stuck between the historical imperative and the political impossible’. And how does a documentary film deal with this impossibility? In The Price of Kings, it is achieved through an imaginative, malleable, deeply personal treatment of history.
Through a mixture of interviews and archival footage of Arafat’s political career, the film provides an informative entry into the complicated history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the painfully long process of Palestinian state building. The format of the film, though well worn (save perhaps for the use of Errol Morris’ ‘interrotron’ method – where a combination of a camera and an autocue screen gives the impression that the interviewee is talking with the audience, face to face), transcends the comforts of the documentary form through bravely maintaining a difference in opinion voiced in its interviewees, tempered by archival footage of Arafat’s life. Whether the images confirmed or contradicted the words heard, Arafat’s history is treated with a sensitive, constructive confusion, perhaps even historical playfulness, a rarity in such a contentious history, as that of Palestine.
The Price of Kings gently presents its audience with a spectrum of opinion and belief; treating both the deeply emotional and impassioned as equally relevant and truthful as starkly historical ‘fact’. The moving testimonies of those who believed in Arafat’s pragmatic methods, and who credit him completely for putting Palestine back onto the map – in whatever husk of its former self – is supported brilliantly by the archive. A plump-lipped and wide-eyed Arafat as a young freedom fighter slowly transforms into an elder statesman, exhausted by violence, negotiation, and responsibility.
With 12 more films to go, the series is a bold counter-production to the popular history programmes that deal with conflict either sensationally, or with a dry nervousness. The next two installments delve into the careers of Shimon Peres, the current president of Israel, and Oscar Arias, Nobel Peace Prize winner and president of Costa Rica from 2006-2010.
As a meditation on the trappings of power, and the sacrifices of political responsibility, The Price of Kings series is promising to be complicated, confusing, but necessarily, enjoyably, and powerfully so.
Contributor Basia Lewandowska Cummings can be followed on Twitter @mishearance, and writes for the the blog Africa Is A Country, where a version of this article originally appeared. The Price of Kings is available now to rent or stream.