What’s your favourite documentary opening sequence?

Our new intern, Patrick, shares his pick:

The other day Andy W asked the team at the Dogwoof office: ‘What’s your favourite documentary opening sequence?’. While a ton of fantastic docs came to mind, a killer opening is a rarer bird. Flicking through the titles in my collection, I was reminded why Errol Morris is nicknamed ‘The Master’. The first few minutes of The Fog of War (2003), are (IMHO) simply outstanding.

The Fog of War opens with some grainy 1960s footage of the film’s central character, former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, approaching a large map, about to give a presentation to a press conference. As he steps into frame wearing a black suit, hair slicked back, he exudes confidence. His eyes scanning the room, he begins speaking in a tone that implies that what he is about to say is of grave importance to the nation. He starts his speech: “Earlier tonight...”, but then suddenly stops, looks directly into the camera and says “Let me first ask the TV, are you ready? All set?”

BANG! In less than thirty seconds you’re engaged. It’s the moment when McNamara looks right at you, ‘breaking the fourth wall’, that sucks you in. For a couple of seconds, the vintage footage seems like it’s live.

Questions pop up: Who is this guy? What’s he going to say? What had happened earlier that night?! But Morris holds us in suspense. From here, the intro shifts gears into an amazing montage of sailors swiftly manning their battle stations. These scenes are spliced with the opening credits while Phillip Glass’ original score builds pace and tension. As the sequence comes to a close, we hear McNamara do a quick sound-check. The final title screen then fades to reveal a much older McNamara, again looking directly at us, but this time through Morris’ ingenious ‘Interrotron’ camera set-up.

While everything so far has been pretty slick, it’s the next bit that I think is genius. McNamara starts talking:

Now I remember exactly the sentence I left off on. I remember how it started, and I was cut off in the middle. But you can fix it up some way. I don't want to go back, introduce the sentence, because I know exactly what I wanted to say.

Morris: Go ahead!

McNamara: Okay. Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he's speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power.

And so, unconventionally, the film begins.

While the press conference and Morris’ carefully stylised interview are both heavily contrived situations, by presenting these two moments when the subject ‘breaks from the script’ Morris achieves a distinctive verisimilitude. McNamara seems more real, the footage more organic. It’s this aspect that makes Morris’ documentaries stand out. In a 2004 interview with FILM Magazine, Morris explains that it’s all about eye contact:

When someone watches my films, it is as though the characters are talking directly to them... There is no third party. On television we're used to seeing people interviewed sixty-minutes-style. There is Mike Wallace or Larry King, and the camera is off to the side. Hence, we, the audience, are also off to the side. We're the fly-on-the-wall, so to speak, watching two people talking. But we've lost something.

Q: What?

A: Direct eye contact.

Q: Eye contact?

A: Yup. We all know when someone makes eye contact with us. It is a moment of drama. Perhaps it's a serial killer telling us that he's about to kill us; or a loved one acknowledging a moment of affection. Regardless, it's a moment with dramatic value. We know when people make eye contact with us, look away and then make eye contact again. It's an essential part of communication. And yet, it is lost in standard interviews on film. That is, until the Interrotron.

As in The Fog of War, eye-contact is used to great effect in the opening sequence of Morris’ latest film, Tabloid. It also begins with some archival footage of the subject, this time the former beauty-queen Joyce McKinney, in which she deliberately looks straight at the camera while reading from her book.

The washed-out retro scenes with the young McKinney come to a pause and then WHAM! - Interrotron in full force - modern day McKinney in HD. The effect is stunning. I remember seeing it for the first time on the big screen at the Sydney Film Festival and just thinking ‘Woah! This is amazing’. Despite being in a packed cinema, I felt that Joyce McKinney was speaking only to me.

Both The Fog of War and Tabloid are outstandingly well-crafted documentaries. I highly recommend checking them out, even if you only watch the first 5 mins!