[Fantastic Fest] ‘THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON’ documentary overviews a unique cinematic style

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON

Not rated, 101 minutes.
Directors: Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott
Featuring: Stefan Avalos, Lance Weiler, Eduardo Sánchez, Jaume Balagueró, Kōji Shiraishi, Patrick Brice, Rob Savage, Michael Goi, Leslie Manning and Stephen Volk.

Found footage is a turn of phrase I find humorous. It sounds like going through old keepsakes and coming across a collection of old home movies, boxed away to transfer to the latest technology to hold on to those visual memories a little longer. As for its place in film, it’s a bit different. Depending on your age, you might think found footage movies began in the summer of 1999 – a time when the Internet required a dial-up modem, Mark Zuckerberg was still in grade school, and the LAW & ORDER spin-off, SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, was set to premiere in the fall.

The movie most closely associated with popularizing the “found footage” concept was Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, a horror project about three student filmmakers who hike into the hills near Burkittsville, Maryland, in 1994 to film a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch. They go missing, but their equipment and footage are found the following year. The supposed recovered (ahem, found) footage is what audiences would see when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1999, followed by a summer release that broke records for an independent feature.

BLAIR WITCH is, not surprisingly, one of the major titles discussed in Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott’s documentary THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON. Cinema has always reflected the times the films were produced, regardless of genre or style. Mostly tied to the horror genre, found footage and its elements are drawn from literature and the epistolary novel, including works written by Bram Stoker (DRACULA) and Mary Shelley (FRANKENSTEIN). That’s kind of a big reach to tie the two together to persuade people to believe something to be true. Early cinema shorts and documenting of events – a better comparison – were exercises in what was to come when fictional narratives developed.

Appleton and Escott delve into a cinematic phenomenon that never gets phased out by tracking its origins and influences (including Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS). Found footage movies spike, and when they do, distributors search the market to ride the wave and cash in with the newfound popularity. At least, that’s what occurred when PARANORMAL ACTIVITY arrived in 2007. Its release, plus the advent of YouTube two years prior, helped speed up developing found footage movies.

What THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON gets right is acknowledging how technology has fueled the style. The medium may remain the same, but moving from film stock to iPhones to Zoom has kept the found footage movie relevant, again adhering to cinema being a reflection of the times they were made. When filmmaker Ruggero Deodato talks about his film CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and how the significance of the Vietnam War played into its creation, the weight of his product feels heavier in spite of overall content. The film’s distasteful depiction of true animal cruelty in selling the idea of human killings also gives adherence to the impact images can have in subverting fiction and reality.

Deodato was a trailblazer to a style that different filmmakers would use, many of whom appear in the documentary. This includes Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler (THE LAST BROADCAST), André Øvredal (TROLL HUNTER), Jaume Balagueró ([REC]), Patrick Brice (CREEP), Michael Goi (MEGAN IS MISSING), and Leslie Manning and Stephen Volk (GHOSTWATCH). The combination of the not-quite-as-discovered found footage works with movies that have defined the style – up through HOST, a 2020 horror feature that incorporates “screenlife” (where the film occurs on a computer monitor) during a video call on Zoom – highlights the documentary.

As far as enjoyment goes, it really depends on the viewer. I enjoy watching and reading about the evolution of movies, but THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON runs too long for the material it explores. The content is good, but the stories told start to repeat and become redundant. Repetitive and unfocused at times, Appleton and Escott skip around on some of the films they highlight before trying to keep things chronologically. While talking heads are quick to weigh in on how the likes of George Romero and Brian De Palma jumped on the found footage bandwagon with their films DIARY OF THE DEAD and REDACTED, the documentary breezes through how their earlier works and techniques influenced the found footage style.

THE FOUND FOOTAGE PHENOMENON is an OK exploration for a subject that will likely be lost unless it finds its intended audience.

Grade: C

A release date is TBA.

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