There has been a sea change in how we get our know-ledge of the world and the means to interpret it. And no, I don't mean cable TV and BlackBerrys. I mean non-fiction instead of novels, and documentaries facing off against mainstream TV news and movies. We've been badly let down by industries that used to exist to reflect our lives back at us. Is it surprising that we want the truth and we'll go elsewhere to find it?
Life is so interesting, every minute of every single day, but you can't really tell that from magazines or the output of the entertainment industry, which appear to be writing fiction about fictional people like Paris Hilton. Do they really think our lives are so dull that we must turn to their fake entertainment to fill our days? Next week, Adbusters, as part of its TV Turnoff Week, plans to zap all TV in public places with a device called TV-B-Gone. They have a point. We don't see Canada: A People's History on elevators, just programs that scream at you to shop.
Virginia Woolf wrote that it's very dangerous to live even one day. She meant that there was so much to observe and interpret that you could write a novel a day and never tire. Thus were born her great diaries. And from Woolf and Joyce were born a fashion for novels set over the course of one day -- most recently Ian McEwan's Saturday, about a bad day in the life of a brain surgeon, Michael Bracewell's Perfect Tense, about one day in the office, and Jon McGregor's If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, about a standard day on a nondescript street. They are improving on the novel by making it more realistic, more memoir-like.
Over the past eight years or so, I have increasingly moved away from reading novels, partly because so many of them are so bad, and into the kind of interpreted reality Woolf chose. I fell into Memoir World like falling into a pond thick with green algae and personal history. I remember one of my friend's little brothers confiding in me his artful scheme of happiness. He made friends by listening to other people's conversations and leaning over and saying to them, "That happened to me once too!" Memoirs are like that.
At the moment, most memoirs are better than most novels, and most documentaries are better than almost all Hollywood movies. This happened, I suspect, as media concentration in North America destroyed the quality of newspapers and TV network news. Young people began to turn to Internet sites and documentaries for their truthful news. Facts matter. I seek no spin. If you want BBC World on Rogers Cable -- and believe me, you do -- Rogers is now trying to force you to buy Fox News as well. Seriously.
As for novels, the notion that everyone had a novel in them is patently untrue. Or it may have been that the modern novel became so inward-looking that people turned to memoirs so they could say, "That happened to me once too!"
This year, I was asked to be a judge in HotDocs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival being held until May 1 in Toronto. HotDocs, showing 101 films from 23 countries, generously thought that a non-fiction writer might have a fresh sideways view of the great wave of documentaries now becoming the information transit station for news junkies.
Each year, the festival has a category that spotlights one nation. This year, it was Israel's turn and my category. I expected a giant slosh of propaganda from Sharonistas. I was wrong.
Although I have yet to discuss the 12 films with my fellow jurors, the fact is, I am overwhelmed by the quality of what I've seen. We'd all be better off seeing these Israeli documentaries.
Newspaper editors should see them. They'd hunger to reclaim investigative journalism and fill their pages with director Dan Setton's story, The Next War: Radical Zionists in the Holy Land. Mr. Setton, whose previous documentary was about Muslim extremists, films two terrorist Israeli settlers who just missed blowing up a hospital and an entire school of little Palestinian girls. Thanks to an Israeli cop who noticed something odd at 3 a.m., the girls lived.
The putative killers, now in jail for 15 years, laugh and are unashamed. Their wives, who back them completely, are treated as a lower form of life.
The documentary evolved. I realized I wasn't seeing only politics, terrorism or Israelis versus Palestinians necessarily. I was seeing the social sanctioning of mass murder. Mr. Setton had filmed an interview with madness itself. It was like watching Ted Bundy, if Ted Bundy had tons of friends and a taste for farming.
These men were simply Bundys who found a niche where it was acceptable to take pleasure in killing little girls, just like those IRA members who weren't really political, but took a secret sexual pleasure in kneecapping people. The screams, the bone chips, the severed nerves flapping -- what fun.
Documentaries like this make us wiser. I watched Grace (a week in a hospice), Sentenced to Marriage (a stunning look at Israeli women forbidden by rabbinical courts to divorce their useless, hang-about husbands), Cry of the Owl (the graceful women of the Himba tribe in Namibia talking about their useless, violent husbands), Keep Not Silent: Ortho-Dykes (Orthodox Jewish lesbians), Watermarks (the story of Jewish women who as girls belonged to a swimming club in Vienna and as seniors return to the city that nearly killed them) . . .
I do not know how we can possibly select one winner. All hail documentaries. Thanks to them, our minds are no longer rigid, but elastic with new ideas.