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Cinema Documentaries



Many filmmakers aren’t even happy with the term documentary. When asked to comment on the form in the book Imagining Reality, the great French non-fiction filmmaker Chris Marker replied “I don’t feel I belong to the realm of documentaries”. Another filmmaker interviewed, Pavel Pawlikowski, says that if most documentaries claim to be “simply recording reality”, then where would that leave his films? “I make no bones about manipulating my subjects” he insists.

Maybe what is important here is not to think of documentary as a set of rules dictating the form, but a series of possibilities that accepts, while we are in the realm of truth rather than fiction, the truth-seeking can be manifold. For the purposes of our argument what we want to look at is the diversity of the documentary form, to think of documentaries from the point of view of the informational, the observational, the narrational and the personal. These terms are loose, and a non-fiction film may use aspects of all four or focus chiefly on one, and at different periods of time in cinema history one approach has been more prevalent than another. For example in the sixties, two film movements, Cinema verité in Canada and France, and Direct Cinema in the US, adopted primarily the observational approach. The key exponents in Canada and France were Michel Brault and Jean Rouch, in the US Richard Leacock, the Maysles Brothers, D. A. Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman. The idea behind the movements was to make cinema as unobtrusive as possible, in Direct Cinema, and if obtrusive, as in much Cinema Verité, then to acknowledge the relationship with one’s subject. Direct Cinema filmmakers like Wiseman in High School, Welfare and Public Housing, insisted on no direct questions to the subjects, no music, no contextualizing voice-over, certainly no presence of the filmmaker on the screen. A Cinema verité director such as Jean Rouch, on the other hand, accepted his impact on his subjects and, in Chronicle of a Summer, would make the viewer aware of his and his co-director Edgar Morin’s presence. When one woman looks like she is breaking down in front of the camera, the directors acknowledge they are implicated in this woman’s confessional despair.

Obviously long before these two documentary movements non-fiction films were being made, but often the films made before, like Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North from the twenties, or Man of Aran from the thirties, were quite pragmatic works. As Imagining Reality editors Mark Cousins and Kevin Macdonald say in relation to Flaherty’s Nanook, by “blending factual elements while shooting and editing it like a fiction film” it was by such a method that “documentary had to move further away from reality and adopt the dramatic and technical features of the fiction film” to become successful. The sixties filmmakers wanted documentary to be equally significant, but with a dogmatic awareness of the reality they were filming,  whether by trying for a fly on the wall style like Direct Cinema, or making the viewer aware that there was somebody behind the camera in relation to the subjects as in Cinema Verité.

However, we shouldn’t see such dogmatism as restrictive; ironically their interventionist insistence that non-fiction filmmaking should have parti-pris (deliberate rules) freed up other filmmakers to generate deliberate rules of their own. When we look at documentaries from the seventies onwards, the range is vast. There are Werner (Grizzly Man) Herzog’s personal adventure films, where the director often puts himself into dangerous situations as in Le Soufrière, where he and his cameraman go to a small island while the inhabitants are leaving. Everybody else is escaping the impending volcanic eruption: Herzog wants to witness it. Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil is a freewheeling travel essay as Marker uses an alter-ego voice-over to meditate on Japanese and African culture. Nick Broomfield’s films like Kurt and Courtney have become so obtrusive, so full of his own presence, that the producers insist his appearance in front of the camera be written into the contract.

But now let us return to our notions of the observational, the narrational, the informational and the personal. If films by Wiseman, the Maysles brothers and others are insistently observational then what about the informational? Many documentaries like the World at War series, Adam Curtis docs including The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares, An Inconvenient Truth, Black Gold etc. and all those DVD making of movies where the informational meets the promotional, absorb us as they inform, as they give us information ostensibly as an encyclopedia might. Obviously the degree of objectivity is open to debate, but if we compare Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares with Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, where Curtis peppers the viewer with facts, Moore’s often happier with a good gag as the personal frequently imposes itself on the informational. When for example Moore cuts to clips from Dragnet after he muses over why the Bin Laden family were let out of the country, where everyone who watches TV cop shows knows the first thing you do is interview the nearest relative after a crime has been committed, the informational gives way to the personal. If many have problems with Moore’s work, it may lie in the way that he constantly shifts tones for his own ends. The important and powerful Sicko nevertheless frequently takes the easy route as Moore pads around London, Paris and Havana waxing lyrical about healthcare systems antithetical to those in the States. Moore’s combination of the personal and the politically informational sometimes leaves the viewer feeling less informed than hoodwinked.  Even the Democratic party, whom Moore hoped would get re-elected partly on the back of Fahrenheit 9/11, steered clear of the film.

Yet in many ways are both Shoah and The Gleaners and I not personal works? Perhaps the weakness of Shoah for some is that this nine hour plus documentary on the Holocaust suffers from the director Claude Lanzmann’s bludgeoning questions, but there is a sense that the director wants to keep hammering away at his interviewees to try and understand the full implications of the Death Camps. The personal here doesn’t only lie in the obtrusive presence of Lanzmann, but also the excavated feelings of those involved. One, a courier for the Polish government during the war, breaks down and cries, insisting that he can’t go back to memories buried. Lanzmann keeps asking questions where a more sensitive interviewer would back away, yet his own personality often ends up bringing out the deeply personal in those he interviews.

Agnes Varda also offers a personal perspective in The Gleaners and I, but Varda is a fragile figure, showing her own signs of aging as she films close ups of her hands and her thinning hair while she marvels at the smallness of the DV equipment. As she tiptoes around her subjects, showing admiration, affection and tenderness towards the people she interviews, who include the homeless, squatters, voluntary workers, lawyers and the unemployed, all of whom are involved in gleaning either from the land or from city dustbins, Varda  brings out the personal by offering her own intimate revelations.

The personal is maybe the most fruitful form of recent documentary, especially with the advent of video. If in the sixties Direct Cinema practitioners took advantage of the new apparatus, in D. A. Pennebaker’s words “portable tape recorders; faster film stock, lenses that allowed for shooting in natural light and an almost overlooked development, the zoom lens” to capture a degree of objectivity,  often the video technology has lead the filmmaker to do the opposite. Herzog, Varda and Marker have all used video as a useful expression of personality.

But what about the narrational? We noted above that even in the early years of documentary fictional devices were adopted, but over the last two decades it has probably been as significant and popular an approach as observational happened to be in the sixties. Whether it is the Ali/Foreman rumble in the jungle in the excellent When We Were Kings, looking at the two basketball hopefuls in Hoop Dreams, examining the atrocities during the 1972 Munich Olympics in One Day in September, the impossible survival of a mountaineer in Touching the Void, or the history of The New York Cosmos in Once in a Lifetime, the films usually adrenalise the audience by taking us into the drama of the story. If in An Inconvenient Truth the purpose lies in relaying information, and in Varda’s The Gleaners and I in exploring her own relationship with gleaning and the people she come into contact with, in the narrational the excitement of the story is the thing. The filmmaker Alan Parker reckoned One Day in September had the pace of a good thriller, but an exceptional example of narrational documentary is The Thin Blue Line. Here Errol Morris investigates an apparent miscarriage of justice after one Randall Adams was imprisoned for a crime Morris is sure he didn’t commit. Through interviewing a number of people involved, and by proving conclusively that Adams could not have committed the crime, Morris offers not only a convincing piece of narration, but also of legal work: Adams’ sentence was overturned based on the evidence found in the film. Its narrative thus serves not only the expectations of the narrational documentary; it also proves a conclusive piece of legal documentation. How many narratively led docs manage to serve both the truth and also the adrenaline buzz? One Day in September, for example, is a fine piece of narrative documentary filmmaking, but it too easily and too readily offers hindsight over insight. It gives the impression that the German police were incompetent, rather than looking at the complexities involved in the situation. But that would have slowed down the documentary, and stalled the film’s narrative drive. It is a question worth asking when thinking of narrative documentary: does it still seem to be serving some wider truth, or simply the narrowness of fast paced excitement? It is one of a number of questions concerning documentary that we will be asking over the next two hours.


©Tony McKibbin