Can documentaries benefit from the film techniques used in fiction films? David Kinsella’s “Killing Girls” is exemplary.
The director David Kinsella – behind the new documentary Killing Girls – told me this summer that he had a lot of shots worse than this one, but that he wouldn’t use them in the film.
The audio and visual experience is close to the feeling generated by Dvortsevoy’s extreme close-up of a sheep giving birth to a dying baby lamb in his fiction film Tulpan (2008), though he did not, as Kinsella did, shoot in black-and- white. Interestingly Kinsella uses a lot of fictional techniques in his documentaries to make them more visual. He has also chosen to work with an editor whose background is in fiction films. Yes, as you say David, there are too many filmmakers in the documentary field with a background in words – we agree on that.
As in Kinsella’s previous A Beautiful Tragedy (2008) we see scenes in slow motion with unfocused images, and we experience the use of music to arouse melancholic feelings. Too much? No, it makes the harshness of this Russian reality shine through.
The nightmarish impression of Killing Girls is not coincidental. Kinsella realised that he wanted the film to be a nightmare itself, when he observed a 15-year old girl giving birth to her dead seven month old child. That is why we see images slowing down and speeding up, and why he makes use of a thin plastic skin to blur the images. The characters also walk through passages, tunnel-like exits, and go through darkness approaching light.
IN TODAY’S RUSSIA it is normal for women to have between two and ten abortions in their lifetime. This is the country where twice as many people are dying than being born – the mortality rate in the last 15 years is nearly twice as high as the birth rate.
That cannot be the reason why Russia has little room for sex education in the school curricula …Though contraception in the form of pills and condoms is available, it is not used. The new “sexual revolution” a er the end of the Soviet era made abortion “younger”. It seems as though the young men are both irresponsible and persuasive – though not in the same way as the violent sexually-demanding boys in poverty-struck parts of Haiti or the even more extreme South African gang bangs … There is still a long way to go before women are treated with respect.
The Russian girls are also ignorant or uneducated. For girls between 14 and 18 one of the popular methods of solving their pregnacies has become to have a late term abortion. This phenomenon is, according to Kinsella, not widely known amongst the Russian public, and is never discussed in broader society. Even so, his film has recently been requested by the Russian Information Department to be used as part of their sex education programme for teenagers.
The film is scripted by Russian writer Anna Sirota who also shares her personal story with the audience, comparing her own sad experiences with those of the new generation of teenagers. Killing Girls is in a way a real story made for women from a woman’s point of view. The Norwegian-based Irish lmmaker Kinsella also makes it a story about the moral and especially the hard economic choices in Russian society. The girls are really poor, and their boyfriends just disappear.
So, in this harsh environment of late-term abortions, who are these people and what makes them do what they do? What makes the girl on the operation table – with an angry mother and a doctor in front of her wide-open legs, surrounded by white-coated staff with metal instruments – suddenly scream that she wants to keep the baby? And then leaves the room. We, the audience, later follow her baby girl growing up with the grandmother and mother, as the child who was given life – in contrast to the black meat-like object that was thrown out in a plastic bag.
I DO NOT KNOW why Kinsella repeatedly has young girls as the main characters in his documentaries, but he does manage to get close to the situations they are in.
In his previous documentary about the training of Russian ballet dancers, there were also harsh tough older women shouting at the young – in this case the promising very young girls living at the extremely strict dance school. We watch the film in astonishment as a skinny girl is told she is overweight– and later hear her own reflections as she lingers between love and hate of this value, this body, that she has. The fictional techniques employed include blurry imagery, slow motion, indistinct frames combined with very beautiful shots and editing.
As in Killing Girls, Kinsella gives us a little “happy ending”: in the same way as he follows the baby as she grows up in Killing Girls, the main girl striving to be a ballet dancer is told years later that she has been selected to join the official ballet troupe. To be critical, isn’t this focus on a happy ending something that belongs more to fictional films?
The other girl film is his forthcoming documentary The Last Sámi Girl. It features a daughter who will inherit her father’s reindeer and take charge of the flock out there in the wilderness of the snowy mountains of Norway. In these surroundings she “talks” spiritually with her forefathers. Again Kinsella uses a lot of techniques borrowed from the world of fiction, as seen in the trailer of this film to be released next year: the camera rapidly darts around the Sámi girl, following the surrounding reindeers. The camera uses fast track and zoom – distances can come close in a fraction of a second. The audience follows her glances, and the lack of sharpness and blurring underlines the spiritual feeling of nature.
NOW THE QUESTION remains: Should documentary filmmakers follow this trend of blurring the line between documentary and fiction? A lot of purists will definitely refuse to. The Direct Cinema people will not consider it. Nor yet will those who adhere to Cinema Vérité. Or maybe they will? The French Cinema Vérité did construct scenes. Several directors are today also obsessed with representing reality using whatever it takes to get the true stories told.
But there is a fine line between lies and fake content. Since the documentary is the creative adaption of reality it can never be the “true” reality, the stories told will all have “lies” embedded within them. The films are never the reality themselves, and the frames and choices of the director will always be a part, or a subjective extract, of something larger. For example consider this year’s film The Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy from Peter Liechti – shown at Visions du Réel in Nyon: This film uses closeups of nature, urban strangers passing, and personal video shots from the director’s past, all documentary shots to illustrate another story. Therefore a fiction film at a documentary festival. But this poetic reading of a real suicide is told truthfully according to the real diary found in this character’s tent in the woods. Being told like this, does it really matter if the woods that were filmed were in Austria or in Japan?
But when there is fake content in a film, when the filmmaker is too inventive and not true to the story or the research behind it – he or she crosses the acceptable line of documentary and moves into falsehood. The director then becomes something closer to an entertainer or magician.
Kinsella never falls into this trap. His methods are exemplary of what the documentary genre needs now. Yes, there are too many directors coming form the journalistic or word- based culture. The visual has now to be taken seriously to make important documentary issues really matter – remember what fiction director Peter Greenaway always tells his audience in his patronising way: Most of you have a visual illiteracy!
I challenge more documentary directors to now focus on visual aesthetics.