We often like to celebrate the successes of documentaries like “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Super Size Me”, but is the success of these films a victory for the documentary or is it actually killing its essential quality?

Yair Lev
A documentary filmmaker based in Israel, who teach at the Sam Spiegel Film School and Bezalel Art Academy both in Jerusalem. Also the Head of Studies of "Greenhouse" development program. Email: shisha6@netvision.net.il

1.Interior/day/a Tel-Aviv café

With a cell phone ringing in the background (“Pulp Fiction” ring tone?) a woman’s hand is seen picking up the phone and holding it to her ear.

A manly voice:

“Hey, babe. Fancy going to the new Michael Moore?”

The success of documentary cinema in recent years is unprecedented. Commercial screens everywhere have realized the lure of the documentary film and no longer hesitate to screen one. This does not suggest that the genre challenges Hollywood’s mainstream – most documentaries are still screened in small, repertory cinemas – yet no one can deny that Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine were box-office hits in the US and later in many other western countries as well. Fahrenheit was exceptional in winning the prestigious Palm d’Or award at Cannes (associated with quality fiction) with the aid of Quentin Tarantino who served as chairman of the jury. 2004 witnessed another Cinderella, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me – a box office hit that left big-studio bosses sleepless. These films have not just won financial success (and to some degree critical acclaim as well) but they became cultural media events that generated social and political public debates.

Moreover, new documentary film festivals are springing up everywhere and traditional ones flourishing and registering record attendance and revenues. No doubt, in the 21st century, documentary cinema is very much “in” and the hopeless stigma that a documentary cannot be exciting and accessible has finally been stamped out. So documentaries have never had it so good. Or have they?

A critical look at the major successes of cinema and TV documentaries reveals one main characteristic: entrepreneurship. From Moore and Spurlock to TV documentaries, their documentary power does not stem from the way the directors aim their camera at the reality, examine it, offer a personal interpretation or a dialogue with it, but instead from the fact that they are engaged in a battle – with themselves as protagonists, the camera their weapon – to change reality. They have no time for observations. They get to the set with a conviction about the wretchedness of reality, planning a shoot to confront it.

The aim is often justified. The Bush administration is indeed corrupt and warmongering, McDonald’s does feed junk to the average American, and we are dominated by corporations (who are taken on by the filmmakers of The Yesmen, another recent, biting docu-activist film). But on the road to activism they turn cinema from an end to a means, marginalizing all other forms of documentary. This “justifiable entrepreneurship” gives way to the sordid creations of television: the docu-soap locating attractive photogenic objects for sheer voyeurism, or reality TV scenes concocted by scriptwriters – copywriters who don’t live up to the name: what they truly lack is a perception of reality. Their reality is that of the advert time on any given commercial channel. If this is the situation, the question begs itself: does the success – documentary’s popularity – relegate it to a banal and shallow repertoire? Is the documentary giving up representation for situation-manufacturing entrepreneurship (whether justified or sanctimonious)?

It is in the patient observation of its characters (and possible dialogue with them) that documentary expresses its deep humanism and audiovisual dramaturgy. On the one hand, it is accepting (if not necessarily agreeing with) “the other” – the character on the screen – “as is”. The documentary enables the audience to empathize as it observes other people behaving, speaking, sleeping, getting hurt, etc. – in other words simply (though not simplistically) living. On the other, only in observational scenes can one encounter “the magic moment” of the documentary; it’s only then, when something remarkable happens in front of the spectator, that one can feel the power of dramatic stance (which doesn’t differ from any fiction) whilst still being aware of “the aura” of non-fiction. The aura lies in the eyes of the beholder, i.e. the spectator who is aware that what she sees is a representation (albeit subjective) of reality rather an invention of it. The result might be the main reason for the love of documentary and a drama that no director of realistic fiction film could possibly concoct. And if so, is documentary willingly forfeiting its most powerful weapon: the patient observation of the human condition? Is non-fiction cinema moving forward in realizing its ideological and dramatic potential or is it receding to the limitations that followed its late evolution?

2.Exterior/day/igloo on a snowed prairie

Nanook, an Inuit, uses his spear to cut an ice brick from a frozen puddle. He replaces one of the white “snow bricks” of the igloo with the transparent brick. He presses another brick against the “window” he just made creating a natural reflector.

The thousands flocking to European and US cinemas to watch Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North in 1922 had no idea they were witnessing a historic moment, the birth of a new, yet unnamed, cinematic genre. (Another five years would pass before Scottish producer-director John Grierson coined the term “documentary”.) Flaherty is the founding father of narrative documentary cinema but also the first to doubt its dramatic potential. This is why he ordered Nanook to build the igloo (despite the move to houses back then) and was delighted when Nanook suggested a seal hunt with spears (leaving their new guns at home). For Flaherty, Nanook’s authentic life wasn’t sufficient and he set about “to change the world” to adapt it to the romantic survival myths he wished to create, relying on thematic and visual qualities characteristic of US fiction films of the time.

In some way or another, one can summarize the evolution of documentary history, as variable responses to Flaherty’s romantic narrative. From the thriving artistic vanguard of Bolshevik Vertov in the ’20s and the socialist British Documentary Movement of the ’30s (not to mention Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda), to an ambivalent and less authoritarian look at reality after the Second World War. By that time, a dramatic shift had started towards observation that, rather than propagandizing or proving things, discovers the complexity of life, and leaves the conclusion to the viewer. The British Free Cinema documented working class reality, featured live sound, and abolished didactic narration (most had no narration at all). A little later, in France the ethnographic fiction, of the cinéma-vérité blurred the documentary-fiction divide, aspiring to honestly represent reality and, in so doing, possibly change it. The ’60s saw the rise of American Direct Cinema which employed lengthy observations of its objects with minimalist intervention and no dialogue with them, a transparent approach later named “fly-on-the-wall”. Observation crystallized in Direct Cinema with a deep belief that cinematic drama exists in the objects filmed.

The ’90s saw the video revolution. Now everyone can make a movie of their life. Coppola’s wish in Hearts of Darkness that some day a 10-year-old from Pennsylvania (or was it an 8-year-old from Ohio?) will hold a camera (the optimal gift for a narcissistic age) and make a movie, has become reality (or some might say a nightmare, due to the flood of irrelevant personal video diaries). Subjectivity rules, but representation of reality remains a founding element after this technological revolution.

Which brings us back to the present and the big question of the genre’s future: will it reclaim the trust in looking at reality or will it remain associated in the public mind with documentary entrepreneurship?

3.Exterior/day/trading stalls on the outskirts of a labour camp

A starving African woman is piling hundreds of Nile perch heads on a dirty makeshift stall in the mud. Close by, people are boiling the rotting carcasses into soup.

darwinThis is a scene from Darwin’s Nightmare, a masterpiece by Hubert Sauper who spent four years in Tanzania filming how western entrepreneurs turned Lake Victoria into an aquaculture project that destroyed the local fishery and local livelihoods. This important film is the result of a patient, critical and brave look at the real heart of darkness culminating in a damning indictment of market forces – our modern-day tyrants. Darwin’s Nightmare is not alone: Leonard Retel-Helmrich’s “Shape of the Moon” documenting social change in Indonesia, Nicolas Philibert’s successful Être et Avoir documenting a year in a provincial school or Tishe! by Victor Kossakovsky who places the camera on his window sill in St Petersburg to create a humorous fable of post-communist Russia (in his unique way combining Jacques Tati with Tarkovsky!) – all dedicated in their own way to documentary observation. Of course, these important films are little known outside doc milieus and to think of an opening line for this paper from Philibert or Sauper is a castle in the sky. Or is it? Perhaps the entrepreneurial phase is about to exhaust itself, leaving behind the popularity of the documentary – worthy of an investment in a night out – and the successors of the “free/direct/cinéma vérité” in film and television will step into the limelight once again.

 


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