I fully understand if someone feels the urge to come to grips with the “documentary”concept. Oddly enough, the same word is used for a wide variety of productions ranging from the meditations of Jørgen Leth to “Temptation Island”. And one is tempted to think that a beautiful system can be devised which once and for all separates the wheat from the chaff, the documentary films from the television programmes, the art from the speculation. I willingly offer to participate in this debate and start mulling it over-and I get hopelessly bogged down straight away. Where is the dividing line between a journalistic and an artistic documentary, for instance? Although this is a simple, reasonable question, it puts me and my own films in great difficulty.

Den danske digter og filmskaber Jørgen Leth i sit jakkesæt fra Armani.
 Jørgen Leth

For years, I was hard pressed to give a good answer when asked whether I was a journalist or a film director. I have always envied my British and American colleagues who are encompassed by the simple concept of ‘filmmaker’. In these places, they are simply makers of films-end of discussion. But for some reason things are not that simple here in Denmark. Here you are expected to profess your adherence to one tribe or the other. And the dividing line runs deep…

On the one hand, there are journalists who attend editorial meetings at a television station ever morning where they cold-bloodedly assess the issues at hand, do the research, make the analyses, discuss potential viewer ratings and end up making a 45-minute documentary about this or that objectionable condition of our society. On the other, you have the film directors -the great auteur wandering about like a free spirit, delving into his/her soul, senses and feelings -who ultimately gives birth (in a spasm of inspiration) to a sacred, inviolable filmic work, which, although it may include a variety of participating characters, is basically -of course- about the film director himself or herself. We expect no less!

I have never really felt comfortable with either role, at least not in its pure form. There was something about being a journalist in the classic sense of the word -and I tried being one for many years at both DR and TV2 [Danish public service television stations -ed.], that was too cynical, sanctimonious and oddly destructive for my taste. I ended up denouncing everything and everyone without risking anything. Everything was always a question of moral fallibility, of businesspeople who cheated, of public authorities who failed. And the person with whom the viewers should identify was always the man or woman on the street, the victimised, unresisting ghost of a moral figure devoid of responsibility. As a TV journalist, my role was to populate the world with big, bad wolves on the one hand and weak-willed, poor souls on the other. If the characters did not fit into either role during the interviews- if the evil man suddenly made you laugh, or if the tormented victim suddenly showed signs of personal egotism -then this would be cut out by the Big Scissors. Nothing was allowed to distort the picture of the world where black is black and white is white and where the only impassioned hero/heroine -quite implicitly, of course -is the journalist. Afterwards, I would leave work to return to my own complicated personal life where I was fully aware that nothing was unequivocally good and evil. Personally, at any rate, I was rarely a moral role model for anyone at all.

In reality, however, the worst thing was not the perpetual moralising. To me, the worst part was the fact that it was my job at the TV station to systematically demolish the world. I was constantly creating pictures of things that didn’t work and people who were incompetent -either because they were evil or because they were weak. I began to wonder whether it was possible to make documentaries that were dramatic somehow-and at the same time make them in a way so they would also be gratifying, devoted to life-even edifying.

As a result, I was genuinely delighted when, in the 1990s, I started to make films outside the confines of television, films dealing with music and animation and other things I was enthusiastic about. Now I could call myself a filmmaker -or artist, if need be-and finally renounce my journalistic heritage. The only thing is, I never have-and never will. Even if my current projects are ever so artistically ambitious, my journalistic heritage disciplines my work in a manner I could never do without. Perhaps I am like the lad who grows up in a nice, middle-class home only to rebel and immerse himself in a totally different lifestyle. But who, deep down, is glad that, in spite of it all, he has learned to cut his fingernails, politely introduce himself to strangers and not talk with food in his mouth. That at least he learned a little refinement before leaving home.

Doing proper research is an example of this journalistic refinement. The essence of the task before me and the subject matter I am about to take on is undoubtedly far more complex than it appears to be. The belief that there are facts and truths somewhere out there that are beyond my artistic and intuitive grasp, but which I have to take time to learn and understand. If facts emerge that contradict all my preconceptions up to that point, these facts cannot merely be repressed; they have to be confronted and incorporated into the project. Otherwise, I can’t really sleep at night.

I still feel accountable to a truth that is greater than my own. Because even if I make no attempt to disguise my subjective approach to the subject matter, I know that any attempt to feign ignorance, lie or conceal will permeate the film like a piercing shriek. And that the audience will perceive this off-key note straight away without necessarily knowing what is wrong. Even the most subjective story makes the indispensable demand of being credible.

Journalistic refinement also means realising the full meaning of what you are really trying to say. Journalists call this ‘angling’, which means that you stick to one unyielding point in the story you’re telling about the complicated world of reality. And strangely enough, I have never felt that this thinking in terms of premises and messages has ever hampered my films or anyone else’s, for that matter. On the contrary, it is as if this clear course enables you to make detours along the way. Once you have started out by determining your primary message, you are at liberty to play, experiment and be seduced by the subject matter. Rather that than ricocheting off ten different stories and delaying the decision about which of them is most important until you have completed this sacred, mysterious, artistic process.

In my experience, the journalistic approach has actually been more redeeming than any other when dealing with a subject that is difficult to understand. In the case of “The Magus” (1999), we attempted to pinpoint the unique spirituality of the music of jazz pianist Jan Johansson. Normally, an artistic portrait is developed by journalistically investigating the main character’s life and lifestyle, whereas the artist’s work is presented with deference and reticence.

We did it the other way round in “The Magus”. We sketched Johansson’s life on earth in quite loose, fragmented and suggestive lines. By contrast, however, we used unabashed investigative journalism to come firmly to grips with the special unknown factor that elevates his music to brilliance. We questioned witnesses -especially his former fellow musicians- in our efforts to establish the dates and places where Johansson had made his artistic breakthrough. We wanted to catch the genius red-handed, so to speak.

The Magus

Whether we ever uncovered an objective truth about the music is open to discussion. But even so, it was as if the subject matter actually started to come alive when we turned the cold spotlight of journalism on the enigma of Jan Johansson. In other words, the answer became more moving because we were inquiring so objectively, matter-of-factly and imperviously about something indescribable.

Nor could I have done without my journalistic perspicacity in making “Tintin et moi” (2004), based on the animator Hergé’s subjective and emotional account of his life. The film was conceived as an utter sensual perception, an artistic impulse. I was fascinated by the artist’s initial unsettling sketches for his masterpiece “Tintin in Tibet”. And I immediately associated this impulse with a conceptual form: an evocative universe made up of shades of white and ice blue. But to make Hergé’s connections to his surroundings and era crystal clear- to make the story of his personal life into a bigger story about the twentieth century- we employed many journalistic methods.

For instance, we used the conventional ‘talking heads’-i.e. regular interviews with experts filmed in a rather ordinary medium shot. We had to give the audience a distanced, factual perception (Aha! So that’s how it was!), in order to subsequently and sufficiently immerse the audience in Hergé’s own mental processes. The journalistic insight legitimised and- in my opinion -intensified the significance of the emotional drama in “Tintin et moi”.

Tintin et moi

Experiences like these have convinced me to swear by taking a complementary approach to the subject matter. In other words, I want to maintain balance in my documentaries between journalism’s informative aspect on the one hand and artistic sensuousness on the other. A balance that in reality may be an anatomic reflection of the fact that our brains are made up of two hemispheres: one holistic and sensual, the other analytical and verbalising. Word has it that these two hemispheres achieve the greatest results the more they work together. And if this is the simple physiological answer to a long aesthetic discussion, that’s fine by me. It means I don’t have to take sides any more.

This article originally appeared in the film magazine EKKO #28, June–July 2005 www.ekkofilm.dk.