EDN director Tue Steen Müller and BBC “Storyville” editor Nick Fraser went on-line to have an e-mail chat about their common passion

Tue Steen Müller
Previous founder/editor of the DOX magazine.

They discuss the notion of an auteur and what constitutes a good documentary.

TSM: Nick Fraser, at meetings you have often said that you think that American documentaries are far better than European because the American directors know that they can’t make a living out of it. That’s a pretty strong and provocative comment from a European commissioning editor. What about the films from your own country and the French and the East European?… Give me some examples!

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Nick Fraser

NF:  My fate is to watch more documentaries than any other executive. Only Ally Derks of the Amsterdam Festival watches more than I do. Many boring documentaries are made in the U.S., and I am afraid to say that many of them do make money. Only the truely gifted suffer. However, a disproportionate number of terrific ones also come from there. Why? Is it because there’s some fantastic tradition of painstakingly telling the truth in the U.S. – the sort of mentality that created the Great American Novel? Is it because (as I once suggested to you) American filmmakers have to want so badly to make a film for it be worthwhile? Or is it a consequence of the fact that America is teeming with stories that the rest of us want to hear? I don’t know.

Anyway, I often look at our own situation in Europe, and I get depressed. Yes, people have learnt to be professional in the pitching of ideas – nothing wrong with that. Yes, the money is available. Yes, things are better than they were before you lot – EDN, I mean – came along. But I suppose I want to see more ambition. I wonder why some of the most interesting and idiosyncratic work comes from places like Eastern Europe, and not from Britain, Germany and France. But what do you think – are European filmmakers fulfilling their potential?

TSM: Well, Claire Simon’s “Coûte que Coûte and Werner Herzog’s”  “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” are great documentaries from the 90s, appealing to a broad audience… I have more difficulty in finding unique examples from your country. Maybe because the Brits have always hesitated when it comes to the ‘auteur’ documentary, whereas you are the masters when it comes to the series format. Think of all the excellent works that Brian Lapping has produced. But in general I think that UK filmmakers suffer a lot from the extreme television stranding where everything tends to look alike. Am I wrong? But back to the Americans and your romantic idea about them being the best! I may have missed some, but apart from “Crumb” and “Hoop Dreams” what else is there to be happy about?

NF: I agree about the Brits. We do best with anything that is based in journalism – that’s where we come from. I have to say I loved “The  Death of Yugoslavia” because I was the executive producer. And latterly the extensive showing of documentaries on TV has benefited filmmakers – but a certain cost. You have to see British docs in the context of our having the best and the worst of the world’s press – by which I mean abuses of journalistic integrity as well as brilliant non-fiction writers. In the 1990s, alas, Britain perpetrated the docusoap. That brought viewers to non-fiction TV, but a certain cost.

The Death Of Yugoslavia,

However, I think there are a number of good young documentary makers, and some not so young ones, too. I like Phillipa Lowthorpe’s work, and Kim Longinotto’s. Angus McQueen is a good filmmaker. And I’m a Broomfield fan, bien entendu… Paul Pawlikowski is an inspired man, too. Leslie Woodhead, who has been making good films for 30 years, is an inspiration to me. Then there many other more than competent folk – people who are better than journeymen, and turn out one good film after another. At its best British filmmaking is sharp and ironic. It makes you think, not always happily, about the human condition. I think we’ve had to learn not to be boring. It isn’t enough these days to present viewers with wodges of uninterest in the name of profundity.

But to the Americans. Alas, I feel you have missed some good films. Berlinger and Sinofsky made “Brother’s Keeper” and “Paradise Lost” – both astonishing films, tabloid in inspiration and deep in their comprehension of violent deviance. The film about the Waco massacre was the best single piece of investigative journalism of the decade. “Nobody’s Business”, Alan Berliner’s film about his father rang all the bells for me. Jennifer Fox’s “An American Love Story” shows everyone how to make use of the new lightweight cameras, and interprets love across the race lines on an epic scale. It’s a film I learnt from – I felt better about life afterwards. And I’ve watched all ten hours of it four times! Jonathan Stack makes open-minded and moving films. Don Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus are great news, too. This is not my ‘romantic idea’, Tue.  I’m saying that these films have something in common. They share a relentless interest in the truth, they are painstakingly made, over a long period of time. And they are also ‘democratic’ in their taste, to use an abused notion, in the sense that they neither patronise nor insult the viewers or the people about whom they are made. Sometimes it seems to me as if Americans, so close to the drop over the rapids into the great make-believe of popular culture, with its endless capacity for recycling fictions, are obliged to put themselves out. They do it, they really do…

Brother’s Keeper (1992) on 35mm with Joe Berlinger in person

But I have a suggestion to put you – that we dump the notion of auteur, with its ridiculous pretensions. I mean, come on, Tue, why does creativity have to come dressed in French? I know that hairdressers are called ‘frisør’ in Danish, but here we gave up this form of deference ages ago. Don’t you agree?

TSM: Over my dead body! I’ve grown up in cinemas in Copenhagen watching films by Godard, Truffaut, Visconti, Bunuel and many other great ‘auteurs’. It might be snobbish to use that term, but on the other hand some TV stations (like DR/TV) are not even using the term “director” any more! I was taught and still believe in the personal signature in documentary making. To make a documentary is not always a personal matter, but the best ones, I’m sure you’ll agree, are films where you sense that here is one person talking to you. Herzog, Kossakovsky, Lozinski, Jon Bang Carlsen… it’s documentary as an art form. I think we need to make that distinction from well-made, subject oriented documentaries like the historical ones commissioned by Laurence Rees, to mention some of a very high quality. A way to make that distinction is to say auteur or something similar which communicates Art. For me it’s only important because I fear that kind of documentary is threatened in the documentary landscape today. We need the personal involvement and statements, not only from an artistic point of view but also from journalists like you.

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“Journey to the Far Right”

I understand that you have allowed the TV stations to cut your documentary (“Journey to the Far Right”) as they want to. Why? Are you not afraid that they make it less sharp?

NF: Where to start? My God! First, I object to the term ‘auteur’ because it is pretentious. In France it meant simply that someone made the film – of course I have nothing against that. But now it’s part of a tiresome orthodoxy. It means that you allow third-raters to choose subjects they know nothing about. Then you call what they do ”creative”. And producers are told to respect ”genius”. Things have moved on. We have to find ways of allowing – coercing, cajoling – directors to make films of which they are the author without patronising the audience. Otherwise we’ll die of crassness as well as subsidised aestheticism.

I’ll take one example of what I don’t like: Peter Brosens is a talented director. However, I found his film about Mongolian dogs to be a kind of parody. It’s as if he was saying: ”Look I got all these people to give me money, and no-one will watch my film…”. I liked Thomas Heurlin’s film “The Gangster’s Son”. I liked “Gigi, Monica and Bianca”. These films do have an ‘author.’ I don’t want to sound philistine, but documentary-making is not a pure form. It’s a branch of observational journalism – or a form of non-fiction through the medium of film. It can be personal, but isn’t always. Sometimes it amounts to history, sometimes not. Many great documentaries (and they are rarely shown at festivals) are made about scientific subjects. Instead people make films – literally, I mean – that vanish into various portions of their anatomy. And they are praised by professors of media.

There is no real tradition of ‘artistic’ documentary, whatever the profs may say. (A confession: I don’t much like Grierson’s films – and I don’t believe that the doc really got started until the innovations of the 1960s, with lightweight cameras, though you could say that some Russian films benefit by being shot on 35 mm.) Instead people use the medium to say whatever they want – about Inuits, about their mother, about art and lies or boxing. Most of the way in which people think of documentary comes not from the genre itself – but from life, from other films, mainly fiction.

And we owe a lot to what in America was called the New Journalism – the freeing up of the form so that observers could record their own degree of participation in a subject. That’s the flag I fly – for myself and others. What’s wrong with reportage, Tue? It’s not easy to make great documentaries – most people don’t realise this. The difference between good and bad documentaries is more than just how you point the camera – as Truman Capote (a New Journalist in his best work) once said there is typing and there is writing.

I don’t regard “Journey to the Far Right” as an ‘auteur’ documentary, however you define it. I was surprised when it was selected for Festivals. I embarked on the film (there was a talented  cameraman-director who should get more credit than myself for the style in which it was made) because it seemed to me that I needed to say something about the Far Right and our freedoms – which could only be said by means of  this form. I encouraged people to cut my own film. Why? Because I wanted as many people as possible to watch the film.

TSM: There’s nothing wrong with reportage – only that there is too much of it and too few personal documentaries where you feel that there is one person talking to you. Journalists rule television, there’s too little space for the artists. Look at your own BBC, would there be a chance for Herzog and Kossakovsky if not for a Storyville strand? A strand for the auteurs! I know this irritates you, Nick, but you agree to some extent, I’m sure. It’s always double-sided, we need the Thomas Heurlin things, but it would be sad if his direct mainstream style was the only one leaving no space for directors like Jon Bang Carlsen, Herzog, Claude Simon, Viktor Kossakovsky, Sergey Dvortsevoy, Alan Berliner and Nick Barker, even if the last two are not my favourites.

Paradoxically, if you allow me to stay in the French language for a while, it’s now and never before with the small video cameras that documentarists can fulfil what our friend André Bazin said about using the “Caméra comme  stylo”. It’s a revolutionary era for documentaries with this new technology as good old Richard Leacock, who is filming every bloody day, has said.

NF: No, I think auteur strands are death, Tue. The best and brightest of non-fiction is what I try to put in Storyville. This is something different. Like you, I love Viktor’s oeuvre – but for me it’s a kind of non-fiction – poetic realism, it used to be called. Herzog is different – I think he plays with the conventions of non-fiction, but he’s really creating opera under the guise of documentary. He’s an exponent of the Gothic German sensibility.

However, I think you don’t quite get what I mean by journalism – which is not your fault because I have a very romantic, and probably perverse, view of reporting. Only very rarely does fiction now give me what Vladimir Nabokov called aesthetic blissfulness. I tend to prefer filmmaking which is concerend  with the question of truth, whether it’s approached through fictional means or not. Really good reporting bears no resemblance to the dreary wall-to-wall simulation of journalism which, as you acknowledge, is destroying television. At the risk of sounding priggish (but why not) I’d go further. What is known as journalism, in its dire and debased form, is an abominable, noxious kind of pollutant. It should carry health warnings. Of course I read it myself, or I experience it – and I’ve worked in these Murdoch mills. Yes, it’s entertaining; but it has nothing much to do with anything else. It only pretends to the ‘réel’ . And the same is true of what you see in the guise of truth on the themed channels – the well-behaved large mammals, I mean, the pseudo-science, or the quack religious feelgood psychobabble. It’s all a distraction – as much as trashy fiction. It subordinates everything to the principle of distraction. And it hampers the way we see things.

I agree with André  Bazin (remember French is my own language, too) except that we now need to find more interesting and pertinent ways of using the  much changed ‘stylo’ – the cinéaste’s Mont Blanc. But there are very many personal films, I can assure you. Not all of them are good, I can also vouch for that. Everyone (maybe) has something to say; but the formal command of film language isn’t easily come by. Playfulness, wittiness – you’d think that many people who make documentaries had never heard of these qualities.

However, the answer is not to stay lodged in the elitist past – when it didn’t matter whether anyone ever watched these so personal essais (more francais). But to end now – I know you want me to do this. I’ve come to respect the traditions of the BBC. I’ll always be grateful to them for letting me do this mad job – at the best as well as the worst time. Why are so many wonderful pieces of non-fiction being made at the moment? Why is what people do in their back rooms – for next to no money, as we know – is so much better than anything Hollywood does. Because people still, despite the evidence, believe that films are a way of conveying truth  – and not just the means of passing yet another idle hour or so. Et voila!

 


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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