While in fiction the choice determines the aesthetics and dynamics of the film, the spectator’s awareness that (s)he is watching a documentary film can prove to be very tricky in terms of reception of the meaning inherent in the order of shots or use of camera angles.
If the viewer realises that the film-maker is purposely composing a shot in such a way as to hide a part of the picture or undeservedly emphasise a certain aspect, the film can immediately ring false. And although sincerity is equally important in fiction and documentary, most audiences are predisposed to expect “truth” from a documentary film.
Let me look at three films that provide completely different, yet equally illustrative examples of a strongly defined visual approach.
Serbian director Srđan Keča’s Letter to Dad [see also interview on page 12-14] is a technically low-fi film in which the film-maker uses VHS home videos, old photographs and a digital camera. As the director’s voice-over reads his letter to his recently deceased father (“Hey, Dad. You died suddenly…”), we are watching old photographs placed in front of the camera, depicting his parents and himself as a little kid. Keča mixes static shots of his house with old home videos of his family and himself while posing questions about his parents’ relationship and reminiscing about his childhood.
In the modern digital age, VHS film can serve the same purpose Super 8 served twenty or thirty years ago: it inevitably provokes nostalgic feelings. Nostalgia does not stem from the attitude that “the old times were better”. It is the result of the fact that we were younger in the past, and most of us remember our youth as our best days – even if objectively we were poorer then, or had some very negative experiences. Add old black-and-white photographs and you have fertile ground on which to build a very personal story about growing up, experiencing adolescence, and moving on to adulthood in the turmoil of the former Yugoslavia.
Keča’s father was a volunteer in the Serbian army in the bloodiest massacre of the war in Croatia, the siege of Vukovar. Asking questions that go a long way towards explaining the issue of collective guilt, he interviews his father’s friends and relatives who also volunteered to go to this slaughterhouse. They still stubbornly hold on to old opinions, perhaps unable or unwilling to admit to a different reality – and they didn’t have an easy life after the war either, on the contrary – but the director asks the right questions, and not only in a verbal way. His attention to detail in the interviews he shot, including those with his mother, reveals a brave attitude and the courage to investigate deeper than the words his subjects say. We see his father’s best friend in a little fishing boat on the Danube, fighting off bad memories through solitude on the river “which calms him”. And his uncle sitting in a spartan, threadbare room, chain-smoking and wearing his old army uniform.
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