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.
On the other end of the technical spectrum mentioned aboveis Crulic: The Path to Beyond by Romanian director Anca Damian. The unusual mix of collage, drawing (pencil and water colours), animated photography and live action, described by some as an animated documentary, tells the story of the Romanian immigrant Claudiu Crulic who died as a consequence of his hunger strike in a Polish prison. He had been falsely indicted for stealing a wallet from a Polish judge, but the hunger strike did not work: the prison doctors kept reporting that he was in no imminent danger and his health was “satisfactory”. At the time of his death, after months of starvation, Crulic weighed a mere 50 kilos.
The film starts in a bright, yet bitter tone, describing Crulic’s pre-prison life in a humorous, satiric way. Besides the factual freedom the animation provides (there are only textual documents of Crulic’s life), the director was able to add a healthy measure of black humour through cut-up images that describe Romania’s transition from Ceausescu’s dictatorship into a chaotic open society, and a picture of the country’s citizens stranded in a foreign land. In this way, Damian does for documentary what the Romanian New Wave did for fiction: she opens up the cryptic world of a country behind the Iron Curtain to the uninitiated audiences of the West.
As Crulic’s life story progresses, the atmosphere of the film gets darker and bleaker, showing us that the old mentality of the Kafkaian state apparatus has not changed along with the transformation from totalitarian communism into liberal capitalism. Damian has explained the inhumanity and cruelty of the state system, regardless of its dogmatic leaning.
If Damian chooses to make us sad and angry at the system itself, humanism is employed in a completely opposite, lyrical way in Wojciech Staroń’s brilliantly accomplished Argentinian Lesson. A family travels to a community in Argentina; the focus of the film is on the 8 year-old son Janek, who struggles to fit in at a new school on a new continent with a new language. He befriends a girl named Marcia. This pretty, blond kid was forced to grow up prematurely as her alcoholic father lives in a different region and her mother has serious mental problems. Naturally the focus subtly shifts from Staroń’s son to the girl: although they spend a lot of time, and almost all of the screen time together, it is Marcia whose hard life provokes emotions in the viewer.
In Argentinian Lesson Staroń uses a visual approach more often associated with fiction than documentary film: bird’s-eye view; extreme close-ups of one of the kids’ faces positioned in a far corner of the shot while the background, in soft focus, takes up most of the screen; and editing through which he rarely hangs on a single shot for longer than five seconds – just enough for us to take an image in and process it. This is rare in observational documentaries, but through Staroń’s approach with scenes organically connected through emotions, the story develops like in a tightly-scripted fiction film.
But film images are still the basic unit of the cinematic language.