Virtual Round Table 1: What is Documentary?

4 Aug, 22

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I believe all cinema is a “creative treatment of actuality”, as Grierson defines it. When a filmmaker deals with footage, those images are the actuality. No matter how frame and stage were previously organized, images will overcome the filmmaker’s intentionality. To use Roland Barthes’ vocabulary, photographic images, including motion pictures, present both ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’. The difference of motion pictures is that creative work with them requires assemblage or montage. Therefore, cinema is not a creative act: it is a creative treatment of images. But this is true in all cases, either you realize a fiction or a documentary.
Dario Cecchi

The “creative treatment” that Grierson talks about have taken over my own documentaries in unlimited/unpredictable ways. I think, at stake is what balance each filmmaker decides for him/herself, between depicting “the real” / reality/ facts / actuality, and how much they get “treated.” For me, this balance fluctuates between different works. Sometimes my “authority” or authorship is more apparent – materials and footages get more “intervened”, are more edited, more “treated”. Sometimes I restrain myself from making too many “treatments,” for example, by using a lot of long shots. I think the art is the balance, and negotiations between these untreated materials of the real and the treatments from the author. However, when I say “untreated materials” it just means “untreated” in a relative way, because every time you have a person behind a camera, you already have a treatment.
Nguyen Trinh Thi

As the earliest theorists of “documentary” film were aware, the inherent tension between objective and subjective is part of what animates the works we are offered. We know how every feature film is, in some genuine sense, a documentary of its own making, that is, until we are faced with computer generated imagery (CGI) and the striking presentations of generative adversarial networks (GANs). We remain sensitive to the “presumptive assertions” (Carroll) of films, which allow and encourage us to take them seriously as testimonies of truth and fact, that is, until we are given “director commentary” (or other input) that upends our faith—the chronology was changed, the subjects were fed lines, some details were left out, other details were added, and so on.
David LaRocca

Em última análise é difícil sustentar que exista uma realidade em cinema independentemente de um ponto de vista que lhe confere sentido. Sabemos que existe sempre uma construção social ligada a essa dita realidade. Ou seja, hoje em dia, os elementos que compõem o documentário complexificaram-se, a realidade que se observa ou filma é já de si uma realidade que contém a sua própria construção e mediação. Na medida em que reduz o documentário a estas duas variáveis, a definição de Grierson é talvez demasiado ingénua ou simplista. Se calhar é impossível arranjar uma definição nova enquanto não se encontrar outro nome para os filmes que partem desta raíz da “actualidade”. A palavra“documentário” parece-me sempre um pouco redutora e pouco inspiradora, na medida em que é demasiado normativa contendo uma hierarquia implícita entre a realidade/documento e o seu autor e parece fechar-nos em vez de nos abrir para novas formas de tratar a realidade.
Catarina Mourão

In 1979, in a text on Jean-Pierre Gorin’s film Poto and Cabengo, Harun Farocki wrote: “If someone sits at a table with his or her back to the camera, this means ‘fiction film’; if this place is left free, it means: Experiment, presentation.” While Farocki doesn’t explicitly use the word “documentary,” he seems to have this difference in mind; documentary, in his model, would be a different term for “experiment, presentation.”
Volker Pantenburg

La première question serait de savoir s’il s’agit vraiment d’un genre quand nous parlons du documentaire. Pour échapper à des conventions pragmatiques, liées aux marchés de l’audiovisuel, on pourrait parler d’une forme documentaire au sens d’un style, visant par là un mode qui dépasse le medium du film, une manière de témoigner de quelque chose qui circule, se transforme, se perd et revient, des gestes ou des modes d’exister, comme le dit par exemple Marielle Macé. On juge trop facilement la qualité d’un documentaire du point de vue de ce qu’il « raconte ». Il faudrait davantage saisir ses manières de composer, de structurer et de rythmer les éléments audio-visuels.
Christa Blümlinger

For the filmmaker, the question then is whether you stretch the definition of documentary so it includes your work, or just drop it and find other terms that are a bit more inclusive. I guess I have chosen the latter solution, although none is really satisfying. Because there is just too much to explain when you say “documentary,” because, I think, the perceptions and expectations people normally rely on when they hear “documentary” are quite narrow. I found myself moving further and further away from describing my films as documentary. At the beginning, I used “experimental documentary”, or “experimental film”, then “essay film”, “hybrid essay film”, or sometimes “moving image.” I remember sometimes at festivals, or somewhere else, I’d be reluctant when people ask “What kind of film do you make?” “Documentary, but…” I thought, the next time people ask that question, I’m just going to say: “Good films!”
Nguyen Trinh Thi

It happens that I often work with first feature film directors, and funnily enough, none of them had graduated from conventional film schools. What I noticed that they all have in common is this recurring question of what a film is. At their beginnings, these films are never determined to be either documentary or fiction. For them, as for me, it all starts with an unsettling feeling, a wondering
that keeps returning as a metaphor into stories, images, poems, where actuality stops to be affiliated in any way to an actuality; it rather becomes a segment in a narrative, layered with multiple realities, a complex of possibilities in time. The best part is when the filmmaker realizes they are able to manufacture a reality, to realize their ability of reclaiming images, sounds, and time. Practicing filmmakers continue to remind us that there are no realities in films other than the reality they create in their own films. There are only intensions, motives, and ideologies, and this is a point I will just leave behind as a fact, and ask a more basic question: What is the need to define reality, and where does this obsession to contextualize actuality come from? And why does this inherited obsession find its way into scholarly discussions in western academia and not elsewhere?
Mohanad Yaqubi

Pour moi, le cinéma, documentaire ou non, est une forme de réagencement de faits existants, ou de faits inventés, qu’on capture ou qu’on fait jouer ; on les réarrange autrement que la façon dont ils se présentent dans la totalité chaotique du réel ou de l’imagination, on leur donne possiblement un autre sens, une autre forme. C’est une mise en corrélation d’éléments épars, un collage, même dans la forme du plan-séquence. Mais cela peut aussi être un réagencement d’images ou de sons trouvés. Préexistants, non pas dans la continuité du réel, mais dans la réalité qui est celle d’un autre film, d’une archive visuelle ou sonore.
Marie Voignier

A movie is a documentary when the creative treatment of images is continued, at least virtually, by the spectator. In other words, the spectator should be incited to consider images as documents that are available for new investigations. Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica applied this principle to their documentary about the fall of the Communist regime in Romania (Videograms of a Revolution). They assembled videos of the upheaval against the Romanian dictator Ceausescu. They show the arrest, trial, and execution of him and his wife. These videos were produced by both the State TV channel and independent video makers. The voice-over explains the variations of perspective according to the points of view and presumable political stances of the different operators. But this highly regulative treatment of images aims at training the spectator to be a critical observer and eventually an engaged witness in a world whose actuality is increasingly mediated by media and information. Vilèm Flusser theorizes the affinity of imagination and information: they are both a form of Einbildung. Flusser’s theory influenced Farocki’s work, and vice versa. This is what I mean when I say that a documentary is the continuation of the creative treatment of images by the spectator. Vertov imagined films that produced other films. I would speak of creative treatments of images that produce other creative treatments of images.
Dario Cecchi

In writing about the films of Chris Marker, Uriel Orlow likened images to Proustian madeleines because of their power to evoke and trigger the process of memory, and create unforeseen networks of relations. He described viewers and makers of film as agents that merely generate an otherwise independent process of connectivity between images. He wrote: “Rather than solely serving the film’s narrative, the image operates according to its own logic of association that links it to other images, in the same sequence or across the film, effectively becoming a kind of hinge between places, times, and images.”
Raed Rafei

En ce sens, le cinéma est une création de la mémoire, une invention de souvenirs, et non une conservation de mémoire. C’est une mémoire active, qui invente, qui construit le souvenir plus qu’il ne le fixe. Il est nécessairement lié à un point de vue, affirmé ou hésitant voire contradictoire ou erroné, mais situé quelque part.
Marie Voignier

I see documentary filmmaking as a craft where filmmakers mold and work their stories as if they were pieces of clay. They suture fragmented images together and these fragments end up having a life of their own. They communicate with each other horizontally across the timeline of the film in unexpected and unpredictable ways. What is more is that this horizontal communication is renewed every time the film is screened to different publics. So even though films are made of recorded definitive images, they still have the power to generate “newness” every time they are viewed or screened.
Raed Rafei

A história do documentário, de suas inovações estéticas e técnicas, de seus debates críticos e impacto cultural, sempre foi atravessada pela ideia de ficção. No cinema, seja no âmbito da ficção propriamente dita, do documentário ou das produções híbridas (aquelas que jogam com a indeterminação e ambiguidade entre encenação e autenticidade), a verdade só pode existir enquanto efeito de uma série de convenções gramaticais e operações de linguagem, enquanto efeito de um pacto de crença com o espectador. Não é por outra razão que, depois de inventores como Robert Flaherty e John Grierson, Jean Rouch, etnógrafo e documentarista que revolucionou a prática documentária, tornando-se um dos
criadores do cinema moderno com Eu, um negro (1958) e Crônica de um verão (1960), dizia que “a ficção é o único caminho para se penetrar a realidade” e que “a câmera não deve ser um obstáculo para a expressão dos personagens, mas uma testemunha indispensável que motivará sua expressão”. Para Rouch, assim como para o cinema moderno, nascido no pós-guerra, a câmera teria uma função produtiva, mobilizando realidades e reações das pessoas filmadas que não existiriam sem ela, como uma catalisadora das verdades dos personagens. Como consequência, o momento da filmagem seria não um instante de “representação” do mundo tal qual é, mas o momento de uma singular metamorfose entre quem filma e quem é filmado, embate entre os meios de produção da imagem e os meios de construção da realidade.
Ilana Feldman

What is actuality? Is it a circle or is it a square? Is it a moment or a context? Is it what happens in front of your eyes or in a YouTube video? Can we see, for example, Moana, as a reflection of Moana’s reality, or Flaherty’s perspective? Also, can we as spectators today, in the year 2021, really strip our eyes and minds of the colonial racial discourse when we find ourselves watching the restored version of Moana with Sound, and simply admire the great effort to restore the film and provide it with sound?
If we were to use these questions to look at the history of exploration films, which are somehow considered to be the origin of documentary, then we would see that films such as Moana, Nanook, 90° South, Kon-Tiki, are intimately linked to the idea of exploring geographies which have not yet been reached by “civilized” humans. Meanwhile, when looking at the political context of the time, we see that a wave of hyper aggressive colonial expansions was spreading around the world, in search of more territory waiting to be claimed. The origins of documentary thus reflect in many ways colonial fantasies, empowered by the scientific and ethnographic rhetoric of the era; fantasies that still dominate the medium, producing histories around it, and keeping film and its industry prisoners in its essence.
Mohanad Yaqubi

‘History is a delightful fantasy’ told Marcel Duchamp, as are its documents, texts, events, archives and recordings, which continually spawn a spectacle of a brightly coloured array. Colonial violence is a pre-condition of genre, a subspecies of modernity and its history. This noise afflicts the filmmaker, affirming trading pathways, shipping routes in-person, of missionary or cultural theft. Companies, shooters, corporations and end credits don’t blink at the sight of real tears. See from the pole to the equator (Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi, 1988) which repurposes how the western eye performs the mutilation of prodigious creatures and trophy hunters.
The institutional rules of docu-grammar, cinematic threshold and structured learning emanate from these abeyances. Ethnography is them studied by us, uncompromised by an ethical filmmaker and release mechanisms. Cinephiles know that non-fiction is a program of both modernist and colonialist technique. Listen to the wilderness, as voiced by those without care. Chantal Akerman saw a truer falsehood, a cusp described in From the Other Side. ‘It’s a total fiction, but it could have been true’ (on the film’s final monologue). Certainty and belief sustain humanity in a world actually populated by ambiguity, lack of veracity, concern, contestation and precariousness. Afflicted by the temperature of ‘collections’ and ‘investments’, film oscillates in a wealthy bubble of feverish antics, where finitude is set alongside a cinematic reality comprised of an impossible search for missing persons. Unassailable, ungraspable unknowns are cast in an algorithmic manner, where nothing can ever be fully identified.
Phillip Warnell

Ce que je peux dire c’est que le documentaire est le sol de l’existence où se côtoient les mondes qui forment le monde
c’est donc un point de rencontre des visibles
Pas dans un – entre-nous – sinon c’est un raté
mais dans un entre-mondes qui se créé là
dépossédé du déterminant pour accueillir et être accueillit
dans le mouvement du récit humain
Édouard Glissant parle de la langue Créole : “une langue composite, née de la mise en contact d’éléments linguistiques
absolument hétérogènes les uns par rapport aux autres »
Entre alors le phénomène de création des connexions
qui ne peut se définir que dans le « nouveau”, pour chacun de nos films C’est à cet endroit que je travaille pour être débarrassée des questions et suivre la délicieuse sensation procurée par la découverte
d’un nouveau paysage perceptible
partagé avec une spectatrice dont la vue fragile
l’empêche de lire les sous titres
mais, qui une fois le film fini à l’écran, dit :
« je n’ai pas une assez bonne vue pour lire,
mais les couleurs, les voix, les sons, les mouvements,
les lumières et la musique m’ont tellement emportés ».
Je travaille aujourd’hui au montage d’un film
qui a pour titre : On a eu la journée, bonsoir !
Un titre transmis à Jean Rouch dans sa rencontre
avec le peuple Dogon, qui le prononce sur la place publique,
nommant chacun de leurs morts, n’en oubliant aucun
jusqu’au buffle qui les a nourri.
C’est la réunion intime du cycle des Vivants.
On a eu la journée, bonsoir ! est une traversée d’irruptions déstabilisantes dans le vivant visible et invisible.
C’est le geste qui mène au voyage de l’amour de l’autre.
C’est un gros travail sur lequel je me concentre, avec l’autre’s.
Narimane Mari