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The Torch: On documentaries – to capture or to recreate?

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Let’s face it, the world’s a mess. You switch on your TV and with the news you get nothing but upset – the state of affairs is always worrisome, disaster strikes most likely where people are the least prepared and the stocks in your portfolio are almost certainly heading south, whatever the trend.

The TorchSo invariably, we will try to make an escape through the route of fiction, (well, most of us anyway). For some however, the bleak picture presents an irresistible fascination, one they cannot and will not ignore, but instead immersing themselves ever deeper in their unanswerable concern for reality. To them, news feeds. Whatever you may think of these, – the habitually depressed – let’s for now acknowledge the fact that we all live on drugs, one way or another. And for some of us, real life factuality is the trouble of choice, so they escape into context.

The filmmaker is adaptable and canny by nature, so where there’s a need there must be a cure. Before you know it, they have devised a new genre to fill the gap and thus the documentary was born. Even as this may not be how the story went exactly, we can agree that just like anything else, documentation in film originated with a desire to inform and to entertain, to record and to describe what has to be shown. Consequently, the basic question to arise with any documentary on whatever subject matter will be this: how does one solve the task of conflicting objectives?

For starters I’m pleased to reiterate the simple facts: all truth is fiction. Anywhere but in your deepest dreams it happens only to be the most commonly accepted lie; or the most powerfully endorsed one. Either way, the basic principle remains the same whichever way you look at it. Having said that – it doesn’t mean you are endowed with full liberty by nature, nor entitled as documentarian to simply improvise. Objectivity, elusive as it is, must be your prime concern in the task, and staying true to the facts and the details filling up your chosen theme is the inherent ethos of the craft.

The artificial eye of the camera triggers misconception – as does the informed human mind who directs it. The fake closeness of the documentary gaze, which in essence is just another angle on distance, may come with an upright intention of intimacy, but it can never attain it, no matter how strong the hidden desire driving it on. The scene through the viewfinder sets the onlooker forever apart. This invariable hiatus in itself is an act of interpretation, and it is here where your responsibility as filmmaker originates: in the awareness of your tele-proximity, its paradox, is the prime imperative to your reason. It is the call for utmost diligence. Never mind the close-up situation which is the starting-point of any non-fiction film – the appeal (which is your own) comes with every shot’s decision making, if in lighting, frame composition or the process of editing.

Anyone half-way familiar with addressing like questions in any given medium will know that these are not mere technicalities, and clearly not trifle matters. But it is with film and its special persuasiveness of the visual, that they become most pressing. In the end, no amount of research will be able to make up for what’s been lost to an emotional landslide undermining a self-critical stance. However, this quest for objectivity mustn’t be mistaken for impartiality – as far as documentaries go: whatever you do to shed light on your topic, it is more important to be actually passionate about it than to take on the supposedly balanced point of view, which a supervisor might have over an unfolding argument. It is entirely legitimate (not just in film) to be biased on an issue, to make a case one feels strongly about – only make it a point of showing to your audience. All manipulation, as it is a guided one brought about by your own will, ultimately has to announce itself for what it is, and come out into the open for fairness sake. For if it doesn’t, the risk is high for the film to make an impression as an odd occurrence and be easily dismissed as entertainment – as was the case with Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing features. I can see no problem in being one-sided; just don’t make yourself into another prophet speaking truest truth alone – it may earn you ridicule in turn, and for a reason. Propaganda has always had its most natural ally in film, and its strongest resource. But even as there do exist true specimen of art in the persuasion, trust me, there is little honour in the deed.

While we can, we should entrust such concerns to the judgement of each filmmaker alone. A different matter of choice will inevitably come to the fore when setting the task of how to turn a societal, cultural suit into a motion picture documentary. In this, the genre specifics need to be taken into account accordingly. Where to decide on your approach becomes a question of principle – you’ll find that for once aesthetics actually take precedent over technicalities: are you to capture or to recreate?

To capture what’s almost no longer there and would otherwise be lost to oblivion forever, is just one, if the most commonly frequented gate of departure for non-fictional accounting in film. Here, archival footage comes into play to cover a terrain in shifting stages of disappearance, because it is the way of historical research through the medium of film and deals with the factual on every level. But here is another key element to the standard procedure, namely the fact that what is available, what has been preserved is conditioned, too. There are various implicit filters at work all affecting the inventory at hand, its make-up, and there are choices already being made for you – but not necessarily on your behalf, nor objectivity’s matter. By passing these on unquestioningly, you would inform your viewers through somebody else’s institutionally “clean” screen, a filter you involuntarily become an agent of – and a victim, too. What people do always comes with an interest, so beware the pitfalls of system manipulation, of channels and their clandestine by-channels, because it has happened before that for all the best intentions, investigative or documentary reporting found itself a mouthpiece for an alien agenda.

Where filling gaps is concerned, interviews and the narrative through verbalisation play a major role. Important and technically indispensable a means as it is, these also have their set of dos and don’ts. It’s not just an issue of citing, but one of performance implications as well, and any responsible filmmaker has to be aware of them. Quickly now, an alternative to balance the sheets of history will present itself to the imaginative mind: the theatrical solution that always seems to fit the occasion, a “Discovery Channel”-style enacting the past. Nowhere are the implicit dangers so obvious, for it is those scenes from another era brought back to life which carry the heftiest price tag in terms of emphatically engaging an audience and spoiling the budget. Which is precisely why they are so tempting to do – or better refrain from. Objectivity is structurally unattainable, but there mustn’t be a slackening in the effort to come as close to it as humanly, scientifically, or, even more important, as reasonably possible. Any feat of superimposing reference to the fact and limits of the craft will do for just fidelity and will be appreciated by the viewers. Your choice in this, of whether to apply a straightforward subtitle or resort to a pronounced artificial camera poise, will largely depend on how adept you reckon your target audience to be in reading the visual.

But I would strongly advise to bear in mind the following: that whatever other form of release you will ultimately have your piece of documentary given over to, the first address has always to be the one-time exposure, be it TV or cinema consumption. Therefore, your movie has to answer to a situation where the immediate intake decides on how it’s perceived, and on what is being understood. As opposed to the written word, any form of print media, in film there can be no going back and re-reading a paragraph or sentence lost. Easy to see, then, how this affords extra measures in scrupulousness, meticulousness and the writer-director’s careful deliberations. Remember: at times it takes a distance to see more closely.

Documentaries, I’ve heard it many times, are for serious people, and I agree; but what is this supposed to prove or make a case of? Notwithstanding your most monkish self, we’re all of this world, however different in attitude or point of view. This still being the only world we have, there is quite a bit of common sense in addressing its problems and care for what justified demands there are. To give reason a chance it needs to be informed in time, so that’s where good documentation is vital and has its part to play. When its fair, constructive and heedful of our dialectics’ well-known traps, any argument becomes a joining force and is inspiring and suspenseful.

Therefore, give yourself a reality check from time to time – it’s healthy! And everybody, add some documentaries to your film diet, because there is always something new to learn.

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