Thursday, April 1, 2010

Blurring the line- Part I

I am going to repost a couple of posts that I made awhile back about something in which I am very interested: filmmakers walking the line between narrative and documentary filmmaking (and I'm not talking "reality" TV).   This is an issue that keeps coming up and since I have a lot more readers than I did when I originally made these posts, I thought it would be good to put the discussion out there again.  There are interesting ideas being tried out there by people like Soderbergh, Herzog and others.

This post is originally from December 2008 and was titled, "WWD?"

I attended the International Documentary Association's annual awards recently. Werner Herzog received a lifetime achievement award. His acceptance was brief, but to the point. Documentary filmmakers need to break out of "outdated" modes developed during the 1950's-60's (that would be direct cinema) in order to reach current audiences. The reception to that advice, to me anyway, seemed, um, subdued. It's been a hard year.

I've been somewhat disappointed to discover that there are still a significant number of documentary filmmakers who consider other modes of storytelling as not being "real" documentary. Or, that many are still wedded to the idea of the documentary filmmaker as the noble underdog reporter of facts that represent the "Truth." Personally, I find it offensive that we live in a society where basic reporting of current events and issues (essential to maintaining a functioning democracy) has been abdicated to essentially poorly funded volunteers. Worse, those poorly funded volunteers have been made to feel like they have to limit their creativity to "objective" journalistic standards that many of the established for-profit media sources even no longer feel compelled to follow.

What is true is that while the number of documentary films being made are multiplying, the audience does not seem to be there for this explosion of films. The host Morgan Spurlock, who has a better handle on popular storytelling than most, mocked himself by pointing out that "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" grossed $384K domestically, while "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" grossed $92M. I should point out that I know several intelligent people who would, without question, rather watch a talking animal movie rather than any documentary.

Happily, both of the feature award winners offered less than "traditional" storytelling. "Man on a Wire" uses extensive re-enactments, which seems to be controversial with a surprising number of people 20 years after the "Thin Blue Line" and 80 years after "Nanook."

More interestingly, the co-winner "Waltz with Bashir," is an animated documentary. I highly recommend seeking it out. The opening put me off a little but by the end of the film I was completely engaged. The animation creates a distance from the actual people involved in the events while at the same time, it also draws the viewer in. I still cannot explain exactly why. Maybe our defenses are lower with animation than with actual video of conflict and atrocities. Maybe we don't judge animated "characters" as hard as actual participants and are more receptive to their story. Perhaps the participants themselves were able to be more uncertain and real, less defensive, knowing that their actual image wouldn't be used. As a result, the filmmaker is able to subtly communicate many traumatic truths and the nature of memory when trying to recall these types of events.

My point is that filmmakers must become more creative in their stories and their storytelling. Audiences have become more sophisticated and jaded, whether we like it or not. If we want to reach them, and quite possibly even make a living doing it (remember that the people who created direct cinema all made a living doing their work--if we want to survive, we need to make money to film another day), we need to talk to them and not at them. I don't think that it's an accident that some of the most consistently successful documentary filmmakers of the last 25 years, Moore, Morris, Herzog are among the most non-traditional and innovative. If an intelligent effort is made, people will watch (although Iraq burnout seemed to sink "Standard Operating Procedure"--it grossed $229K domestically). There will always be a place for the direct cinema type of documentary; see my post about "La Vida Loca." It would just be a lot more interesting for it not to be nearly the only storytelling model used by filmmakers.

Other notable films that innovate with their storytelling?? "Bus 174" (in my opinion, one of the most important films of the past 20 years) and "Stevie" are two outstanding examples. I would even propose looking at some of Chris Marker's work, even his fiction work ("Sans Soleil"), for potentially innovative documentary storytelling models.

Buy this film.

These are hard times for filmmakers, just like the rest of the world. Funding and distribution seem to be more distant than ever. I know many people who have barely worked since August, and before that there was the writer's strike. The economy is in complete turmoil, class divisions are greater than at any point in recent history and we seem to have burned our bridges to many possible solutions in the past 8 years. As creative people, it seems like we have nothing to lose. We are funding ourselves, donating equipment and time....why aren't we telling our stories in our own way? It seems like this is the perfect time to innovate and be free to actually have a vision.

Here is one definition of documentary film: A non-fiction film that uses a minimal amount of re-enactments or fictionalization in order to present some kind of truth about its subject.
Non-fiction is defined as: the events portrayed in the film are/were in some sense "real." Truth: not necessarily based on facts; reveals some detail or experience that can be understood as "true" to someone. I like a lot about this definition. The one area that I still think about, and question, is how much fictionalization (and of what type) and recreation is acceptable for a film to still be considered a documentary. I come down more on the side of more as opposed to less, as long as it effectively communicates truths, personal, perceived, impressionistic or otherwise. I think that I'd rather have less facts and more truth, as opposed to the shovels of facts, with little truth, that we are fed every day by the mainstream media.

So, What Would Werner Do? This is an extract from an August 19, 2005 interview with the Austin Chronicle:
AC: In your nonfiction work, we see a blending of fictionalized moments and what we think of as conventional documentary technique. You spoke at Sundance about staging a scene with a droplet of water, glycerin, actually –
WH: The water drop scene and the dialogue that I purely invented is in The White Diamond.
But your question is somehow poking into what is documentary for me. I'm after some deeper truth [rather] than just facts. To find some sort of ecstasy of truth, I stylize, I fabricate, I stage, I invent dialogue all over the place. So when you speak about documentaries, do it with a necessary caution....

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