Documentary Film

What is a documentary? It is a constructed factual record, as opposed to a drama. What takes place in a documentary is theoretically true. How does it differ from journalism, which is also – in theory – the practice of honestly reporting true events? Perhaps in the way that a news report differs from a history book. A news report – journalism – is immediate, and – in theory – seeks to report accurate facts, as soon after the event as possible. A history book is deeper information: much longer than a news report, able to access more information from a greater variety of sources, and to provide analysis and context – plus footnotes and a bibliography – which news reporting leaves out.

Both a news report and a history book claim to be true. But, as we know, a selective presentation of facts can distort them, can leave things out, can stack the deck in favour of an agenda. In the case of history books, there is Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, which seeks to present American history through the eyes of ordinary people, rather than political and economic elites. And there is Schweikart and Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States, which presents an uplifting view of American imperium and exceptionalism. Both deal with the same country, the same planet, and the same sets of military and economic facts: yet they reach opposite conclusions.

So, with documentary films and television. They have greater depth than news reports, and bigger budgets, more screen time, and more time for production. But when a documentary is made, it’s made for a reason – and that reason is to convince you of  something that the filmmaker (or his/her employer) believes. This doesn’t mean there is no truth! There is truth, just as there is fact, and opinion. It is a fact that you and I are here in this room now. It is my opinion that CU’s is one of the ten best film programs in the United States. It is the truth that we are essentially kind, and that we must respect each other, else the wheels of civilization cease to turn.

So journalism isn’t absolute truth. It’s a narrative, constructed by someone, selecting some facts, deselecting others, manipulated by the camera, by the presenter or the voice-over, by the editor, by the addition of graphics, logos, visual effects, and emphatic music, by the Monoform. A documentary film is a larger version of the same. Perhaps the difference between news reporting and a documentary film is unconcealed advocacy. If a newspaper or on-line report seems deliberately slanted, or noticeably biased, we consider that bad journalism. Whereas a documentary film seeks to put information before us which will open us up to, or convince us of, a particular point of view.

This doesn’t mean that every documentary film is raw propaganda. MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (France, 2005) was a hugely popular nature documentary about emperor penguins in the Antarctic. It isn’t political propaganda, but it certainly has a point of view: that these penguins are fascinating, and a great subject for year-long shoot in arduous circumstances. Which indeed they were: this was the second-highest-grossing documentary in American film history: it cost $8 million to shoot, and made $127 million at the international box office.

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS – in its American edition – uses the format of a third-person, male, voice-over narrator: in the original French version, there were two first-person narrators, one female, one male, narrating from the perspective of the penguins. The American version was the classic documentary form: images, and an authoritative, third-person voiceover. In the last couple of decades documentaries have increasingly employed a first-person on-camera presenter: the personality-driven documentary. Foremost as a documentary director/writer/presenter is Michael Moore. His film BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (USA, 2002) won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It deals with gun violence, institutionalized violence, and a media-generated climate of fear – all serious subjects, to say the least. Statistically, it’s a fact that there are more gun-related deaths in the United States than in most other countries. But Moore also took positions on foreign policy and gun ownership and freedom of speech with which certain people disagreed. A Minneapolis conservative, Michael Wilson, became the writer/director/presenter of his own anti-Michael Moore documentary, MICHAEL MOORE HATES AMERICA (USA, 2004).

In his film, Wilson interviews another conservative commentator, Dinesh D’Souza, who was the writer/director/presenter of the anti-Obama documentary, OBAMA’S AMERICA: 2016 (USA, 2012). In it, footage of the writer/director/presenter visiting his father’s grave is juxtaposed with a “dramatic recreation” of young Obama visiting his father’s grave. Clearly, documentaries can be entirely partisan. They can play fast and loose with facts. They can tell outright lies, especially via “dramatic recreation”. Documentaries are advocacy. Even when – like the short documentary COLLATERAL MURDER – they consist of largely unedited footage of a crime scene, that footage gets framed, repeated, zoomed-in on, contextualized by titles and described by a voice-over narrator. Personally I am distrustful of the on-camera presenter. I do not wish to see Michael Moore, or Dinesh D’Souza, or Morgan Spurlock, though I am interested in the subjects of their films. In a documentary I prefer seemingly genuine footage, edited without panache, assisted by graphs and pie charts and an informative voiceover, and no music, thank you very much. I know this too is an illusion of objectivity. All documentaries, all edited films, are constructs, based on the selection of material, reflecting someone’s point of view.

But I seriously question the necessity or value of some guy, on screen, “helping me through it.” I also distrust documentaries which have a “writer” credit. Documentary films should be the result of the material which the filmmaker has gone out and shot. This cannot be entirely predictable. The idea that you can write a script for a documentary, in advance, and then shoot footage to fit it, seems to me deeply suspect. I have directed documentaries, and made lists of interview subjects, of people to talk to, of places to shoot. But I will not take a “writer” credit on a documentary, since prior to the shoot, I don’t know what the interviewees are going to say, nor what revelations the finished film will contain.

There are also documentaries which take a more original – even experimental – approach to their subject, such as Godfrey Reggio’s KOYAANISQATSI (USA, 1982). In the Hopi language this word means “life out of balance”, and Reggio uses original images and a musical score by Philip Glass to convey this theme, on a world-wide scale, with no voiceover or dialogue of any kind. Another fine documentary with an experimental approach is the Taviani brothers’ CAESAR MUST DIE (Italy, 2012). This deals with a stage production of Shakespeare’s play within a maximum security prison; but it isn’t limited to rehearsals and the show — instead the play takes place throughout the prison, involving guards and personal animosities among the inmates — which have clearly been planned beforehand, and rehearsed.

Some documentaries don’t shoot original footage. Instead they assemble existing material, perhaps of historical events, so as to tell their story. The Ken Burns TV documentaries about the Civil War, baseball and jazz follow this format, as does the samizat documentary LOOSE CHANGE (USA, 2005). The feature documentaries we’ve considered here were not cheap. PENGUINS cost $8 million, COLOMBINE $4 million, OBAMA’S AMERICA $2.5 million, KOYAANISQATSI $2.5 million as well. LOOSE CHANGE was assembled from 9/11 TV news footage for an initial cost of $2,000. Since its premise was incendiary, it received little publicity and no TV sales, and was literally passed from hand to hand on easily-copied DVDs. Apparently 100,000 DVDs were circulated in this way. I’ve witnessed several people exchanging copies.

Since the first edition of LOOSE CHANGE, there have been three others, in 2006, 2007, and 2009, all of which alter the details but retain the thesis of the film – that the 9/11 atrocities were an “inside job”. The film also grew and shrank as it developed. The 2005 version ran for sixty minutes. The 2007 edition was two hours and nine minutes long. The 2009 version is 1 hour 38 minutes long. LOOSE CHANGE in all its forms became a phenomenon via word of mouth, internet post and hand-to-hand circulation of DVDs. Only after it became “the first Internet blockbuster” (according to Vanity Fair) did LOOSE CHANGE receive mention in the mainstream media, some TV screenings, and an “official” DVD release.

LOOSE CHANGE is a “classic” documentary which relies on a mix of found footage, interviews with “experts”, and a male, voice-over narration which ties everything together. One of its later DVD iterations offers the option of turning off the music, something all documentary and narrative films should perhaps try! Emphatic soundtrack music, stimulating emotion or suggesting links where there are none, is one of the egregious elements of the Monoform, and it would be fascinating to see how many films can “stand up” and retain the audience’s interest, without the music.

Speaking of the Monoform brings us to Peter Watkins, whose Notes on the Media Crisis use that word to describe the problem of one all-pervasive, agitated style of storytelling. Watkins, in the 1960s, was one of Britain’s most promising young filmmakers. Unfortunately, he made a film for the BBC which got him blacklisted by British television. That film, made in 1965, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Picture in 1967. But it isn’t a documentary! THE WAR GAME (UK, 1965) is a dramatic narrative with a professional crew and amateur cast, made in the voice-over documentary style. Its subject is what would might to south-east England in the event of a “limited” nuclear war.

The Government already knew what was likely to occur. In 1955 it had set up the Strath Committee to consider the implications of thermonuclear warfare for Britain.

“The [Strath R]eport showed in graphic detail the kind of destruction and casualties Britain could expect even from a limited thermonuclear attack on the country. If only 10 bombs were dropped on UK cities, the result would be ‘utter devastation’ with up to 12 million deaths, including 3 million from radiation. There would also be a further 4 million serious casualties which would swamp the medical facilities available. Half of Britain’s industrial capacity would be destroyed, the distributive system would break down, utilities would be severely dislocated, water and food would be contaminated, leaving the 40 million survivors living in siege conditions. The Report found it impossible to predict whether Britain could recover, with the social and economic fabric of the country destroyed.”
(John Baylis, Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy 1945-1964, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995, pg. 190)

The British political mandarins didn’t know what to do with the Strath Report, so they ignored it, and carried on testing and stockpiling nuclear bombs. Watkins’ fake documentary was an attempt to share with the television-viewing public what the government already knew, and had kept secret — that nuclear war might break out by accident, and if it did, what the consequences could be.

We watch THE WAR GAME. 47 minutes in length, commissioned by the BBC, banned by the BBC for twenty years.

Additional reading: Peter Watkins on THE WAR GAME here.

A Kurosawa Documentary: THE LAST EMPEROR

I’ll take advantage of our documentary focus this week to revisit Kurosawa. Kurosawa wasn’t a documentary maker, but he has been the subject of numerous books and several documentaries, including Chris Marker’s A.K. (France, 1985), a film about the making of RAN, which the New York Times called “singularly superficial.”

I made one of these documentaries, which someone has kindly posted on youtube here. I’ll tell you a little of its production history, after which we can talk about it, especially what its flaws are, and how it might have been better. It’s called KUROSAWA: THE LAST EMPEROR, and it was made for British television in 1999.

Like many film directors, I was invited to Japan to promote some of the feature films I made, and to attend film festivals. My hosts were very kind, and always asked me, is there anyone you would like to meet while you are here? I would answer, Kurosawa! And they would laugh, because all the visiting film directors said this, and Kurosawa was very hard to meet. Instead I met Ishiro Honda, the director of the Godzilla films, who by coincidence had been a schoolmate of Kurosawa, and worked on the visual effects of his later films.

Then, in 1998, Kurosawa died. I was able to persuade a British TV network, Channel 4, to pay for a documentary about his work. It was to fit an hour time slot, in other words, i.e. in Universal Clock terms, 49 minutes. Now, Kurosawa directed thirty features, perhaps half of which are thought of as classics, as amazing films. How do you tell the story of a master of the cinema, a prolific creator of brilliant works, in 49 minutes?

Well, you can’t. You really can’t. This was a documentary for national TV broadcast in Britain, to be shown by the IFC in the US, as well. It was unusual in that it contained a large amount of foreign language material: clips and interviews in Japanese. Foreign languages were rare on British TV by 1999, so this was an unusual opportunity to hear foreign voices, and to turn unsuspecting TV viewers on to Akira Kurosawa. We could never do his life’s work justice in so short a time, but we could show good clips from some of his films, and give them some context.

We proposed the interviews with film directors in order to give the project a little more “star power” for the financiers. Francis Coppola and John Woo and Bernardo Bertolucci were better known to them, than Tasuya Nakadai or Teruyo Nogami. But obviously Nakadai and Nogami were essential to the story.

Speaking of Ms. Nogami, if you are interested in Kurosawa, or Japanese cinema, or filmmaking in general, you should read her book, Waiting on the Weather. She reveals some fascinating facts about the post-war Japanese cinema. Just as Hollywood in the late 1940s and 1950s blacklisted communists, and alleged communists, so did the Japanese film industry (she is also thoughtful about context, pointing out this happened the same year as the Korean War began). In Japan, the blacklist was ordered by General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers till occupying Japan.

“In May [1950] Toho dismissed 1,300 people from its payroll. General MacArthur’s official notice of a purge of Communist elements quickly took effect nationwide, and in September, Daiei also sent out pink slips to thirty people. Meanwhile, another 29 members of the film industry previously purged as war criminals were now happily “de-purged,” and they returned to work one after another. It was interesting to see the two groups switch places.”  (pg. 93)

Ms. Nogami also reports that in the 1950s methamphetamine was legal in Japan, and how the studio supplied it free to crews who worked without sleep for days at a time; she is also a gifted illustrator and the first page of our reading from her book shows her pen-and-ink drawing of the speed guy, carrying his tray.

One of the difficulties documentary filmmakers encountered in trying to make films about Kurosawa was Toho. The studio was famously intransigent, demanding very high prices for clip licenses to Kurosawa films, or simply refusing to grant a license. Other documentaries had been turned away by Toho. We were successful because Toho was making a film based on one of Kurosawa’s unmade scripts, AME AGARU / AFTER THE RAIN (Japan, 1999) and wanted us to promote that film in our documentary. This certainly worked for us since AME AGARU was crewed by various Kurosawa veterans, including the producer, Masato Hara, cinematographer Shoji Ueda, production designer Yoshiro Muraki, costume designer Kazuko Kurosawa, and Ms. Nogami. We were able to interview most of them, on the set of the film.

Though it doesn’t come across in our film, but from what I know of Toho, part of Kurosawa’s genius was his ability to deal with a big, powerful, sometimes abusive financial entity, for so long, and to make such great films for them.

In her section titled Script Supervisor, Ms. Nogami writes: “The director calls, ‘Action!’ and the camera rolls. The assistant director brings down the hinged stick on top of the clapperboard with a loud bang, and makes himself scarce. The actors go into motion and say their lines…” What is wrong here? Surely the order is wrong – usually the camera rolls, the slate is done, and then the director calls, ‘Action’. Not in this case. Ms. Nogami is writing about post-war Japanese cinema. There was an economy of great scarcity, and hundreds of feet of 35mm film could be saved if the director called ‘Action’ before the camera rolled. After the Second World War, original cinemas appeared out of economies of scarcity in Europe, too. Some of that we shall see next week.

What are the weaknesses of my documentary? Some students pointed out that they would like to see more of Kurosawa himself (who is talked about, but only seen at the very end). The music, particularly that which plays over Kurosawa’s childhood friend, Senkichi Taniguchi, was rightly criticized for its sentimentality. I confessed to disrespect for one of our interviewees, Donald Richie, whom I contradict in a voiceover narration. Richie called me on this, and he was quite right to do so, since it is wrong to take advantage of the “disembodied voice” of the director in this way.

What are its virtues? It is not an entirely heroic portrayal (dealing with his drunkenness, his rage, and his suicide attempt); it gives the audience an opportunity to see and hear from his closest collaborators and friends (in particular, the actors and Ms. Nogami); and the last shots of his humble grave site show his place in Japanese society. As Taniguchi-san said, Kurosawa was of lower middle-class origins, and to these, in death, he returned.

Further reading: Teruyo Nogami, Waiting on the Weather, Stone Bridge Press, 2001

Experimental Film

This week’s subject is “Alternatives to Dramatic Narrative.” Most of the films we look at in Intro to Film are dramatic features – whether they’re genre pictures, animations, or prestige studio films. In a critical studies course, most of the films you see are likely to be feature-length dramatic narratives. But there are other types of motion picture: KOYAANISQATSI, in addition to being a documentary, is also an experimental film.

What is an experimental film? As we know it today, it is an artistic practice with its origins in European avant-garde creative movements, in particular the Surrealists. Today you might watch an experimental film in the cinema, or in a gallery, or on your phone. At the outset, experimental films were shot in 35mm and screened in cinemas, fully-fledged rivals of conventional narratives. The first silent Surrealist films were experimental films, and vice versa. UN CHIEN ANDALOU / THE ANDALUSIAN DOG (France, 1929), employed professional actors and technicians, and was made in a studio. Yet its narrative structure and its imagery were entirely original, based on Buñuel and Dalí’s dreams and their unique approach to screenwriting:

In his autobiography, Buñuel describes their writing process: “UN CHIEN ANDALOU… came about from an encounter between two dreams. When I arrived to spend a few days at Dali’s house in Figueras, I told him about a dream I’d had in which a long, tapering cloud sliced the moon in half, like a razor blade slicing through an eye. Dali immediately told me that he’d seen a hand crawling with ants in a dream he’d had the previous night. ‘And what if we started right there and made a film?’ he wondered aloud.

“Despite my hesitation, we soon found ourselves hard at work, and in less than a week we had a script. Our only rule was very simple: No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explantation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why. The amazing thing was that we never had the slightest disagreement; we spent a week of total identification.

” ‘A man fires a double bass,’ one of us would say.

” ‘No,’ replied the other, and the one who’d proposed the idea accepted the veto and felt it justified. On the other hand, when the image proposed by one was accepted by the other, it immediately seemed luminously right and absolutely necessary to the scenario.”
(Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh, pp. 103-104)

Buñuel and Dalí followed this with another Surrealist film, this one a talkie: L’AGE D’OR / THE GOLDEN AGE (France, 1930), a longer, even more experimental film which outraged the far right wing, who rioted in the Paris cinema where the film played. It too is essential viewing, as are Buñuel’s later narrative features, which inject Surrealist elements into Mexican, French, and Spanish family melodramas.

After UN CHIEN ANDALOU we screen MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (USA, 1943), by Maya Deren — the first woman director whose work we will have shown. She shares the credit on the film with Alexander Hammid, to whom she was then married. Like many Hollywood creators, Deren was a refugee, whose family had fled anti-semitic pogroms in Ukraine, and settled in New York. Her father died in 1943, and with some of her modest inheritance Deren purchased a used 16mm Bolex camera, with which she made this film. We still have that camera, and you can use it to make your films. MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON was originally silent; she added a music track composed by her third husband, Teiji Itô, in 1952.

Bruce Conner was an American experimental filmmaker who worked with found footage, creating montages from stock footage, other filmmakers’ trims, and film of television footage. We screen his short film REPORT (USA, 1963-67), which is a meditation on the assassination of President John. F. Kennedy, who had been murdered in Dallas, in 1963.

(Warning. REPORT is one of those films that has flickery, flash shots in quick succession. If you are suceptible in any way to fast, flickery images, you may wish to avoid this film.)

Our last screening is LAST DAYS IN A LONELY PLACE (USA, 2007), directed by the University of Colorado’s Professor Phil Solomon. The title refers to a Film Noir directed by Nicholas Ray, IN A LONELY PLACE (USA, 1950), and repurposes the Noir imagery of the Grand Theft Auto as a homage to Phil’s teacher, filmmaker Nicholas Ray, and a memorial to a dead friend. CU was also the home of Stan Brakhage, another highly-regarded American experimentalist. Experimental film is a specialty of the CU Film Studies program.

Further Reading: Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh, Vintage Books, 1983