The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

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MAR 2011 Issue

Varieties of Documentary

On Saturday, March 26, at UnionDocs in Williamsburg, critic and scholar Fred Camper will present a program of films that play with the idea of documentary production, method, and meaning. Below is Camper’s expanded thesis on the program, written exclusively for this publication.

Categories and classifications in the arts are dubious at best. What is a “documentary” film? One work often cited as a pioneering example, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, is arguably not documentary at all—he staged scenes. Still, there are distinctions. When cinematographers follow political candidates around with handheld cameras, not directing the action and trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, as happened in the 1960 direct cinema film Primary, the result is quite different from a Hollywood movie about a political campaign, with its carefully calculated script, professional actors, and compositions painstakingly manufactured for your viewing pleasure. Primary is also unlike the so-called “documentary” of today, its slick packaging, predigested forms, and preinterpreted meanings resulting in something more akin to a mass manufactured consumer object than an actual experience of a person, place, or event.

<i>Seven Days </i>by Chris Welsby.
Seven Days by Chris Welsby.

At the core of the documentary idea is footage of actuality that has not been directed or modified by its maker, and that is filmed and edited in such a way as to preserve some semblance of what most would see were they present at the locale. Thus in Stan Brakhage’s great silent film, The Text of Light, showing “abstract” images made of light passing through an ashtray, while he did not modify actuality, the way he filmed it would cause most not to call it a “documentary”—though Brakhage himself argued that he was simply “documenting” things he had seen through unusual forms of eyesight, or in his mind’s eye.

The films in this program, while including footage of actuality, play at the borders of the idea of documentary. The two “closest” of the bunch, Shelby Adams and Mimi Pickering’s Mountain Farmer and Susie Benally’s A Navajo Weaver, both grew out of a laudable 1960s reaction against the mainstream tradition of ethnographic filmmaking, in which documentaries of “natives” display camera angles, composition, and editing that likely reflect the documentarian’s ways of seeing more than the subjects’. Mountain Farmer was made by Appalshop, located in the Kentucky hill country, one of a number of community film workshops founded to allow local people to film their lives. The camera work is direct, sincere, and reflects love of people and land. A Navajo Weaver is a more radical version of this. In 1966, a filmmaker (Sol Worth) and an anthropologist (John Adair) went to a Navajo village in which hardly any of the residents had seen Western movies or more than a few hours of television, and gave them cameras, film stock, and basic technical instruction so that they could make films of their choice. A Navajo Weaver shows the whole process of the filmmaker’s mother creating a blanket, including for example the gathering of plants for dyes. The editing may look “choppy” at first, but it brings one closer to a sensual experience of land, plants, dye, and cloth than would imagery seamlessly blended into a manufactured “continuous” whole. The film reminds us, too, that the objects we so unthinkingly use have complicated histories and myriad sources.

Least “documentary” is Robert Breer’s Fuji, an animated film of lines and colors. But it begins with home-movie footage with Mount Fuji in the distance, and throughout the film many of the shapes and lines seem to grow from that footage, Fuji’s top becoming a triangle, separated lines, or color patterns. When the home-movie footage returns at the film’s end, it feels utterly transformed, and the viewer understands how “reality” can be reimagined as energized shapes and blocks of color. Brian Frye’s Mirror Manhattan, for which he filmed portions of a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan and then superimposed footage from the same cruise filmed upside down, also uses abstraction to portray a particular kind of seeing. While the manipulated superimposition violates the strict idea of documentary, the result captures the disorienting verticality of Manhattan far better than “straight” skyline imagery would, and thus approaches the documentary ideal.

Another urban setting is shown in John Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum, which begins with a long take of a street, the action undirected by the filmmaker. Yet in voiceover, the filmmaker sounds as if he is directing everything, anticipating entrances and exits of characters, even giving us “information” about them that we would not otherwise know. The sequence serves as a joke on the limited means of experimental filmmakers who might prefer to megalomaniacally control everything: it would be no problem for Hollywood to stage a street scene in which particular people entered at particular times.

At first glance Chris Welsby’s Seven Days would appear to bear little relation to most ideas of documentary: shot in time lapse, it compresses seven days in the countryside into twenty minutes, clouds and sun moving rapidly by. The camera position changes often, pointing directly at the sun when the sun is behind clouds and at the sun’s shadow when the sun is out; Welsby used a motorized tripod mount to keep the camera position aligned with the sun’s. One might think that the film is intrusively manipulative, portraying the kind of filmmaker hubris Smith appears to critique, but actually, by letting the sun determine his camera angle and by changing the camera position depending on the weather, Welsby cedes the two key elements under the documentarian’s control, framing and editing, to nature itself. The radical nature of Welsby’s surrender, in this and other films, has yet to be fully appreciated, but it surely brings his work far closer to a raw and uninterpreted nature than many documentaries, in which carefully chosen close-ups of pretty flowers and cute animals reflect human desires rather than nature’s otherness.


Fred Camper

Fred Camper is an artist, a writer and lecturer on film and art, and a former filmmaker. He lives in Chicago.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

All Issues