Documentary in the Age of
Digital Reproduction

In the ten years since 1989, when the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival was just starting up, the world of documentary film has seen great changes. The advent of e-mail has made it easier to communicate with filmmakers and festivals overseas. And many of the documentary films of the now defunct Iwanami Productions are being preserved on digital media. At the same time, some things have just gotten more complicated. For example, theaters in Japan now ask the audience to turn off their mobile phones before each screening.

As these examples make clear, many of the changes in our world have to do with digital technology. At YIDFF ’99 last fall, the word “digital” was coming from everyone’s lips at an unprecedented rate. The definition of “digital” varied from person to person, but many agreed that digital technology is having a great impact on how documentaries are made. Others pointed out how digital has made inroads into other areas surrounding documentary film.

Inspired by what we saw and heard, Documentary Box caught up with nine people active in different parts of the documentary world to ask what “digital” means to them. Our respondents ended up being from Japan, Europe and the US, but were able to point out a variety of issues. Who knows, in ten, twenty or even one hundred years, their comments could become important documents for understanding exactly where we were in the year 2000!

This article would not have come together without the help and cooperation of many individuals and organizations. To Abé Mark Nornes, who provided initial inspiration for the article, and to all those who agreed to be interviewed and all those who inspired and helped us with this project, we would like to offer our greatest thanks and appreciation.

—Tanaka Junko and Sarah Teasley

1. Filmmaking

Jan Sebening and
Daniel Sponsel
Directors, The Last Documentary (YIDFF ’99 World Special Program)

Documentary Box (DB): What do you see as the future of digital media?

Jan Sebening (JS): Digital isn’t really new, but its possibilities are just beginning. Right now digital is still linear, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The possibilities beyond linear form have yet to be explored.

One change we’re seeing are highly manipulated documentaries that use aftereffects, filters, and effects like the multi-screen images in our film. These effects will give documentary film a big push because they’re visually very attractive, although at some point, people will be overfed and not want any more effects.

Daniel Sponsel (DS): People within the documentary community are interested in digital media, particularly DVD, but I’m curious what will happen when the people who write the programs come over the bridge towards us. In the beginning of cinema, there were movie actors and theater actors, then at a certain point some directors decided they could work in both, and the bridge was opened and people could go both ways. What will happen when someone approaches documentary and says “I can make DVD or CD-ROMs or an internet site and I have an idea about mine workers in Indonesia?” We can deliver content, and they can deliver technique, so sparks will fly.

DB: Some people have defined documentaries as capturing truth, and technological advances like color and sync sound have followed this by trying to be as “real” as possible. But the digital warfare of the Gulf War, the internet and virtual reality seem to take us away from reality. What relation do you see between digital media and the “reality” of documentary film?

JS: Depending on the sales figures of PC monitors, digital images may turn out to look artificial, or they may look more “realistic,” like gelatin silver prints. But this decision will come from whether PC users like photorealistic images in their photo cards or something more artificial, and not from what filmmakers want to do.

DS: The possibility to manipulate was there before digital, but now post-production effects like rubbing people out are much more extreme and easy to achieve. However, the degree of digital manipulation allowed for something to still be “documentary” has yet to be questioned. It’s already an issue in news photography—one photographer from Associated Press who interviewed me had to prove with his signature that he hadn’t manipulated the framing or the pixels in his digital photographs, although there were no rules about manipulating the contrast of a shot. For a documentary filmmaker, ethics mean honesty in what you convey. That doesn’t mean that one person is there or the other person isn’t—you have to be honest to the story, but you can lie and still tell the truth. This problem has dogged documentary since Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, and just got worse with the introduction of sync-sound in film in the sixties. Now we’re reaching a point where the issue of reality in film hasn’t got any meaning at all. If any truth exists at all, it’s a kind of artistic, materialistic truth.

DB: Given the title of your film, The Last Documentary, do you see a relation between the introduction of digital media and the end of documentary film?

JS: When sync sound cameras appeared, the first thing filmmakers did was go to pop concerts to record the Beatles, and these concert films killed the musical film. New technology has side effects which only appear 30 or 40 years later. At the moment it’s very exciting, because we can’t see the side effects.

We think of our culture as being eternal just as the Romans did, yet if you met a Roman today who said his empire was eternal you’d laugh flat in his face. Forms of representation like nineteenth century panorama paintings vanish too. With the limits of “eternity” in mind, I wondered what would happen if documentary died, hence the title of our film.

DB: Does this mean that documentary is limited to film?

JS: My students make videos and call them “my film.” The dark room and the collective experience of the audience is a special part of documentary film. but this need to share emotions and events may be replaced by something else, we can’t say. Now that big distribution companies are considering digital cinemas beamed via satellite or hard disk, not spools with 35mm film running through them, we can talk about a loss. But maybe that’s just how it goes, and we’ll tell our grandchildren that we’ve been there and seen it, but that now there’s something new in its place.

35mm can be projected and seen worldwide. It’s a simple technique, you can repair the projectors yourself, and even a blanket will do for a screen. If we go to digital in the cinemas, we’ll block out people who can’t pay for digital cinema.

DB: You used a lot of archival footage in your film. Can you say anything about the impact of digital technology on film archives?

JS: The film archives in Amster-dam, where we got much of our footage, are afraid of losing nitrate footage as it disintegrates, so they’re busy digitizing everything they can. Amsterdam also wants to set their entire archive on the internet so that anyone can access it. Of course right now the internet is a bottleneck, so images have very low resolutions and are stamp-size, which means that you can watch them but that it looks horrible if you try to copy them.