A Way of Seeing

Joris Ivens’s Documentary Century

Kees Bakker

1998 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens. In honor of Ivens’s centennial, this year’s Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival has put together a retrospective of Ivens’s works. Kees Bakker, co-coordinator of the retrospective and a scholar of Ivens’s work, offered Documentary Box his thoughts on Ivens’s life, films, and role as both participant and observer in the turbulent history of the twentieth century.

The Editors

The twentieth century has been a century in movement. Within a relatively short period, and in all kinds of fields this movement has been extraordinary and extreme. There have been many wars, including two world wars and more than fifty still going on at present. The twentieth century also experienced turbulent development in the political and technological arenas. The industrialization set into motion in the nineteenth century resulted some decades later in a globalization of activities: the rise of multi-nationals, greater mobility of people and information, and an ever increasing technologization. Politics began to cross borders and experience polarization, putting a stamp on a large part of the twentieth century. National revolutions had big consequences for the rest of the world.

Historians will not have an easy job describing this century, let alone explaining and understanding it. They, and we, are still too involved in recent history to take the distance which is needed for thorough reflection. Although there are some similarities between historiography and documentary filmmaking, the films of Joris Ivens (1898-1989) make it clear that he was not a historian, but a conscious part of the history he was filming. But both historiography and documentary film try to give an account of events in the real world and here they face the same epistemological and hermeneutic problems regarding their relation to reality and the possibilities of describing the world. The lack of temporal distance is one of these problems, especially when it concerns recent history. As Eric Hobsbawm puts it,

Religious or ideological confrontations, such as those which have filled this century, build barricades in the way of the historian, whose major task is not to judge but to understand even what we can least comprehend. Yet what stands in the way of understanding is not only our passionate convictions, but the historical experience that has formed them.1

These seem to me exactly the elements that, in retrospect, characterize most of the films of Joris Ivens. His historical experience fed his passionate convictions in a way that the will to understand the world around him was replaced (some might say “blinded”) by a belief that a better world could be experienced if people followed the right way. This was the way of socialism.

In Ivens’s films we see a reflection of twentieth century moods and sociopolitical issues. His documentaries have become documents. But like all historical documents, they should not be taken at face value: “objective” documents, if they exist, are rare—history being what historians try to make of it. But it is certain that Ivens’s films are not “objective.” This is not peculiar to Joris Ivens, but probably true of all documentarists. Some filmmakers’ pretensions notwithstanding, the first objective documentary has yet to be made—if it is at all possible. Ivens explains it in an interesting way:

I was surprised to find that many people automatically assumed that any documentary film would inevitably be objective. Perhaps the term is unsatisfactory, but for me the distinction between the words document and documentary is quite clear. Do we demand objectivity in the evidence presented at a trial? No, the only demand is that each piece of evidence be as full a subjective, truthful, honest presentation of the witness’s attitude as an oath on the Bible can produce from him.2

The films of Joris Ivens are openly subjective, truthful, and honest presentations of his interpretations of the world. But isn’t this against our “image” of documentary?

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1. Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (London: Michael Joseph, 1995): p. 5.

2. Joris Ivens, The Camera and I (Berlin: Seven Seas Publishers, 1969): p. 137.