A Way of Seeing (2/4)

Documentary as It Is or
as It Should Be?

Documentary film has very often been opposed to fiction film. This is not strange, for the first documentarists saw themselves opposed to the so-called story film in their very different relations to society and with aims other than mere entertainment and profit making. They also had to gain themselves a position equal to the dominant fiction film. But in later thought on documentary, the fiction film has seemed to be the point of reference against which documentary is defined. Where fiction invents a possible world, documentary is about the real, natural world; where fiction has a narrative structure, documentary draws on arguments; the fiction filmmaker constructs whereas the documentarist reconstructs.3

But a reconstruction is also a construction in itself, and many documentaries use narrative structures (if not all, because narrative structure is not synonymous with fictional structure, if one considers narrativity to be the basic characteristic of all discourses, fictional or non-fictional). In recent years some so-called “fake-documentaries” have proven that “documentary structures” can be used to tell fictional stories. Illustrative in this respect is the screening of two films of Lodewijk Crijns at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam. Both his Kutzooi (1995) and Lap Rouge (1996) presented themselves as documentaries, thus there was some consternation when, after the screening of the first film, a portrait of wandering school boys, the boy who had lost his arms during a dangerous game appeared with two normal-functioning arms. The film appeared to be a “fake.” Both films use all the dominant characteristics of documentary film, but were in fact fictional.

It is clear that these kind of films challenge the limits of the genre(s). But they also make clear that the most important, however problematic, criterion to distinguish documentary from fiction is still their relation to reality. The natural world versus a possible world. A few scholars have tried to make a distinction between documentary and fiction on the basis of Etienne Sourieau’s concepts of the filmic, profilmic, and a-filmic.4 Since the filmic is the point of reference and the a-filmic is potentially the same for both fiction and documentary, the distinction should be made on the profilmic level. But there seems to me no ontological difference between the profilmic of a fiction film and the profilmic of the documentary, for a staged reality is ontologically as real as a non-staged reality (how otherwise can it leave its trace on the photographic material?).

Eva Hohenberger has redefined and complemented these notions in a more pragmatic way to include such processes as pre-production, post-production, distribution, and reception.5 It seems that the difference between documentary and fiction is made in the moments of production and reception. It is probably in the confrontation between the film and the spectator that the distinction is finally made: a confrontation between realities, one constructed in the film, the other by the spectator. The spectator has, or tries to define, an a-filmic reality which is the touchstone for interpreting and reconstructing the profilmic as “what has been” and what has been filmed. Referring to the use of the terms, Frank Kessler states,

To become profilmic is a potential quality of every visible (or audible) element of the a-filmic world. The latter can never be grasped as such by the film, for it is what the discourse is about. The a-filmic, however, builds the horizon for the understanding and evaluation of what has been said in the film. It is the horizon, but not a surety for the valuation of the discourse, because the a-filmic is always but an epistemic construction on the basis of other discourses.6

This brings us to a more pragmatic and/or phenomenological attempt at defining, or describing, documentary. Both fiction and documentary make a “proposition of a world” which has to be interpreted by the spectator. 7 But the audience’s perception of the world is not just a perception of what is in front of them, but already mediated by their experience:

That which is given is not only the thing, but the experience of the thing. . . . A thing is thus not given in perception, it is re-assumed by the inner self, reconstituted and lived by us, as related to a world of which we carry the fundamental structures and of which it is only one of the possible concrete forms.8

So the spectator has his own interpretation of the world, which is for him the starting point to interpret the world proposed by the film. He confronts this world with his “image of the world,” the “horizon” to which Kessler refers. This leads us to Gadamer, for the next step in the understanding (and evaluation) of the world proposed is a “fusion of horizons.”9 The experience of the spectator builds the horizon which places the reference made, as a reference to either a world or the world, depending on the match that can be made between the world of the film and the world of the spectator. The horizon proposed by the film fuses with the horizon of the spectator, who comes to understand it and is able to explain it. This horizon is also fed by the dominant modes of filmmaking: the spectator “recognizes” a film as fiction film or documentary, for they follow certain dominant strategies of presentation (e.g., fictive or assertive).10 However, fake documentaries illustrate that this is not a guarantee.

From the perspective of the spectator, a fiction can be regarded as the experience of an invented, possible world. A documentary then, is not the world represented, but a second-hand experience of the world: the experience of an experienced world. This makes documentary’s relation to reality even more problematic: in the reception of a documentary there are already two stages of interpretation. First, the perception of the filmmaker: he has to translate his interpretation of the world into an audiovisual text. Second, the interpretation of this perception by the spectator, which doubles this process of perception and interpretation. But these are more theoretical problematics and have not prevented filmmakers from making documentaries. In practice, documentarists have been conscious of these problematics, which are more or less the same for historians, but these have not stopped them from making films about their world.

With this in mind we can go back to the analogy between the documentary filmmaker and the historiographer. To be convincing, the documentarist uses certain strategies to make the spectator believe that what he presents is about the real world and concerns the spectator directly. Like a historian, the documentarist makes explicit reference to the real world, for his film is about a certain aspect of reality. In this respect the two face the same problems of truth and objectivity. Siegfried Kracauer also draws a parallel between the historian and the photographer/filmmaker, seeing their tasks as follows:

Now whatever questions he brings to bear on some portion or aspect of historical reality, he is invariably confronted with two tasks: (1) he must establish the relevant evidence as impartially as possible; and (2) he must try to render intelligible the material thus secured. I am aware, of course, that fact-finding and exegesis are two sides of one and the same indivisible process.11

Establishing the relevant evidence and rendering it intelligible means that the “raw material” has to be “arranged” to come to a convincing interpretation of the historical reality. This conception matches Grierson’s ideas on documentary very well: “[I]n its use of the living material, there is also an opportunity to perform creative work.”12

In a continuation of this, Kracauer works out these two sides: “One might also say that the historian follows two tendencies—the realistic tendency which prompts him to get hold of all data of interest, and the formative tendency which requires him to explain the material in hand. He is both passive and active, a recorder and a creator.”13 Is this not exactly that for which the documentarist stands? Here we can see the different approaches between which the documentary filmmaker can and has moved during documentary film history. And if we replace “photography” by “documentary” in the following quotation from Kracauer, we also see what makes it difficult: “The thing that matters in both photography and history is obviously the ‘right’ balance between the realistic and the formative tendencies.”14

The balance between these two tendencies is often determined by the intentions of the filmmaker. If he leans towards a more aesthetic approach in his film, the result will be a more poetic documentary, like Ivens’s Rain or The Seine Meets Paris (“La Seine a rencontré Paris”). But if the intention is to inform and agitate the public, he will be more like a “recorder.” It is interesting to note that Kracauer uses Borinage to illustrate the fact that the discrepancy between the realistic and the formative tendency is not always that great. There seems to be a dialectic relation between those tendencies, which is discernable in each individual film: “[Documentarists] practice self-restraint as artists to produce the effect of impersonal authenticity. Now the salient point is that their conduct is based on moral considerations.” And to continue: “Human suffering, it appears, is conducive to detached reporting; the artist’s conscience shows in artless photography. Since history is full of human suffering, similar attitudes and reflections may be at the bottom of many a fact-oriented historical account, deepening the significance of its pale objectivity.”15 But this artless photography is in fact a formative choice to stress the realistic aspects of the events portrayed. This seems paradoxical, but I think it is something we can recognize especially in the films of Joris Ivens, for he often combines realistic intentions with an aesthetic approach.

We have moved away from the distinctions between documentary and fiction towards the specific problems of the documentary. These distinctions are made not only by theorists, but also by documentary filmmakers themselves. They have been fruitful in studying documentary film, but have also driven fiction and documentary further away from each other than they in fact are. They are not as opposed as often assumed to be, and the fictionality or non-fictionality of the documentary film may not be the most distinctive quality of it. The referential strategies documentary uses to ascertain its direct relation with the natural world are more characteristic. These are strategies that can be used by fiction films (e.g., Woody Allen’s Zelig [1983] or the above mentioned films by Lodewijk Crijns) but that have first and foremost characterized documentary as we still know it; strategies, thus, which are highly conventional and tend toward a definition of documentary as pragmatic, including the intentions of the maker and/or the reception by the spectator.

In most of the definitions given by the founders of documentary film, documentary film is presented as a film form in its own right, but as a form which covers a broad field of film practice. As Basil Wright summed up in 1947: “A documentary would be variously defined as a short film before the feature, as a travelogue, as a description of how films are made, as an instructional film, as an aid in teaching, as an artistic interpretation of reality and, by some theoreticians in the documentary field, as a film made by themselves.”16 This more or less corresponds with Ivens’s conception of documentary: “On one side you have the fiction or acted film, on the other side you have the newsreel, and between those two you have the field covered by the documentary film.”17 This doesn’t make it easier to define the documentary. As Wright puts it, “The first thing to note is that there is, in the end, little need to define a documentary film. Those two words now cover such a multitude of activities and approaches that the real underlying purpose becomes less and less clear.”18

For Grierson and his followers, documentary’s purpose was clear: “[T]he documentary idea was not basically a film idea at all, and the film treatment inspired only an incidental aspect of it. The medium happened to be the most convenient and most exciting available to us. The idea itself, on the other hand, was a new idea for public education.”19

If we take these ideas as leading principles to define documentary, then we must conclude that documentary has existed since the beginnings of cinematography. Many films made between 1895 and 1922 (or 1927, since Ivens sometimes let documentary start in that year) fall in the fields described by Wright and Ivens, and match the idea of public education. Does public education cover propaganda too? Why then do we normally suggest that documentary came to life in the twenties?

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3. See also Bill Nichols’s chapter “The Domain of Documentary” in his Representing Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991): pp. 3-31.

4. Étienne Souriau, ed., L’univers filmique (Paris: Flammarion, 1953). Souriau, a French “Filmologist,” introduced and defined these terms as part of a terminology to study film: the “filmic” being everything that appears in the film, and the profilmic everything that exists in reality that receives a special destination in the film (like actors, props, decors) and leaves its traces on the celluloid. Digitally created elements, for instance, do not have a profilmic existence. Distinct from the profilmic, the a-filmic refers to everything in reality that has no such a destination, but can become profilmic (like locations and people in documentaries).

5. See Eva Hohenberger, Die Wirklichkeit des Films: Dokumentarfilm—Ethnographischer Film—Jean Rouch (Hildesheim: Georg Olms A.G., 1988), especially pp. 26-60; and Manfred Hattendorf, Dokumentarfilm und Authentizität: Ästhetik und Pragmatik einer Gattung (Konstanz: Verlag Ölschlager, 1994).

6. Frank Kessler, “Fakt oder Fiktion? Zum pragmatischen Status dokumentarischer Bilder,” Montage/AV (2 July 1998): p. 75; my translation.

7. See Paul Ricoeur, Du texte à l’action: Essais d’herméneutique, II (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1986): p. 115.

8. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1945): pp. 376-377; my translation.

9. Hans Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1960/1990): p. 311.

10. Carl Plantinga makes the distinction between a fictive and an assertive stance to distinguish fiction from non-fiction. Carl Plantinga, Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film (London: Cambridge University Press, 1997): pp. 15-21.

11. Siegfried Kracauer, History: The Last Things Before The Last (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969; Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1995): p. 47 (page citations refer to the reprint edition).

12. Forsyth Hardy, ed., Grierson on Documentary (Faber and Faber, London, 1979 [first published 1946]), p. 37.

13. Kracauer, p. 47. The “realistic tendency” and the “formative tendency” are also the basic concepts Kracauer uses in his Theory of Film: The Redemption of a Physical Reality (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1960).

14. Kracauer, History, p. 56.

15. Kracauer, History, pp. 90-91.

16. Basil Wright, “Documentary Today,” The Penguin Film Review 2 (January 1947); reprinted in The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology, ed. Ian Aitken (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998): p. 238.

17. Joris Ivens, “Documentary: Subjectivity and Montage,” forthcoming in Joris Ivens and the Documentary Context, ed. Kees Bakker (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999).

18. Wright, p. 239.

19. Hardy, p. 113.