The Split Blog

This week’s blog entries will cover one of two possible subjects:

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Subject #1 – Salesman

Those who didn’t get to go to the festival need to watch Salesman (which can be found on youtube – or below…).  After watching the film provide your thoughts on the film.  Be sure to write about the style, structure, and character.

Cinema festival stamp

Subject #2 – Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival

While those who got to attend the festival need to write about one or several of the films that you watched that stood out.

In the Realm of the Personal

After the 2nd World War documentary was damaged.  Having been in the hands of governments, the documentary film had become the propaganda film – and the filmmakers of the 1950s tried to move away from that.  It is ironic that some of the innovation actually came from the government supported National Film Board of Canada.  Members of the prolific Unit B began work that would change the face of documentary.  These films approached their subjects in a different way: the clear poetic storytelling in Corral; the inner dialogue of Paul Tomkowicz: Street Railway Switchman; the informative, yet personal style of City of Gold.

NFBFilms.001As a filmmaker who tends to make more personal essay films, it is the personal aspect of the films that intrigues me the most.  As already mentioned in our blog this semester, filmmakers will make films about subjects they care about.  The heightened personal touch of these films allows the audience to connect with them on a deeper level.  They are also not trying to “sell” anything.  These films reveal moments of truth in the lives presented on screen.

Which brings us to to the film we watched on Wednesday, Stan Brahkage’s Window Water Baby Moving.  This experimental film attempts to document Brahkage’s feelings of excitement and anxiety at the birth of his daughter.  While not necessarily considered a documentary, the film is nonfiction – so is an experimental documentary.

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While the portrayal of the birth is graphic, Brakhage doesn’t hide anything. In fact when Brakhage sent the film to Kodak to have it developed, Kodak sent Brakhage a letter “that said, more or less, ‘Sign this at the bottom, and we will destroy this film; otherwise, we will turn it over to police.’ So then the doctor wrote a letter, and we got the footage back.” (MacDonald, Scott (2005) A critical cinema: interviews with independent filmmakers, p64-66).

The quick cuts at the beginning show his uneasiness as his wife begins her labour pains.  The juxtaposition of the images of his wife’s pregnant belly to the new born baby show his wonderment as the reality of what has just happened. Still Brakhage felt that the final film did not truly capture the emotions at the moment. He made another film about the birth of his next child.

But one must ask what the goal of a film like this was? Documentaries before this time informed and educated. They tried to persuade. They had wider audiences. The NFB films had the charter to go on: “To produce, distribute, and promote films designed to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations.” Brakhage’s goal was much more personal – to capture his emotions. The film does capture a glimpse of the father’s experience at childbirth, but did it have a wider impact? Many film critics, as well as the filmmaker himself, say that Window Water Baby Moving did help make the delivery room more open to fathers (MacDonald, Scott (2005) A critical cinema: interviews with independent filmmakers, p64-66). As a father I’m thankful that I was allowed to witness the birth of my own children – and for the ability to take a camera in with me.

Discussion Starter: Instead of critically writing about these films, I would like to use this blog entry as an opportunity to brainstorm about stories or subjects that you are personally connected with that you could possibly make a film about. Once you get a few ideas down think about a wider goal for the film other than “I’m interested in the subject.”

To See or Not to See? That is the Question…

ImageCharles Lanzmann directed the documentary Shoah, which is considered one of the foremost films about the Holocaust, in 1985.  Lanzmann’s 9.5 hour film (yes – I said nine and a half hour long film) used only personal testimony and contemporary footage of Holocaust sites.  No historical footage is used at all.  In fact, he is famously quoted as saying the following:

If I had found an actual film, a secret film, since that was strictly forbidden—made by an SS man and showing how 3,000 Jews, men, women, and children, died together, asphyxiated in a gas chamber of the crematorium 2 in Auschwitz—if I found that, not only would I not have shown it, but I would have destroyed it. (Visual Culture and the Holocaust – edited by Barbie Zeilzer – pg 133)

ImageNot ten years after Shoah Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List recreates a scene where the viewer is forced to go through the entry into Auschwitz with a group of women.  We watch their hair being cut.  Being forced to disrobe and then pushed into a shower, but we have heard the rumours along with the women about the gas chambers.  The doors are closed and locked.  The lights go out.  We, like those in the chamber, await the next moment with trepidation.  This scene is on youtube if you are interested in seeing it.  Search for Schindler’s List Shower Scene.

This moment – while powerful – also brings forth so many questions.  Should Spielberg have recreated a moment like this?  Has he truly captured this moment, or does the dramatisation of events like these have the danger of fictionalising truth?

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Night and Fog takes a different approach to both Shoah and Schindler’s List.  Resnais moves between two types of footage – contemporary images of Auschwitz (1950s) and historical footage.  He does not attempt to recreate anything – in fact – the commentary during the contemporary footage refers to how the camera cannot show these moments now.  The camera can only show the outer shell.  The commentary over the historical footage often says little, allowing the power of the image to speak.

Discussion Starter: We spoke in class about the ethics of showing certain images.  Blog about your thoughts about Night and Fog.  Also, what do you think about showing scenes of extreme violence (actually captured on film, or recreated).  Point to examples if you would like.

Ivens on Objectivity

“I was often asked, why hadn’t we gone to the other side, too, and made an objective film? My only answer was that a documentary filmmaker has to have an opinion on such vital issues as fascism or anti-fascism – he has to have feelings about these issues, if his work is to have any dramatic or emotional or art value. And tee, there is the very simple fact to consider, that when you are at war and you get to the other side, you are shot or put into a prison camp – you cannot be on both sides, neither as a soldier nor a filmmaker. If anyone wanted that objectivity of ‘both sides of the question’ he would have to show two films, THE SPANISH EARTH and a film by a fascist filmmaker, if he could find one…”

“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…”

“I continue to make documentary films because I know there is unity between what I believe and what I do. If I felt I had lost that unity, I would change my profession. A documentary filmmaker has the sense of participating directly in the world’s most fundamental issues – a sense that is difficult for even the most conscious filmmaker working in a studio to feel”

Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. “The Spanish Earth.” 1969. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 138+. Print.

Discussion Starter: Comment on Ivens’ view of objectivity in documentary.  Can a documentary filmmaker be objective?  Are there certain subjects/circumstances were it is impossible to be truly objective?

How Far Have We Come?

The following is a short text taken from your book Imagining Reality by Boleslaw Matuszewski.  Matuszewski was a camera operator for the Lumiere’s operations in St. Peresburg, Russia.  He was the first person who seriously considered and then write about the documentary possibilities of cinema.  The following is from a pamphlet he wrote in 1898.

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Discussion Starter: Obviously things have changed since Matuszewski wrote this short piece.  Comment upon the positive and negative thoughts that he presents.  Feel free to take this discussion in your own direction and to add your own examples.  If you quote another source you need to cite it!

Truth vs. Fact

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Factsomething that truly exists or happens.

Truthfidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal.

I begin this evening’s blog post with the definition of the two words “fact” and “truth”.  We ended our class discussion today focused on these two words in relation to the major difference between documentary and news – yet there are still so many who associate documentary with news, or news topics with documentary.  There is a place for the “news documentary” and there are documentaries that focus more on current events and have a more “news” like aesthetic to them, yet there still needs to be a very defined line drawn between the two – otherwise we can enter some unethical waters.

Today we watched Joris Iven’s classic film “Regen” (1929) – a documentary – not a weather report ;-).  Not only was it important as a city symphony film, it was a very important avant-garde documentary.  Ivens, having shot random rain showers in Amsterdam over several months, clearly manipulates time and space, as he “creates” a 14 minute rain storm in this documentary.  Yet – we are still seeing reality.  This rain actually fell in Amsterdam.  That is a fact.  Wait – an edit!  Another shot of rain.  And, yes, this rain actually fell in Amsterdam, but is it the same rain that we previous saw or another rain?  Um… are we really asking ourselves questions like this or are we watching the movie?  Immersing ourselves in the reality that Ivens is presenting for us?  The beauty that he has captured?

Discussion Starter: In every film there is manipulation.  In every documentary there is manipulation of the truth.  That is a fact.  Can you live with that truth?  

Just a reminder – Blog responses should be a minimum of 200 words (1/2 a page, single spaced if you were to type it out and print it) (500 words for honor students).

Welcome to the New Fall Semester

I have finally gotten around to posting the first blog of the semester (I’ve been promising it for the last two classes).  While it might be a meager offering – this blog marks the beginning of what I hope will be an enlightening, and enjoyable, discussion on nonfiction films.

For those of you in class – if you have not made your wordpress site yet please do so ASAP.  Simple go to WordPress.com and sign up.  It is free.  Follow the instructions.  There are no extra points for style – I’m interested in your thought and comments on your fellow classmates.  Though, if you want to make it look pretty I’m not stopping you!

You will have one blog entry per week – so one entry for every two classes we meet.

So… blog entry #1 will come next week…  Be Prepared…

Many Faces of the Profile

There are three discussion starters attached to this blog. You can write about 1, 2, or all 3.

The three documentaries that we have recently watched in class all have one thing in common – they are all profile films.

The self explanatory WERNER HERZOG EATS HIS SHOE (1979) was directed by Les Blank who has defined his career by shooting profile documentaries. This film is one of two profiles about Werner Herzog. Herzog has been making films since the late 1960s, coming to prominence in the 1970s during the German New Wave. Unlike many narrative filmmaker, Herzog has always made a mixture of narrative and documentary films. The narrative films that he directed were often based on documentary subjects (nonfiction characters) and were often shot in very difficult locations to capture the reality of setting. His documentaries are subjective and poetic which make classifying them difficult at times. In this linked article the author comments on his documentary filmmaking by stating: “One: he is at heart a truth seeker – factual truth, historical truth, experiential truth, and emotional truth. Of course, the more astonishing and unearthly the truth is, the better. But where most documentary makers are motivated by political ideals or an urge to inform, Herzog’s only agenda is to make you look.” (Atkinson, Michael. “A Wild Walk with Werner.” – Theage.com.au. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. .)

Discussion Starter: After watching this short profile on Herzog, watching one of his documentaries, and reading the above article, blog a little on your thoughts about Werner Herzog.

Herzog’s view of documentary truth is also very different from others that we have seen this semester. In his “Minnesota Declaration” from April 30, 1999, Herzog claims the following as “Lessons of Darkness”

“1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.

2. One well-known representative of Cinema Verité declared publicly that truth can be easily found by taking a camera and trying to be honest. He resembles the night watchman at the Supreme Court who resents the amount of written law and legal procedures. “For me,” he says, “there should be only one single law; the bad guys should go to jail.” Unfortunately, he is part right, for most of the many, much of the time.

3. Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.

4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.

5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

6. Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures of ancient ruins of facts.”

Discussion Starter: How does Herzog approach the truth in his 1997 documentary LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY (1997)?

Alan Berliner has established himself as one of America’s more unique filmmakers. Seeing himself as more of an artist than documentarian, his films tend to be more experimental in form. Berliner’s collage of archival footage, found footage, and personal family footage woven together creates a very aesthetically different style of documentary. His films have become more and more personal. In the following interview, Berliner discusses his theme of family. You may watch the entire interview (22 minutes) or from minute 13 to minute 19.

Discussion Starter: Comment on NOBODY’S BUSINESS (1996)

Social Documentaries and their Stars…

If you were to ask anyone (who is not currently studying documentary) to name any documentary filmmaker, there is a really good chance that the name Michael Moore would be in the top 5.

Regardless of personal politics, Michael Moore’s impact on the documentary form cannot be denied. The majority of his documentaries have had theatrical releases, which have lead to successful runs for other documentary films in the last 25 years. Many also point to his style of filmmaker – a naïve guy simply asking questions to create a self reflexive documentary – as unique. This is not necessarily true. There have been a number of filmmakers who have placed themselves in this role (Michael Rubbo in Waiting for Fidel and Nick Bloomfield in his numerous films beginning in the 1980s.)

This style is used often in social documentaries that examine a problem or struggle of a particular group of people. By placing themselves into their films, these filmmakers invite their audience one the journey of discovery. The audience discovers things at the same time as the filmmaker. The filmmaker can comment on them (often applying their own politics to the interpretation) and move on. The goal is the influence the audience by revealing the “truths” that are discovered.

There is something that is convincing about it, but is there some kind of manipulation occurring?

Discussion Starter: Discuss the more convincing scenes in Roger and Me. Comment on why they are convincing in your eyes. Next discuss the scenes that appear manipulated. Why are they manipulative in your eyes?

The Thin Line

For the last semester we have been discussing the issue of truth, especially in documentary film.  Some have argued that there is no truth and everything that is presented in a documentary is subjective.  Others have argued that there is a truth, especially when it comes to events.

In 1988 Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris release his film THE THIN BLUE LINE, which was the story of a miscarriage of justice.  1 year later, Randall Adams, who was imprisoned for the murder of a Dallas police officer was released.  One of the stated reasons was that the documentary uncovered new details concerning the case.

THE THIN BLUE broke new ground for what documentary could be and do. 1) What documentary can BE – with Morris’ use of artistic and tasteful reenactments opened the door to the use use of acceptance of regular use of reenactments. 2) What documentary can DO – many argue that this film was a major force behind the reopening of the Randall Adams case and exoneration. While always present, the power of the documentary (the truth) was clearly seen in this case.

Discussion Starter:
Bellow are two links. The first is audio interview with Morris shortly after THE THIN BLUE LINE was released. Listen to both and then comment on your opinion of Morris’ view of truth, especially as seen in his documentary.

NPR Inteview with Errol Morris

The second is a short essay written and read by Errol Morris concerning his view of truth.
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4620511