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.

Films that you can choose for Presentation

The below list of films are among the choices that you can do your final presentation on. If you have come across another film in your readings that you would like to present on please speak to Prof. Dojs about it. Some of these films are available on netflix, others can be found on other websites. If there is a film that you really want to focus on but have a hard time obtaining a viewing copy please let Prof. Dojs know.

A few rules:
– Obviously a film can only have one presenter.
– I would like to make sure that we have several different films focused on. You might be asked to choose another to allow for more diversity.

Comment below to claim the film that you would like to present on.

The films:

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) Ruttmann
Coal Face (1935) Cavalcanti
The Four Hundred Million (1938) Ivens
The City (1939) Steiner and Van Dyke
The Land (1941) Flaherty
Listen to Britain (1942) Jennings
A Diary for Timothy (1945) Jennings
Why We Fight Series:
– The Battle of Britain (1943)
– Divide and Conquer (1943)
– The Nazis Strike (1943)
– The Battle of China (1944)
– The Battle of Russia (1944)
– War Comes to America (1945)
The Days Before Christmas (1958) Koenig
Experimental Films of Arthur Lipsett
Momma Don’t Allow (1955) Reisz and Richardson
We are the Lambeth Boys (1959) Reisz
Chronicle of a Summer (1961) (Rouch)
The Chair (1962) Drew Associates
Happy Mother’s Day (1963) Leacock and Chopra
Stravinsky (1965) Koenig and Kroitor
Monterey Pop (1968) Pennebaker)
High School (1969) Wiseman
Gimme Shelter (1970) Maysles brothers and Zwerin
Woodstock (1970) Wadleigh
Waiting for Fidel (1974) Rubbo
Hearts and Minds (1974) Davis and Schneider
The World at War (1975) Isaacs
Grey Gardens (1975) Maysles Brother
The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980) Field
Soldier Girls (1980) Broomfield and Churchil
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) Epstein and Schmiechen
Tongues United (1988) Riggs
A Brief History of Time (1992) Morris
The War Room (1993) Pennebaker, Hegedus, and Cutler
Crumb (1995) Zwigoff
When We Were Kings (1996) Gast
Paradise Lost (1 any of the series) Berlinger and Sinofsky (or others in the series)
Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997) Gifford and Gazeccki
One Day in September (1999) MacDonald
Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003) Bloomfield
Capturing the Friedmans (2003) Jarecki
When We Were Kings (2005) Gast
The Fog of War (2002) Morris
Bus 174 (2002) Padiha and Lacerda
Spellbound (2002) Blitz
Bowling for Columbine (2003) Moore
Born into Brothels (2004) Kauffman and Briski
Super Size Me (2004) Spurlock
Murderball (2005) Rubin and Shapiro
49 Up (The ‘Up’ Series) (2005) Apted
Grizzly Man (2005) Herzog
An Inconvenient Truth (2006) Guggenheim
Jesus Camp (2006) Ewing and Grady
The Bridge (2006) Steel
Shut Up and Sing (2006) – Kopple and Peck
When the Levees Broke (2006) Mini-series
Encounters at the End of the World (2007) Herzog
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
The Cove (2009) Psihoyos
Man on Wire (2008) Marsh
Waiting for Superman (2010) Guggenheim
Catfish (2010) Joost and Schulman
Gasland (2010) Fox
Tabloid (2011) Morris
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) Herzog

The Purist of Direct Cinema

Robert Drew might be considered the creator of American Direct Cinema, but it is Frederick Wiseman who is one of the only filmmakers who have stuck to the strict rules in all of his films.

ImageIt class we watched his first film, TITICUT FOLLIES (1967), which is about the Bridgewater State Hospital.  Wiseman films his subjects over several months, shooting an enormous amount of 16mm footage.  He never interviews.  He never uses additional lights.  He never stages any of the actions.

ImageBelow are a couple of quotes from Wiseman about Documentary.

“Any documentary, mine or anyone else’s, made in no matter what style, is arbitrary, biased, prejudiced, compressed and subjective.  Like any of its sisterly or brotherly fictional forms it is born of choice – choice of subject matter, place, people, camera angles, duration of shooting, sequences to be shot or omitted, transitional material and cutaways.”

“Sometimes, in his lofty condescension, a filmmaker seeks to bring enlightenment to the great unwashed and force feed this or that trendy political pap to an audience which has not had the opportunity, or perhaps even the wish, to participate in either the experience or the mind of the filmmaker.  This…suggests to the filmmaker that he is important to the world.  Documentaries like plays, novels, poems – are fictional in form and have no measurable social utility.”

Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 279,282. Print.

Discussion Starter: After reading the above quotes comment on your viewing of TITICUT FOLLIES.

Dawn of a New Cinema

Today the term “cinéma vérité” describes the look of narrative or documentary films – grainy, hand-held, real life (or at least real locations).

Advancement in film and sound technologies in the 1950s and the early 1960s lead the way for major changes in cinema. Lighter and smaller cameras allowed for hand held camera work. Film manufactures began developing 16mm film, allowing documentary filmmakers to shoot twice as much for the same cost of a reel of 35mm. Faster film stock allowed for the ability to shoot in darker locations – freeing the filmmaker from the need of additional lights. The development of smaller sound recording devices made capturing audio on location possible. All this technology lead to filmmakers asking “What kind of stories can we tell using this technology?”

Cinéma vérité is often used to describe the two major film movements – Cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema. It is important to know the differences between the two. “They both valued immediacy, intimacy and ‘the real’; they both rejected the glossy ‘professional’ aesthetic of traditional cinema, unconcerned if their images were grainy and wobbly and occasionally went out of focus – in fact, these ‘flaws’ in themselves seemed to guarantee authenticity and thus became desirable, eventually developing into an aesthetic in their own right.” Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 249-250. Print.

Where the differences are came down to the question of filmmaker intervention.

The French, lead by CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER (1961) directors Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch, were drawn to the theories of the Camera eye by Dziga Vertov. They used the camera as a tool to provoke their subjects. They intervened with their subjects. They used the process of filmmaking as a way to explore the lives of their subjects. The style they developed was named Cinéma vérité – a direct translation of “Kino-Pravda”

Robert Drew, who lead the American film movement, was interested in developing a new kind of journalism – that would be like “a theatre without actors.” He wanted to capture reality without interrupting it.

“The advocates of Direct Cinema were always quick to codify exactly what they thought was the ‘right’ way to make a documentary and what was the ‘wrong’ way, drawing up a kind of filmic ten commandments: thou shalt not rehearse, thou shalt not interview; thou shalt not use film lights; thou shalt not stage events; thou shalt not dissolve. Paradoxically, the filmmaking movement which seemed to stand for iconoclasm and freedom became one of the most codified and puritanical.” Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 250. Print.

In 1960 Drew Associates filmed PRIMARY using new technologies that were being developed. Part of the crew were using sync sound set up, while others were shooting with older “noisy” cameras and “wild” audio recorders. Ricky Leacock, one of the ‘associates’ commented on the experience. Ricky Leacock writes about the experience in his memoirs:

“It worked! We made a film that captured that flavour, the guts of what was happening. No interviews. No re-enactments. No staged scenes and very little narration. When we returned the New York we showed our film to a visiting British documentary filmmaker Paul Rotha, he was astounded and said, ‘…my God! We have been trying to do this for the last forty years and you’ve done it…’ He was in tears! We went out and got smashed!

“Soon thereafter we had the equipment we had dreamed of, and sometimes it worked. The important thing is that we were experimenting. All the rules were new. We were in fact, developing a new grammar which was entirely different from that of silent filmmaking and of fiction filmmaking. we were acutely aware that by this emphasis on sound we might be losing the visual basis for our medium. Looking back at the results it is apparent to me that the visual strength remained largely because of the avoidance of the interview, which I still regard as the death knell of cinematic story telling.” Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 253-254. Print.

Discussion Starter: In the Direct Cinema movement the freedom of the filmmaker paradoxically came with constraining rules – the above list of ‘thou shalt not’s. Why did Robert Drew come up with these rules? How did you see them used (or broken) in PRIMARY?