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.

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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.