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.


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.”

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  1. In the Realm of the Personal | nkldjokovic77

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