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.”

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?

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)

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?

If seeing is believing…. How much do we need to see?

This blog entry is going to be slightly different from previous ones.

Last week we watched John Huston’s THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO, one of the most important US war documentaries made during the Second World War. Initially the film shocked the military establishment by showing a gritty and realistic view of war that had not been seen on the screen. It is my opinion that Huston wanted to show the futility of war (“more rivers, more mountains, more San Pietros, greater or lesser”) and the cost (the abundance of footage containing the dead and wounded). This film was difficult for audiences to watch because there was plenty of realism in the footage.

But this film was not difficult for many of you to watch. Someone mentioned that this generation had become desensitised to the images. We even mentioned that some of the battle scenes in SAN PIETRO looked like something from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or other war movies. Hollywood filmmakers look to documentaries like this, to their style of capturing reality, and incorporate it into their films to make the moving going experience more realistic. Has the goal to become more realistic made reality on screen more difficult to achieve?

This evening we watched NIGHT AND FOG, which was one of the first documentaries dealing with the Holocaust. One of the many unique features of this film is it’s personal feel. The major focus of the film is not what the Nazis did, or even who they did it to. Rather the focus is on this could happen again, and it could happen to you.

We know that there is truth. Things happen. They happen is a particular way. There are reasons behind it all – Still truth is a hard thing to nail down. Documentary filmmakers have been wrestling with how to do it for a while. What needs to be shown to understand the massive impact of an event like the holocaust? When do we cross the line of our desensitivity? And if we do, are we breaking new ground, or creating a new line?

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl

Here are links to the online version of this film by Ray Müller.

Hollywood goes to War (or Documentary goes to Hollywood)

After Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, and the subsequent declaration of war on the Axis Powers a few days later, the US government moved forward in preparing its citizens for war.

Citizens across the country quit their jobs and enlisted in the services. One of the most popular film directors of the time was one of these volunteers, Frank Capra. We might know the name of Frank Capra, or be familiar with his more famous films such as MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but his influence on documentary might not be as well known.

At 44, Frank Capra was assigned to work under top personal in the US Army to make documentary movies. These movies were designed to be shown to enlisted servicemen and women to inform them of exactly why America was going to war. The series, appropriately named WHY WE FIGHT, contained 7, approximately 1 hour long films. He worked with a few other filmmakers (Joris Ivens being one), but directed the majority of the series by himself.

The films are very dramatic – and look very different from documentary films that were being made in the US at the time. Capra freely used images from German, Japanese, and Italian propaganda films and presented them in a new context, as well as footage collected by the US military and newsreels. Many of the animations in the series were created by Walt Disney and animators who worked for him. Together with a highly composed musical score, Capra presented the case for why America was at war. His work was not seen as propaganda, like that of the enemy, rather vastly important informational films. The final series was screened not only to servicemen but to the US public, in Great Britain, and other nations around the world. Capra was granted a Distinguished Service Medal for his work.

Frank Capra was not the only Hollywood filmmaker to make documentaries for the US government during the Second World War – John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath), William Wyler (Ben Hurr), and George Stevens (Diary of Anne Frank) also offered up their talents. John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Annie) also made documentaries. Unlike Capra’s WHY WE FIGHT series, Huston’s crew were attached to an Army regimen. The War Department commissioned a film from Huston explaining elements of the Italian campaign. His response was THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO (1940). Huston and his crew were actually on the battle field with US soldiers, often dodging bullets themselves.

“How Huston was able to function as an artist in the situation is difficult to fathom. He reportedly moved continuously in the face of enemy small arms and mortar fire from one cameraman to the next, explaining to each exactly what he wanted from their footage… The series of military engagements that the film recorded had resulted in the loss of over 1,100 men to the 143rd Infantry – and Huston had focused unflinchingly on the wholesale slaughter, documenting it in the same straightforward style with which he had recording the building of an airfield…” Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. “John Huston at War” 1980. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 147+. Print.

When the military first saw the film they were shocked – many even called Huston’s film pacifistic. Eventually General Marshall saw the film and defended the film stating the realism of war presented in the film would be beneficial for training purposes.

Discussion Starter: In your opinion, why did the US government turn to Hollywood film directors instead of the already established Documentary filmmakers in the US to make war time films? What traits of Hollywood do you see in these documentaries? Do you think this helped or hurt the development of the mode?

American Documentaries in the 1930s

The documentaries of the 1930s tended to have more of a political focus. John Grierson took an approach that focused on informing the citizens of a nation. If a citizen was more aware of what was happening they would be more involved.

The documentary movement in the United States was immediately involved in political issues.

The situation in the United States in the 1930s was very grim. The Depression was dominating the lives of the majority of the people across the nation. Unemployment and poverty were rampant. President Roosevelt, elected in 1933, set forth a series of economic politics known as the New Deal.

Part of the New Deal was the establishment of many new government agencies. The power of film was already well known and several of these agencies were interested in using it.

Pare Lorentz, a movie critic with very loose family ties to the President, approached the head of the newly created Resettlement Administration and proposed the idea of a new movie – “Films of Merit” – as he would come to call them. He is often seen as America’s Grierson, but Lorentz differed from Grierson in several ways – The primary way was concerning the over emphasis on education and instruction in Griersonian films. There needed to be more drama and more persuasion mixed with the information. More emphasis on the poetic. This he did with his 3 major films, THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS, THE RIVER, and THE FIGHT FOR LIFE.

Lorentz also produced a number of films. In 1940 he produced POWER AND THE LAND, which was directed by Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens. For more on the relationship between Ivens and Lorentez click here. At this time in his career Ivens was living and working in the United States, and his films had become more political. POWER AND THE LAND is a wonderful example of American propaganda – focusing on an American family, with strong American values, supported by a soundtrack of American folk music and poetic narration. For a really interesting webpage and follow up documentary on the Parkinson Family (the family in the movie) check out the info on Power for the Parkinsons website.

Discussion Starter: Does FDR’s U.S. Film Service seem like a good idea to you? How do you feel about the government using taxpayer money to produce films some saw as propaganda for its own policies? Be sure to provide original and critical thought into your answer.

Ivens’ political interests began before POWER AND THE LAND. In 1937 he directed THE SPANISH EARTH, a film designed to inform Americans about the Spanish Civil War and to raise funds for allies (the Loyalists mentioned in the film). The film is considered the first real war movie. Ivens filmed the piece and Ernest Hemmingway did the narration – which has a personal feel – less authoritative and “unprofessional”, but very poetic in places.

Bonus Discussion Starter: THE SPANISH EARTH is considered Joris Ivens’ masterpiece. Why do you think this? What makes this film different from the others we have seen this semester? Comment on the film and add your own thoughts.

Camera Tips from Grierson

John Grierson trained the filmmaker’s in his newly formed British Documentary Movement. Here is an example of some of the training – “A tips for shooting” sheet.

Giving Art a Purpose

John Grierson (1898-1972) is the father of the British (and Canadian – as we’ll discover is a few weeks) Documentary Movement(s). Even those who argue against Grierson’s theories and practices cannot deny that he had a tremendous influence on the development of the documentary. Most of the films that we have seen up to this point have not looked like a traditional “documentary.” As discussed in class, this is mainly because our definition of documentary has been formed by doc history. When John Grierson began making his first film there was no formula.

Grierson had two major cinematic influences, the first being Robert Flaherty. Grierson had seen NANOOK OF THE NORTH around 1924 and immediately saw the power of that the yet to be classified documentary had. Flaherty had done something that Hollywood had not done. Grierson wrote in this essay ‘First Principles of Documentary,’ “We believe that the original (or native) actor, and the original (or native) scene, are better guides to a screen interpretation of the modern world.” It was Flaherty’s determination to his subjects, spending over a year or two living with subject, to learn about them, and to allow the story to arrive naturally. Most importantly was Flaherty’s search for drama in the normal lives of regular people.

Grierson’s second cinematic influence was the Russian filmmakers of the time – who were using the cinema for propagandist goals (remember that “propaganda” was not a bad word at the time). He was not a fan of Vertov’s focus on formalist style.

Grierson’s work in the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit and later the General Post Office Film Unit helped define a new, and dominate, style of documentary – the social documentary.

“Grierson’s Calvinst background led him to believe that the only worthwhile type of cinema was factual and useful – of educational or material benefit to society. If a film served its utilitarian function well, he believed, it would also be of artistic merit. If it was entertaining, so much the better – but that was of secondary concern. He wanted his films to do good. ‘I look on cinema as a pulpit,’ he said, ‘and use it as a propagandist.'” ((Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. Print. pg 94.)

Discussion Starter: After viewing some of the early works of Grierson’s documentary movement comment on one or several of the films – using the quote above as a guide.