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?

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).

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.