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.

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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).

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)

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.

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?