Fancy having your dreams documented?

P. Stuart Robinson (1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.


Karlovy Vary 2017: Fancy having your dreams documented? Or maybe some tall story you made up for a laugh – or to get out of jail? Well, some indie filmmaker with an iPhone might just make you an offer you can’t refuse!

I came out of Maryam Goormaghtigh’s Before Summer Ends (2017) and, in my shameful ignorance, praised it as a marvellous work of fiction – yet another fine specimen of the documentary-style drama. The pitying looks of my fellow film-buffs were the first sign that something was terribly wrong.

Oops! Should have checked the catalogue first! Helpfully, the films there are all neatly pigeonholed – everything in its place. A glance inside would have been enough to tell me that this didn’t just look like a documentary, it was a documentary. Horror of horrors, it was even in the documentary-film competition! So why the nagging doubts, even now..?

I still think it’s a good film, a good documentary film, but I’m not quite so sure anymore – about anything actually – either its appropriate category or its quality as a piece of work. Maybe this is a fiction-film masquerading as a documentary? How scripted were the real people being documented? How scripted must they be before they undergo that mystical metamorphosis by which actors are born?

«Before Summer Ends».

On the other hand, if Before Summer Ends was a work of fiction masquerading as a documentary, then Mark Cousins’s latest offering, Stockholm My Love, made last year and also showing at KVIFF, was clearly a documentary masquerading as a work of fiction. It appears in the guise of a dramatic monologue or one-woman (cinematic) play (featuring none other than Neneh Cherry). By the end of the ‘story,’ we may still wonder if the drama was principally a vehicle and a pretext for documenting the stuff the known film-essayist, Cousins, likes about Stockholm. Indeed, it bore a striking resemblance to stuff he liked in last year’s city-break, in I Am Belfast, from 2015.

You could be excused at this point for suppressing a yawn (or not even bothering to suppress it) and saying, ‘Whatever!’ So the boundaries are blurred – big surprise! So film academicians are losing sleep over which film goes in which terminological box – so what! I agree it’s not that interesting whether we classify a particular film as a documentary or otherwise. More interesting is what the blurred boundaries reveal about a bizarre sort of cult of documentation, which threatens to take over the festival circuit – being their favourite venue for grooming disciples and spreading the creed.

Maybe it’s time to challenge these rascals, perhaps by asking them what documentation actually is for a game of soldiers! After all, if we were unlucky enough to be cornered by conventional religious fanatics, wouldn’t we ward them off with a few pointed questions about the nature of the God they worship, identify a few troubling inconsistencies with their cosmology, like the problem of evil? So listen here, all you shrinking auteurs: What is the nature of the magical quality of documentation you so slavishly adore? Stop offering up cinematic sacrifices a moment, and try and remember!

«Stockholm My Love».

As the ultimate empiricist, David Hume, pedantically observed long, long ago, all we know, all we say and do, is based on past experience. We cannot imagine what we’ve never seen; we can only scramble and reassemble stuff from our memories. So maybe we’ve never seen the mythical creature known as the centaur, but we can sort of figure out how it was put together.

As peculiarly garrulous creatures, humans that is, we are born to observe, record and document. Life itself is in a way a documentary, or a compendium of documentaries. Even a ripping yarn must build on observations drawn from, well, stuff we’ve already seen – including, as it happens, this year’s Centaur, by Aktan Arym Kubat (no confusion in this case: pure fiction to its very human/equine soul).

So we live, we communicate, and thus we document – our surroundings, our feelings, everything – for the benefit and edification of our fellows. So all films are documentaries… Not quite, because we left a couple of things out of the equation, the treachery of the medium and, worst of all, the treachery of the messenger. Still, one person’s treachery is another person’s idea of fun. Telling lies may send an innocent man to jail (insert appropriate movie reference here) and/or be terrific entertainment, above all, for the liar herself but maybe also for her audience (insert almost any blockbuster here).

«An Innocent Man» (Peter yates, 1989).

Returning our attention, finally, to film, the strangest thing is not the blurring of boundaries so much as a general trend towards what we might call ‘documentality.’ I hope this doesn’t turn out to be as Foucauldian as it sounds. It’s a trend not restricted to film, incidentally. It’s expressed across the range of popular culture, from the great unsanitary tide of selfies to ‘reality’ TV. So fiction films tend to look more like documentaries and documentaries tend to look more like themselves – except that sounds like a paradox, so let’s rephrase it. They tend to express their documentary essence in a stronger, more unadulterated form.

Obviously, this isn’t always the case. A counter-trend was clearly in evidence at this year’s KVIFF. The aforementioned Before Summer Ends is a case in point. Events were heavily manipulated in order to give them shape – narrative shape. The encounter between three young immigrant men and two female musicians was no accident fortuitously captured on film – all appearances notwithstanding. I still can’t help thinking the kind of hardcore documentarism of Martin Glawogger and Monika Willi’s Untitled (2017) is more typical. This really seems to take the cult of documentation to its natural conclusion.

The world made Untitled. Glawogger just held his camera and watched the work unfold. He had no agenda except to have no agenda. Nevertheless, the end-result seems to betray the personality and hence the agenda of the filmmaker in a multitude of tiny ways, from the birds in almost choreographed flight, to the roadkill testimony to its inevitable limits. Knowing that he died before the film could be completed, perhaps the viewer is determined to find the mark of agency, as an affirmation of who he was, the mark he made in the world before he disappeared. And there’s the rub: human agency…

Another example will illustrate the issue and the contradictions involved: the already controversial The White World According to Daliborek (henceforth Daliborek), by Vit Klusák, which premiered at the festival. We enter this ‘world’ to find it at once fascinating and repulsive. The ideas on display may be abhorrent, but they are continually mediated, even transformed into something laughable, a sort of parody, by the absurdity of their mode of expression, and the protagonist himself, not to mention his small circle of family and fellow travellers. Daliborek may express himself from the safety of his flat in lavish terms of hatred and violence but he’s too timid by nature to even attend a public rally – for all the shooting practice in the woods!

«The White World According to Daliborek».

Daliborek illustrates, among other things, that agency is a funny, ambiguous sort of thing. This is betrayed by the contradictory uses of the term, revealed by even a moment’s reflection. On the one hand, ‘the agent’ captures the idea of an individual’s capacity to make choices and act of her own accord. In these terms, agency expresses individual autonomy. On the other, we commonly talk about someone acting on someone else’s behalf, that is, as their agent. The physical actions might still be one’s own but the choices behind them are clearly anything but.

Criticism of Daliborek seems to hinge on it not being documentary enough or, more precisely, on its appearing more so than it really was. For Daliborek himself was presented as an agent in the first sense, but was really mostly acting as an agent in the second. The mischievous ‘puppet master’ pulling the strings behind the scenes was of course the Svengali figure of Vit Klusák, the filmmaker. (We’ll set aside for another day that Kusak himself may have been the unwitting instrument of powerful social structures and forces beyond his control.)

We may not shed any tears for the neo-Nazi dupes of our beloved liberal filmmakers, but the logic of manipulation – and play – is the same, whether we like the outcome or not. Klusak obviously egged Daliborek on to pose – literally and politically – for the camera, and then set him up for a fall with the strategically timed and placed revelation of Daliborek’s Jewish ancestors. It came at Auschwitz of all places, just at the very moment he was engaging – in the most crass way imaginable – in the popular neo-Nazi pastime of holocaust denial.

So much for the route of devious manipulation! Consider the alternative! Martin Glawogger, as we saw, attempted to purge his filmmaking of all agendas and predeterminations. It goes without saying that the film-subjects involved have been granted a little more autonomy. Interestingly, this doesn’t necessarily translate into either the impression or reality of enhanced individual agency.

«An Affair to Remember» (Leo McCarey, 1957).

We are all at the mercy, to a greater or lesser degree, of forces beyond our control. It may be that the passive filmmaker, properly versed in the principles of documentality (whatever it actually means), is inclined to emphasise the passivity and limited agency of her subjects. Is this a weakness of the approach, or could it be its peculiar strength? Stripped of manipulation, perhaps we see life a little more clearly. Maybe its appropriate to rein in those overblown ideas of individual empowerment and self-expression, the stock-in-trade of the good old Hollywood dream-factory (insert feel-good movie here).

In stark contrast to Daliborek is Orban Wallace’s debut feature, Another News Story (2017). Here the spotlight is on migrants and the great refugee crisis of 2015, unleashed by the escalating conflict in Syria, that is, some of the actual, dehumanised objects of Daliborek’s fear and hostility. Yet the contrast of subject-matter pales before the contrast in approach.

Having spoken to the director, it’s clear that the original conception was a kind of exposé of the media coverage. The end product turned out to be something rather more complex and a whole lot more interesting. As academics in the shadow of Hume, we are continually admonished to be above all empirical: don’t come with your highfalutin theories and lay those procrustean beds in blithe indifference to the facts! I believe this filmmaker behaved like a good, honest, Humean, and let his pre-conceived ideas defer to the rich texture of the material he found on the ground. He engaged with his material; he didn’t take a baseball bat to it and try and beat it into submission. Hence there is a pluralist strength to the finished work, a kind of reflexivity that would make even the most nitpicking and Gallic poststructuralist happy (he’d be sure to enjoy the term ‘documentality’ too, incidentally).

From the opening shot, we’re swept into the turmoil of the migrant journey, from the first encounter with a precarious boatload, packed full of exhausted passengers now laughing with relief, as they land on Greek shores. We follow them onwards, as they make their way by any means possible and sometimes at any price, across or around the treacherous borders of the xenophobic heartlands of Eastern Europe, and finally to the nearest thing to sanctuary, somewhere in Germany.

«Another News Story».

Lovers of narrative and genre might spot an unusual take on the conventions of the road movie here, but this is a long way, literally and figuratively, from Easy Rider (1969) or Thelma & Louise (1991). Here it is the journey as ‘found event,’ which provides a narrative structure pretty much waiting to be filmed. The small camera-team prove determined to do so, inspired rather than deterred by all its unexpected detours and derailments.

Empiricists talk about the importance of triangulating one’s data. Try and corroborate what you’ve heard with another, independent source. Well, Wallace has done a good job of triangulating his data. In more post-stucturalist terms, he’s interrogated differences of perspective in pursuit of a more reflexive, intersubjective form of objectivity.

What do we really see in this film? We see apparently decent human beings, in varying degrees of adversity, doing the best they can. We see migrants trying to salvage their lives, and the lives of their children, from the jaws of chaos and dissipation. We see reporters trying, under considerable professional and financial pressures, to cover this important story in an accurate and humane way. Last but not least, we see the filmmakers themselves – albeit indirectly, through their cinematic self-expression – trying to gain perspective on it all. The end-result is probably as profound an insight into the true nature of the refugee crisis as you will ever get.

So what have we learned? It isn’t a bad thing to embrace the documentary form but it does demand some self-awareness and responsibility. Like any cinematic form, it has recognisable conventions, which may facilitate insight but also create a misleading impression by ‘looking the part.’ The necessary conventions, after all, reflect the necessary presence of artifice. However realistic the film’s impression or reputation, it will still be a film, designed (supposedly) to reflect – indirectly – whatever fell within the camera’s gaze.

The perfectly neutral document, even if it were desirable, is in any case impossible. The filmmaker has to interact, however hands-off, with her material, which means it may make sense to be quite proactive: stir up the pot a little, and see what happens – find out what the neo-Nazis are really made of! Subterfuge can even be a good thing if the cause or, in some cases, the laugh, is great enough. Hypocrisy, on the other hand, is always bad.

So how should you – as filmmaker – approach your work? Soldier on in grim determination, carve out, come hell or high water, your pre-determined vision, or let that vision yield to the human raw material, with its host of alternative viewpoints, which, mercifully, will never entirely submit to control? I suppose if you’re really documental you’ll know what to do!

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