Month: November 2014

Documentary as/is Art

I’ve just returned from a great cinematic adventure in New York City. When it comes to the movies, I don’t think there is any other place in the world (except perhaps Paris) that cares as much about film on such a large scale, or that has as much to offer in terms of cinema.

I was there primarily to attend the Codes and Modes Documentary Film Conference at Hunter College, but I also managed to take in some seminal Nam June Paik video art nearby, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film Goodbye to Language (in 3-D, by the way!), and one program of the Other Israel Film Festival at NYU, as well as spending about an hour at MoMA. Although I am always focused on movies for a Cape Cod audience, I am going to pull together a post here that is more philosophical than directly linked to a local film or something in theaters here at present. Although all of my adventures were distinct, I found on the train ride home that there were in fact many sites of intersection along the way, leading me to think about how films, documentaries in particular, are valued.

Early documentarist John Grierson, (who coined the term “documentary” in reference to Robert Flaherty’s 1926 film Moana), defined documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality.” Somewhere over the past couple of decades, with the explosion in popularity of documentaries, the first part of that equation has been minimized to the point where the definition is almost changed to “the political treatment of actuality.” Over the course of my weekend in New York, I started thinking more and more about why this is, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it has its roots in two thins: 1- the lack of appreciation for art in general, and 2- the historical role of films, first as novelties, then as  mass entertainment and escape, and finally, as spectacle.

It makes sense that in a society that doesn’t value the arts enough to support them the way other countries do or to support arts education, all art must serve some other purpose before it is considered valuable. The masses of people who crowd into MoMA to take their picture in front of Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Dali’s Persistence of Memory, aren’t there to be provoked by the work on the walls; they are there for the celebrity of these particular images. It is the same impulse that gets people excited when they see a celebrity on the street and get their picture taken with them. It has nothing to do with that person or even really with their creative accomplishments (about which the “fan” may not even be particularly knowledgeable). It’s all about commodifying that person, or in this case, the artwork. Take a picture with it and now you will own it in some way, rather than actually experiencing it. The image itself has lost its meaning, no longer provoking thought, only to become a consumer product inducing momentary pleasure.

Since the beginning of cinema, movies have been spectacles, first of scientific innovation and technology, and later of entertainment and escape. Documentary has developed under the shadow of fiction films in this regard, with Hollywood entertainment providing greater spectacle than nonfiction films can or should offer. This combined with the desire to justify appreciation of art by giving it some other purpose that is more concrete gives us a situation now where documentaries are not appreciated for their value as art. We now see the most popular documentaries being those that are perceived do something to directly shift an audience’s views toward a specific conclusion that leads to a specific action. Where is the art in that?

Throughout documentary film history, filmmakers have continually revisited the problems of 1-defining what a documentary is or can be, and 2- how best to represent truth. This work is done in a variety of ways, including selection of subject matter and ethical considerations, but also through a huge array of choices the filmmaker makes with regard to approach and form. These are primarily aesthetic choices that influence how the maker’s ideas are expressed, just as they do in other types of movies. So when audiences, funders, and even film critics (who should certainly know better) consider documentaries only along the lines of their content, they’ve missed at least half of what the value of the films are!

Documentary filmmakers are not journalists, as a general rule. Our professional associations and networks generally come out of film, not journalism. Our business is making compelling films that express what we have personally found to be a truth, not objective reality, not necessarily “fair and balanced reporting,” and yet still truthful. A whole separate post could be written with regard to the changing nature of journalism and the different types of journalism that exist, but it isn’t relevant here. Documentary films need to be understood as movies. The best in the field experiment with form and style and advance the aesthetics of documentary; they select the best approach for their subject matter each and every time they make a film and don’t rely on standard narrative structure or tried and true methods unless those are the best for the job. They expand on the developments over the course of the past 120 years of documentary film and try to continue the ongoing process of building a documentary film language that has impact and reaches audiences in more diffuse ways that cannot be measured by ridiculous outcome studies. How do you determine the effect of a work of art on all who witness it?

When I make a documentary, I don’t know what my audience is going to do with that experience. All I can do is put out there the most honest, truthful portrayal of what I experienced in making the film. I don’t make films to force my ideas upon people; I make them to open them up to ideas, and if they are especially interested in my subject matter, I hope they will see other films on the same topic. The idea is to foster awareness about the world around us, as opposed to forcing people’s views into one preconceived hole. Other documentarians do want to force people’s views  and simplify problems in to right and wrong.  I think, even when we agree with the views expressed in such films, it is important to call those films out for what they are: propaganda.

I think there is value in art, their is value in presenting complex ideas and issues in complex, interesting ways, and critical thinking is what comes from engaging with art in a meaningful way. I don’t think that can be measured, but we all know it when it happens to us, when we have that incredible cinematic experience and it opens our eyes and asks us to think, not simply absorb.

Film for Art’s Sake

Jarvis Cocker singing “I’m Still Here” in Six By Sondheim, which will screen at the Film Art Series kickoff celebration on Sunday, November 2 at 1 p.m.

Jarvis Cocker singing “I’m Still Here” in Six By Sondheim, which will screen at the Film Art Series kickoff celebration on Sunday, November 2 at 1 p.m.

For the past nine years, Howard Karren has been programming a series of films on the outermost tip of Cape Cod. At first, the Film Art series was a program of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM), but this year, PAAM has teamed up with the Provincetown Film Society to co-produce the series at the Waters Edge Cinema (237 Commercial St., 2nd Fl., Provincetown). The series kicks off this Sunday, November 2 at 1 p.m. with a benefit reception followed by a screening of Six by Sondheim, a film Karren says perfectly suits the concept of the series, which has always been to show films about art as well as showing films as art themselves.

“I focus on trying to pick titles that are not that familiar… I like to choose stuff that there’s a good chance the audience will not have seen. So there’s a real sense of discovery in that regard,” Karren explains over lunch in Orleans.

The full series schedule is divided into three distinct but related sections, running through May 2015. Karren says while having a thematic arrangement is a useful tool in the curating process, it is also more than that. Each section speaks to the other and someone who attends the full season, or several films from each section at least, can see how the films reflect upon each other and how the vibrant post-screening discussions illuminate shared themes among all of them.

“These folks are not shy about expressing themselves,” Karren says smiling. “It’s a little like a book club in that way. I give my point of view, but that’s really only one voice among many. The thing that excites me is people’s enthusiasm because for me the whole series is a way fro film to be taken serious as an art form. So that’s very gratifying.”

Karren began the series because he says he was “feeling kind of isolated” in his passion for film on Cape Cod, after having lived in New York, a great cinema city. Karren’s background includes studying film theory and semiotics at Brown University, obtaining an MFA in film from Columbia University, and an accomplished career in film journalism, writing for and editing at Premiere Magazine, People, and New York Magazine. In addition to curating the series and working as a consultant to the Waters Edge Cinema, he also writes a column for the Provincetown Banner and co-owns Alden Gallery in Provincetown.


Hadras Yaron in Fill the Void, which screens on Wednesday, November 5 at 7 p.m.

The first part of the series, called “Part I: Women Transcendent,” includes films with great female leads, ranging from the quiet, graceful style of Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Summer (1951) to the Israeli film Fill the Void (2012) by first-time filmmaker Rama Burshtein about a woman in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Speaking about Fill the Void, Karren says, “The performances [Burshtein] elicits do not feel like they’re in a first film. You would not know it’s a first film.” It was apparently a film that was hard to make for a whole host of reasons, but Karren says the results are extremely moving and explore “the torment of not fitting into the structures and the rules and boundaries for what women are supposed to do.”

The second section, “Part II: Outsiders,” is just as what it sounds like and includes Lindsay Anderson’s bizarre 1971 film O Lucky Man, starring Malcolm MacDowell, The Tin Drum (1979) by Volker Schondorff, and Jacques Tourneur‘s 1942 thriller Cat People, among others. And the series finishes with “Part III: Art in the Mirror,” a group of films about art and artists that reflect back on themselves.

“These three parts speak to one another,” Karren emphasizes. “They are united in exploring what it means to be a movie that is a work of art and dealing with the subjects of that in one way or another.”

All screenings are listed here on Cape Cod Film Society’s regular calendar of upcoming film events. Full details about the series selections and ticketing information can be found here. Consider purchasing a a full season pass, which not only gets you into all of these great film presentations and discussions, but also supports the continuation of the Film Art Series. Tickets to this Sunday’s kickoff celebration are $35.