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.

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