For quite some time I had a catalogue from the IDFA documentary film festival before my eyes. On the cover it said that “now it’s time to watch with your brain again.” Is that what the documentary form is about? I doubt it, yet it set my mind thinking about the documentary form.
What if the IDFA slogan is right? What then is the purpose of the documentary? To avoid the affective phallacy and to enlighten probably, in other words, to talk to Reason that is the Truth. Doesn’t it sound very old-fashioned? And very Western male? And yet, it is interesting to see how these old dichotomies live on - documentary as truth and, obviously, fiction as fiction. But, we know these dichotomies to be fictions themselves. That every choice made during the journey of making a film is based on subjective experience, on what the filmmaker, from his/her point of view, decides to show or narrate. He or she writes a story that can be more or less true or fictional, just as fiction can be more or less fictional or true.
And, then, it is also the question of if and to what extent the presence of the camera alters the course of events or the stories people tell. Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminancy has shown us that the observer always affects the observed. Would people have reacted and responded in exactly the same way without the camera lens pointed at them? Did they start acting according to the filmmaker’s (unconscious) expectations? Did they start to fill in the gaps in his/her maybe flawed narrative? In empirical research, scholars meet with the difficulty of eliciting accurate response because the interviewees are too cooperative, wanting to please too much!
On telly there is at the moment an ad for documentaries where it says that “most of the best stories are true, that’s why we show documentaries.” So is that the only criterion for a documentary? That it be true? Then it is not difficult to understand why we see so many documentaries that seem to be nothing but the gossip of a prying, pornographic eye repackaged in celluoid. As long as they come through as true, fine!
But, perceptive filmmakers know that there is more to it. Documentaries involve real people whose lives are put under the lens and the question of how they are portrayed is crucial from both an aesthetical and an ethical point of view. I remember the opening film at Tempo dokumentärfestival last year where a Brazilian doc called Teenage Mothers eliticied the audience’s laughter when seeing these teenagers trying to cope with their lives in the favelas of Rio. Was the response merely an expression of the audience’s lack of cultural competence and inability to see the Other? Or was it the film that just told the ‘truth’ without taking the Other into account? A reality soap? The kind of gluttonous gossip we come along in reality tv and docu soaps? To be fair, there were people in the audience who wondered why Teenage Mothers had been chosen as the opening film of the festival. The answer is probably that the choice reflects back on the program director’s taste, preferences and frame of mind rather than artistic or human considerations.