Written and directed by Pepita Ferrari; produced by Michelle van Beusekom; edited by Barbara Brown; original music by Robert Lepage; cinematography by Marc Gadowy. DVD, color, 97 min., 2009. Two-disc edition includes bonus disc with four hours of interviews with thirty-eight filmmakers. Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, distributed in the U.S. by First Run Features, www.firstrunfeatures.com.
Errol Morris prepares for his close-up
It is hard, at first, to find fault with the beautifully photographed close-up interviews of leading film- and videomakers whose views constitute the text of this homage-cum-introduction to the contemporary documentary film. How can one take issue with Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Eduardo Coutiñho, Albert Maysles, Heddy Honigmann, Hubert Sauper, or Nick Broomfield—some of the finest documentary film- and videomakers living today—speaking about their work and ruminating about the ethics or technical challenges or personal philosophies that guide their documentary practice? It is not with the filmmakers before the camera one takes issue but the director and editor of Capturing Reality who unaccountably fail to grasp and practice the “art” they attempt to celebrate here. This is a great disappointment, especially given the participation of exceptional filmmakers who speak candidly, generously, and often at length about their process, only to have their words turned into sound bytes in a sampler that leaves no one really caring what anyone thinks. It is as if we are back in the days of fairness fillers—those annoying “on the one hand, on the other hand” TV reports that dictated all points of view be represented equally.
Whether Canadian filmmakers Pepita and Brown are even aware of the roots of this trap, they offer a succession of divergent views—from minor differences to adamant oppositions—that ultimately cancel each other. Is cinéma vérité essential today or a bankrupt style past due? Is music an intrusion in a documentary or a means of drawing out subtexts in a densely woven narrative? These are interesting questions to pursue, but as arranged by Pepita and Brown, ideological debate remains unexamined along with so much else about the documentary.
In an interview outtake on the bonus disc—which is arguably the best feature of the package—Chilean cinéaste Patricio Guzmán talks about the crucial role of listening and watching when making a documentary. Given the chaos of reality, he notes, the filmmaker must find a structure to order that chaos in order to tell a story. Good advice, but did Pepita and Brown take it? They look, but do not listen. They do not find a structure for their film, merely impose one onto the footage. And instead of probing the many faces of documentary today, they nimbly skip between film clips and sound bytes providing a superficial view of the genre. A cynic might argue the filmmakers did not trust viewers to have the patience to delve deeper into the critical issues raised here. Perhaps.
Judging from the chapter headings on the DVD, Pepita and Brown organized Capturing Reality mainly as a teaching tool for secondary school or college courses. It proceeds from the question—“What is documentary?”—through twenty sections that take the viewer chronologically from the idea stage through planning and preparation of a doc to the art of the interview, ethics in representing reality, shooting, staging and reenactment, editing, rights, narration, and sound design. What teachers get is raw material to illustrate their own lectures rather than a polished work that shapes the ideas in the interviews to help viewers understand the difference between representation and reality. In their zeal to include nearly forty filmmakers’ views on documentary, Pepita and Brown reach for quantity not quality and breadth not depth. They take no stance themselves, exulting in the beauty of their images and relentless alternating pacing of sound byte and film clip.
It is clear that Capturing Reality represents a uniquely Canadian perspective on the documentary, with its strong contingent of Franco- and Anglophone Canadian filmmakers, many of who are regrettably little known to U.S. audiences. The great father of the social documentary, John Grierson, helped establish the National Film Board of Canada, producer of the film, and an implicit debt to Grierson may be found here. Although one need not quibble over a preponderance of social documentaries represented here, why are there so few other styles of documentary included as well as more work from around the world?
There are notable international figures still active today who are conspicuously absent—Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Alexander Sokurov, Harun Farocki, and Fred Wiseman spring to mind. And there are filmmakers whose work represents a theoretical or problematized relationship to conventional approaches to documentary like Jill Godmilow or Trinh T. Minh-ha. Why are none of them interviewed? Conspicuously absent are filmmakers whose focus on the personal has so enlivened the documentary over the past two decades, such as Ross McElwee, Alan Berliner, Judith Helfand, or Jonathan Caouette. Also missing are filmmakers whose work constantly crosses boundaries between fact and fiction like Abderrahmane Sissako, Samira Makhmalbaf, Elia Suleiman, and Abbas Kiarostami. Where are practitioners of the compilation documentary like Péter Forgaçs? Most egregious is the absence of Asian leaders like Wu Wenguang, Kazuo Hara, Rithy Panh, Garin Nugroho, and Amar Kanwar. Where is the younger generation of Latin American filmmakers or Middle Eastern documentarists? By privileging Western European and American makers and styles that no longer represent the cutting edge of world documentary, Capturing Reality limits what could have been a much richer conversation about the hybrid, transnational, and occasionally contentious nature of documentary today.
On the plus side, documentary enthusiasts and scholars hoping to learn more about the working practices of master craftsmen and the behind-the-scenes stories of classics will be rewarded with anecdotes about the making of films such as The Battle of Chile, Salesman, The Thin Blue Line, and Chronicle of a Summer, as well as more recent masterpieces such as Darwin’s Nightmare, My Country, My Country or The Day I Will Never Forget. Many of these stories are included on the bonus disc. Take, for example, Canadian cinéaste Michel Brault gleefully recounting how Frances Flaherty, widow of Robert Flaherty, invited him to screen Snowshoers (Les Raquetteurs)—an “accidental” early vérité film—where he met Jean Rouch who a year later invited him to work on Chronicle of a Summer. Or Patricio Guzmán telling how Chris Marker mailed him 35,000 feet of brand new Kodak film while he was clandestinely filming the unraveling of the Allende regime, miraculously replacing the diminishing supply of expired film stock in rusted cans on which the film depended. Glimpses of these turning points as told by the individuals whose actions changed the world of documentary filmmaking—and at times, arguably, the world itself—are precious and deeply satisfying.
Also invaluable is the pairing of film clips with filmmaker observations about their work. Although this technique becomes repetitive and predictable, it still offers invaluable moments, as when Kim Longinotto discusses the origin of a critical scene in The Day I Will Never Forget and then we directly see that scene in all its naked power. Despite such rewarding moments, Capturing Reality is more frustrating than edifying, and one is left with the overwhelming impression by the end that what should have been a great film is merely a didactic one. The documentary today and its exemplary professionals deserve much better than this.
Deirdre Boyle is Associate Professor and Academic Coordinator of theGraduate Certificate in Documentary Media Studies at The New School. She is the author of Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited (Oxford University Press).