Thursday, September 1, 2005

We're all cheaters (part I)

Eliz, our fund development coordinator, is traveling to Cyprus soon. She's a researcher when it comes to traveling, and has been investigating Cyprus. Just yesterday she commented that she had seen two documentaries on Cyprus, and that they were the two worst documentaries ever made (a little hyperbole, sure). As she said, "just be glad the doc has come a long way since 1975."

It's true: the documentary has been completely re-invented since then. In fact, the bulk of this transformation has occured in the last 15 years. While we might take this for granted now, we must remember that not that long ago it wasn't really possible to conceive a documentary without at least a narrator, and very likely an on-screen narrator at that. If you were to go back and ask one of those documentarians what they were trying to do, they would look at you strangely and say "we're telling the Truth, of course." (and yes, you could definitely hear that capital T).

A couple of years ago I was watching one of the several documentaries about Leni Riefenstahl. This one had been made in the mid-80s. In the first couple of minutes, after setting up the complicated network of contradictions and long controversial history of Riefenstahl's artistic life, a voice-over proclaimed

"Many films have been made about Leni Riefenstahl, but none so comprehensive as this. We will navigate the conflicting information and tell THE TRUTH about this complicated artist and her life."

The truth?

Perhaps the most important double development in the field of documentary filmmaking was when doc makers finally looked in the mirror and had the following dialog with their reflections:

"Actually, no, I'm not telling THE TRUTH. In fact, there is no TRUTH. There is A truth; in fact, there are many truths. I as a filmmaker --- heck, as a person --- can only see my version of the truth. So I should stop pretending that my documentary is the truth. It's actually just my perspective. It's not objective at all."

Then the doc maker walked away, had a cup of coffee, thought about things, and came back to the mirror.

"You know what? As long as I'm not pretending to tell "THE TRUTH" anymore, I guess that means I'm telling a STORY. Hmmm --- I've always secretly wanted to make fiction films. Why can't I apply a lot of the same filmmaking techniques to my documentary --- hereafter known as my NON-FICTION STORY --- that they use in fiction filmmaking? Hey!!"

First thing you know, a lot of voice-over actors were in the unemployment line. Next thing you know, doc filmmakers were overheard talking about "character development," "story line," "plot point," and "point of view." Then they were hiring dollys and cranes and huge crews to get beautiful, dramatic shots. Editors were overheard talking about the transition between the first and second acts, and producers were wrangling copyright fees for just the right mood-building music.

This direction surged out of control temporarily (re: Errol Morris.) but innovative and smart people soon realized they had an amazing art form on their hands (re: Kartemquin) and the notion of documentary filmmaking was changed forever.

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