Melbourne, May 2-8, 2002
It was Elizaveta Svilova, Dziga Vertov’s wife and member of the kinokov troikh (kino [cinema]-eye troika), who asserted that documentary films are more important than fiction films because they “show life that cannot be imitated by actors”. She concluded her statement by asking (and answering) the question: “If one photographs a real worker and an actor playing a worker, which is better? Unquestionably the latter!” The kinoks then set out to record “life-facts” that, in combination with montage, would create “film-facts” that determined kino-pravda (film-truth) to show a cinematic “life-as-it-is”. In their most fully realised work, the masterful Man With A Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), a ubiquitous man (with said camera) documents the dynamism of the city, at times he is an omniscient presence in the film, towering about the milling populace. Far from attempting to be a presentation of an objective truth principle, the film articulates itself as a reconstructed reality rather than an unmediated reflection or simplified ‘representation’. In exploring constructivist methodology the cinematic apparatus and almost every conceivable cinema technique (stop-frame, multiple exposures and so on) is employed to reason that the collaborative ideological views of the group (the new Soviet socialism) are an expression of form in direct combination with content. The key metaphor in Man With A Movie Camera of the camera as a technological eye fused with the biological eye of the filmmaker creates an awareness in the spectator’s mind that film (documentary, real events or fiction) is constantly negotiating a ‘truth’ process in which an individual text positions itself vis-a-vis its rhetorical (film) practices in relation to the slippery notions of reality, realism and ideology to mention but few. (1)
As evidenced by the films making up the 4th REAL: LIFE ON FILM Festival, the contemporary documentary has disposed of its agitator filmmaker and/or filmmaking collective, largely effaced its technology, its cities are oppressive and divisive post-industrial ghettoes, and it generally presents its material as a ‘naturalised’ mirroring of actual events even when employing actors or, in being intentionally spurious, has people ‘acting’ themselves.
Documentary is now a variously schooled practice (kino-pravda [virtually non-existent], cinema vérité [popular but modified], direct cinema [the dominant mode even though it is often conflated with vérité], the historical documentary), whose ‘truth’ claims are elusive and multifarious, and, to further problematise the Festival’s moniker, are often shot on video, which has its own history and rhetorical modes of expression. For the liberal critic this is good news as one can begin to talk of the ‘blurring of boundaries’ as the culminating achievement of the progressive model (when more often than not it is an unqualified ‘blurring of binaries’: documentary/fiction, reality/film and so on). For the dogmatist, ideologue or nostalgic this presents a crisis in which established political positions (of dominance or subversion) are consumed by the ‘play’ in a medium in which anyone can be a (documentary) filmmaker and ‘reality’ begins to take on the appearance of recent televisual experiments in it.
The Festival seems not to have any overriding theme other than it is ‘international’ in the sense that we are informed that there are documentaries from Australia (predominance), USA (next best represented), UK, Japan, Iran and Europe. This declaration of ‘internationality’ is complicated in trying to establish a point of origin for the films. Is the fact that footage is shot in a particular country, but produced, edited, funded and directed by someone from another cause for further investigation or re-evaluation of such a prescriptive categorisation? What can be said of the two ‘European’ films (curiously filmed in non-European Union countries Poland and Romania) which are made by Americans, the Japanese and Iranian by an English woman, US film Dark Days by an Englishman or A True Story About Love counting as an Australian film (AFTRS produced) when it is shot on the west coast of America by a Korean-Australian, Korean-American and Japanese-American? This rather fundamental observation of documentary practice necessitates a more sophisticated understanding of the global economy of film practice when an ‘international’ film is only the cost of a plane ticket and a digital video camera for those that are inclined or can afford it.
The media release promises “funny, sexy and adventurous”, but unless this writer lost his sense of humour, libido and willingness to be challenged when turning on either the VCR or computer (2), then a majority of THE REAL is relentlessly harrowing, bleak and unremitting, its various modes of expression conventional, repetitive and crude when not indulgent or ideologically conservative. But there are exceptions and this may be good news too.
This report will proceed by taking up the rather ambiguous (and ambivalent) status of these documentary films and videos by analysing a selection of the program in an attempt to find common currency between two or more.
Filmmaking as Personal Odyssey: Capturing the Margins
Dark Days (Marc Singer, 2000)
Children Underground (Edet Belzberg, 2001)
The Boot Factory (Lech Kowalski, 2000)
The Meat Game (Shannon Sleeth, 2001)
Kim and Harley and the Kids (Katrina Sawyer, 2001)
Englishman Marc Singer used to fight a lot and only be interested in where he could score so as to take drugs on the weekends. Wanting to change his life he left for Florida where he worked as a catalogue model before moving to New York meeting and befriending some of the people that lived in the Amtrak train tunnels under Penn Street Station. Marc moved in and conceived of, in collaboration with the tunnel’s residents, making a film that they could try and sell in an attempt to get out of what had become for many a self-perpetuating stasis.
Five years later Dark Days was completed. Filmed in austere black and white (is there colour in the dark?) and soundtracked with the sublime urban beats of turntablist extraordinaire DJ Shadow, the film is a document of the underground dweller’s bizarre existence.
Living in constructed ‘homes’ the residents keep pets, fry chicken, watch TV game shows and hang out the washing. The perverse approximation of domesticity is accentuated when we realise that the chicken has been salvaged from a garbage can and that outside the four walls of their makeshift home their world is in a perpetual eclipse, plagued by rats who scuttle around its topography of garbage mountains amid the constant cacophony of rattling trains. In the film’s most telling statement we are told that, “we’re not homeless, we’re helpless”.
The fictional film and media reportage regularly focuses on politicians, lawyers and the corporate beast as central characters whose obscene photographic beauty is as transparent as the veneer on an oaken desk, which they are often found sitting behind: making decisions, fondling their secretaries and “changing” the world. The documentary does not, that is, its characters are the rough-hewn faces and bodies that cinema forgot, that are the consequences of the “changes” in the socio-political world. As antithetical to the ‘look’ of fictional narrative whose disavowal of the abject renders even urban landscape looking like its been obsessionally hoovered, Dark Days attempts to equate its notion of realism with a margin of ugliness, grime and the morbidly unconventional or, to intone a provocative term, the uncivilised.
Singer’s ‘good looks’ are curiously absent from his film, but its featured characters read like a litany of the underprivileged and have bodies and faces to match: drug addicts, recidivist criminals, those from broken homes, failed marriages, existing outside of the social welfare network who have literally fallen through the cracks in the pavement. In an unexpected turn of events the tunnel dwellers are provided with accommodation when the train company tries to evict them and Singer’s commendable attempt to subvert the economy of film becomes redundant. All this and the filmmaker refuses to comment on the experience, to be in the film that has literally defined his existence for several years. This absence takes on a more instructive shape in subsequent films where the documentary filmmaker as objective observer begins to imply more forcefully that ‘we’ (filmmaker/audience) are not the same (ethnicity, culture, class) as ‘them’ (homeless person/child, unemployed, marginal ‘other’).
Singer’s subterranean odyssey is matched in Children Underground; this time the film centring on a gang of street kids living in the subway tunnels of Bucharest, Romania. Like Singer who travels to the USA to find himself and the subjects of his film, American Edet Belzberg chose Romania after reading an article about street children. The resultant material is about as grim as it gets; children, Marian the youngest at 8, live a harrowing existence of subsistence living, substance abuse (all of them routinely inhale a noxious industrial paint called Aurolac to get high), violence and deprivation. An opening title claims that the street kids are the result of former dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu’s fertility plan, but the age of these children (some of whom are born after Ceaucescu’s regime fell in 1989) suggests that they are on the streets for reasons that supersede what is a rather perfunctory statement: a post-communist Eastern Europe country dealing with a free market economy and the ensuing stratification of its society into a burgeoning middle class (evidenced by the café scene around the station where the children roam) and the impoverished, disenfranchised worker (indicated by the mother of Ana and Marian who is unable to feed her children), together with the devolution of social services (several of the adults tragically lament the loss of the former ‘institutional’ system) as government is reduced.
Robert Koehler, when writing in Variety about Children Underground, outrageously states that “as in the greatest verite work, the camera vanishes from the viewer’s mind altogether” (3). Cinema vérité came out of a distinct political filmmaking movement (4) that was indebted to Vertov and distinguished itself by confrontational, didactic, direct address, the use of hand held equipment that ‘allowed’ for the ungivens of conventional filmmaking (boom mikes coming into shot, raw location sound, reframing, presence of the director and crew). The aforementioned commentator either does not know his cinema history or like many other contemporary observers (and filmmakers) have suppressed (or repressed) Vertov and cinema vérité‘s attempts to come to terms with film’s inherent ability to uncritically seduce by technological obsequiousness.
Chris Berry highlight’s the consequences of the rhetorical strategies of this ‘observational’ filmmaking when he writes that this creates “this safe distance on its subject matter by assuming the uninvolved, objective stance (of classic documentary form) in which the filmmaker (and the audience) is in a position of epistemological sovereignty as the one that knows, and those on camera are objects to be known about” (5).
This ‘observational’ or ‘direct cinema’ as it was first known in the United States is associated with the work of D. A. Pennebaker who most recent film screened at this years’ REAL. After suggesting Don’t Look Back in 1967 (his film about Bob Dylan’s tour of England in 1965) he is doing nothing but with Down from the Mountain (2000), a concert film featuring the country, gospel and bluegrass performers featured on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) Where Pennebaker’s films differ from the others in discussion is that his subjects are performers (musicians or politicians), people that are in the business of manipulating and controlling their own images prior to someone pointing a camera at them. His strategy of not becoming involved and avoidance of narrative has fewer repercussions, because of this inherent agency of his subjects.
In the case of Children Underground there is a microscopic invasion of these children’s lives incomparable to the characters in Pennebaker’s work. One is compelled to ask: Is it the case that the documentarian working as a moral crusader (‘saving’ the children, homeless, etc from country x, while being from country y) can still function as a kind of neocolonial anthropologist without having to break ethnographic and documentary ethical codes? Just as one cannot argue with Belzberg’s genuine desire to bring attention to the plight of Romanian street kids one feels compelled to question her knowledge as a filmmaker, as someone who has an awareness of the way in which images relay meaning, as she sits in her upper west side office saying that she returned from her ordeal “with only lice and scabies”. What is it that drives someone to travel to somewhere else (does New York not have its equivalent stories?) to train a camera on the world’s least fortunate for hundreds of hours, capturing the most vulnerable with an inert commodity? Is there something meaningful in the odyssey that the filmmaker undertakes with all its attendant self-sacrifice and self-deprivation and why isn’t this mentioned in the films? Is this the result of what the ubiquity of technology leaves us with and why does this writer as a citizen of a similar country to the US with access to all of these devices consider that there is a problem with this mode of representation?
It is in returning to Chris Berry that the actuality of this problematic is concisely articulated when he states that “documentarians can only move away from the myth of objectivity by acknowledging it as … already committed by the textual practice they have taken up” (6). A film or video does not appear from nowhere, from no one. In a western world of unlimited media saturation it seems crucial that responsible and committed filmmakers orientate their works to recognise that comprehension is achieved as much by composition as by content (or context): that images that ‘speak by themselves’ already encourage certain readings and spectator positions that may not be consistent with what was intended.
As for the remaining films related in this mode from the Festival the same questions arise. Who is speaking, for whom and to whom?
Polish punks Piotr, Wotjek and Lukasz didn’t like their ‘Romanians’, that is, the Romanian equivalent of the Doc Marten high cut boots that are the defining (anti)fashion statement of punks worldwide. Consequently, they decided to make their own in an abandoned Krakow warehouse. According to punk ethos, work is hardly an ideal in itself, but the success of The Boot Factory relies on sustaining our interest in the apparent contradiction of the punk as outsider/punk as hard working self made individual. Cut to the daily routine of sewing, hammering, sniffing glue as the soles are attached, listening to punk anthems with the requisite lyrics about fornicating with nuns and getting wasted and then they get wasted, and wasted and… Until the boot needles are replaced with the hypodermic ones and the self-sustaining project begins to unravel.
There is a scene where Piotr gets married and his punk fraternity, standing around in their Sunday best head-kickers, drink champagne as a wurlitzer plays excruciating covers of ’50s American rock tunes before they head off for wedding pogo at a suitable punk reception centre. It is a reminder that for all the anti-society stances these characters take, all the partying, drug abuse and unrefined music, sub cultures can only exist in a relation to the dominant culture and that often the desires and needs of the two are remarkably similar. Perhaps it is just a question of musical differences. Certainly, Lech Kowalski’s film, despite its rawness, a few individual flourishes and its anti-authoritarian subjects is a stylised, detached and ultimately conventional work.
Work too is the focus of Shannon Sleeth’s The Meat Game. In the unfortunately named town of Poowong in country Victoria, the Lamb sisters, Kerrie and Kylie, to the slaughterhouse go as soon as they leave school, which is where the majority of the town’s workers find employment. We first see Daniel, a young slaughterman, behind a fifteen-foot chainsaw scything through the entire carcass of a cow. This is one of 500 beasts that are killed and processed each day on a refined quota system. Kerrie, Daniel’s father’s de facto, spends her days at the meat works stripping the “fur” from an organ she doesn’t know the name of despite performing the task “every two minutes or up to six on a bad day”.
For such a grisly, visceral subject matter this a strangely poetic film. The ritualised monotonous work, the pristine white uniforms splattered in blood reminds one of the serenity of the operating table or a religious service as the video images render the flesh and blood glaringly abstract. The characters that are covered in the piece talk of the pleasure of family unity in the workplace and display an incredible work ethic. Daniel says that he has heard that in a survey that meat workers “were rated lower than prostitutes”, yet the laconic, self-effacing young man talks humbly of his achievements as a cross-country bush racer riding one horse he ironically “saved from the knackers”.
Like most manual repetitive work, even if one is subjected to a daily routine of death and evisceration, there eventually comes a normalcy and lack of recognition. The filmmakers’ approach seems to mirror this, in that, once again, the ‘difference’ of the subject matter does not make for a well crafted film in which there was plenty of creative material to explore the abattoir as a metaphor for class distinction, excess, and our detachment from the processes of food production technology which the film as a film subsumes.
Kim and Harley and the Kids is another wallow in someone else’s misery. Kim is a recovering drug addict debilitated with Hepatitis C and prone to emotional instability that manifests in verbal outbursts. She lives with her four children and de facto Harley, who has trouble controlling his anger. Until Harley gets work their income consists of social security pensions and charity handouts as the family struggle to exist in the cyclical nexus of unemployment, poverty and social disadvantage. Unflinchingly the video renders their existence as the cold ‘brutality of fact’: an existential nightmare of hocked televisions, empty fridges and hand to mouth survival. Despite Kim’s remarkably lucid understanding of her own situation we are once again oblivious to the motivation of the filmmaker or the complicity of its subjects in the filmic process. Is it that the marginalised in our society have become the ideal subject matter (as ‘other’) for our documentarians and that these films perpetuate the victimisation of these individuals, compounding rather than addressing the issues?
Filmmaking as Personal Catharsis: The Camera as Confession
A True Story About Love (Melissa Kyu-Jung Lee, 2001)
Mick’s Gift (Celeste Geer, 2001)
Counter to the observational film is the ‘personal’ film where the camera is reversed and the documentarian becomes the dominant subject. Originating in the diary film of which Chris Marker’s work could be seen as an indication of the potential of the form it has also become a fractured and unstable entity.
Melissa Kyu-Jung Lee, a Korean-Australian, travels to San Francisco to interview Korean-American documentary filmmakers. She meets Richard, one of the filmmakers and an affair begins. A week later a relationship starts with Mark, a Japanese-American former actor. A True Story About Love is the resultant film which plays out as a melodramatic cross-cultural romance interspersed with material from the ‘original’ film.
The oxymoronic title is only understood towards the end of the film when Richard and Melissa lie in bed sharing an intimate moment and we discover that it is Mark who is behind the camera. Lee claims she left San Francisco with her original project only to return when she decided the material was “so fucking boring” that to ‘save’ it would be necessary to recreate the affairs she had with the two men. “It’s a different level of truth I suppose”, she muses, as one is left to unravel the ‘blurriness’ of the text.
At best this is a naïve attempt to make an entertaining fiction seem like a documentary, but the glib truth claims point to what really is at stake. If the ‘real’ of ‘real events’ is simply material for the invention of more appealing ‘stories’ then we can finally dispense with any distinction between fiction and documentary; one can rewrite our own or others lives to suit entertainment demands, identity becomes just another imposition in the service of dramatic effect. Ms Lee may well have seduced or been seduced by the two men that enter her lives, but her film is seduced by both a ‘west coast’ narcissistic obsession for self immersion and the power of the image to create a contrived representation of this.
Mick’s Gift exploits film as a device for recreating and reinterpreting memory in another way. Utilising the 16mm films shot by her grandfather as memorial evidence and the catalyst for a familial reassessment of the mythologised Mick, the filmmaker adequately structures the piece to reveal buried truths. While not as assured or provocative as Merilee Bennett’s similar film, A Song Of Air (1987), the film manages to articulate how film has the ability to construct and distort events as much as exist as a visual record. For a documentary about (visual) memory the dominant theme resonating is strangely that of absence: Mick’s trips away from the family, Mick’s family not at his wedding, Mick’s self isolation later in life, and, most, poignantly, the absence of the elusive Mick in his own films, a constant elided ‘other’ as the filmmaker behind the camera.
The (Not So) Risqué Film
Turn Me On: The History of the Vibrator (Catherine Chauchat, 2001)
GAEA GIRLS (Kim Longinotto, 2000)
Turn Me On: The History of the Vibrator suggests that we may have finally encountered the ‘sexy, funny, adventurous’ section of the program: we haven’t. For a subject with limitless ‘playful’ potential we are presented with a flaccid history of the hysteria-curative-come-sex-toy that is delivered by several dubiously credentialed ‘sexperts’ with a dramatic acuity that renders its arousing objects as exciting as a multi-coloured power tools catalogue. Variously, “the gynaecologist”, “the journalist” (of what?), “the curator” (of what? dildos?) and “the wholesaler” tell us how the vibrator was taken out of the doctor’s surgery to be placed on the sex shop shelf. Now a question of consumer choice, none is more offensive than “the internet retailer” who asserts that, for the modern woman, “a vibrator is as essential to have in the tote as a mobile phone” (is it my mind, or perhaps due to lack of stimulation, that I immediately conceive of a device that could fulfil both functions).
Apparently a par-boiled carrot is a sufficient stand in when the more elaborate model is not at hand and this seems the version of this (potential) film that we have been impaled with. Where was the desire, the arousal, the paroxysms, the joys of onanism, the humour, the irony, the self and partner game play that this subject warrants. Turn Me On had it neither in the frigid delivery, the amateurish cinematography or the somnambulistic soundtrack despite the ‘tasteful’ moan samples.
GAEA GIRLS, a documentary about professional women wrestlers in Japan challenges the myth about the demure, subservient Japanese woman by replacing this stereotype with a violent, subservient one. The film is by turn dull and repetitive relying too easily on the exotic/different/quirky nature of its subject. As one of the trainees explains, “I don’t really stand out as a person. In the ring I can really be noticed”, but the dramatic potential of the fight sequences are underplayed as the grinding training regime fails to sustain interest in the subject matter for the 106-minute feature length.
Complete with harsh “drill sergeant” and champion wrestler, Nagayo Chigusa, student who makes it, Takeuchi, and one that doesn’t, Wakabayashi, the film comes across as a second rate Stripes or Private Benjamin without a sense of humour.
Will the real REAL stand up?
A film festival is a distinct cultural event that occurs in a specific context in which a purported model is put forward to be tested against the content of its program. This year’s REAL demonstrates that issues of ‘internationality’, truth in the documentary, the predominance of conventional approaches and the less easily defined concepts of neocolonialism, agency and political engagement with both local and global forces are as salient as when Vertov, almost 80 years ago, first attempted to address the documentary as a depiction of ‘life-as-it-is’. If the documentary is to continue to exist as a vital and important counterpoint to the fiction film then its films and videos will need to find ways in which these issues and the myths of conventional practice can be analysed, criticised and articulated.
- See Petric Vlada, Chapter 1: “Vertov and the Soviet avant-garde” in Constructivism in Film: The Man with the Movie Camera: A Cinematic Analysis, Cambridge: New York, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 2-21
- Perhaps this is fodder for another paper (technology as a neutralising or desensitising device), but in this case it is a given that this is not the situation.
- Koehler, Robert, “Sundance Review: Children Underground”, Daily Variety, Variety, 22/01/01.
- The French new wave incorporated elements of verite into their work (especially Godard), and both preceding and from this movement cinema verite’s greatest exponent, Jean Rouch, emerged.
- Berry, Chris, A Bit On the Side, Empress Publishing: Sydney 1994, pp.42-43.
- Ibid, p.56.