Frederick Wiseman’s latest film, At Berkeley, and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell both screened at this years Toronto International Film Festival. John Dentino’s For I Know My Weakness screened at the New Orleans Film Festival. They are all documentaries, but given that “documentary” in this day and age has come to mean many different things to many different people, all these three films effectively share is the label… and the fact that all three filmmakers feature in this issue.
Frederick Wiseman is a doyen of documentary filmmaking, having started with Titicut Follies back in 1967, in an era when so-called “direct cinema” and “cinema verité” were very much in vogue, and from which Wiseman adamantly kept his distance. The focus of Wiseman’s cinema has been institutions of one kind or another, and in the case of At Berkeley, the crisis in the university education sector, albeit in this instance centred around the University of California, Berkeley, but the inference being that it is a symptom of a greater malice within the university sector as a whole under the grip of neo-liberal capitalism. If anything, and differences permitting, At Berkeley reminds one of Wiseman’s High School (1968), his earlier examination of the public education system.
Wiseman once said that he took films to be “a form of natural history”, to which he added: “I try to look at what is going on to discover what kind of power relationships exist and differences between ideology and the practice in terms of the way people are treated. The theme that unites the films is the relationship of people to authority.” The documentary tradition these words speak to is still alive and well, but cracks have opened up ever more wider in the ensuing decades.
One way to measure the width of those cracks can be seen in Polley’s Stories We Tell. A measure of the film’s success with audiences is the film’s shift from Wiseman’s “natural history” (by which he may mean the social or ideological forces that shape societies) to “personal history”. Polley places herself and her family at the heart of her documentary, and the quest is around the unravelling of a family enigma and secret. Freud would call it a “family romance”, the story of origins and familial desires at the heart of melodrama (as we well know, for Freud, all stories are, deep down, Oedipal narratives). The autobiographical documentary is a stable of the genre, though Polley adds some twists and turns to the form. If anything, the lyrical, poetic aspects of Polley’s film remind one of what was once found in the experimental or avant-garde cinema, of say, Yvonne Rainer (Journeys To Berlin, for example) or Chantal Akerman, and others working in the seventies (a mix of the lyrical, personal and political – with the political missing from Polley).
John Dentino, wearing two hats, as filmmaker and critic, speaks of the “immersive” documentary in the digital age. From his experiences at the New Orleans Film Festival’s documentary strand (for which his film For I Know My Weakness was in competition) he notes a new breed of documentary filmmakers, of which he says: “These film authors are not journalists in the traditional sense, for journalism is about detachment. They are embedded storytellers who immerse themselves in their subjects, then recreate their subjects’ reality through narrative storytelling instead of journalistic reporting.” Digital technology has allowed filmmakers to spend greater time with and shoot greater amounts of footage of their subject by immersing themselves in their world. As a statement of declaration, he says: “My own documentary is in the immersive cinema verité style and anything but objective because it’s essentially an author’s point-of-view type of narrative.” In other words, diametrically opposed to Wiseman’s approach. And so, approaches to documentary go round and round, ever growing, ever changing.
We hope you enjoy the issue.
– Rolando Caputo