What makes most documentaries so easy to understand is the arbitrary limitation of their subject matter. They confine themselves to depicting fragmented social functions and their isolated products. In contrast, imagine the full complexity of a moment that is not resolved into a work, a moment, whose development contains interrelated facts and values and whose meaning is not yet apparent. This confused totality could be the subject matter of such a documentary. 1
A statement included in Guy Debord’s film On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time (Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps) from 1959. Obviously he, a Marxist agitator of society and art, had his problems with documentary filmmaking – as long as documentary filmmaking did not reject creating fragmentary representations of an urbanised, commodified and indeed limited reality. Later on he would articulate an idea of circulating representations as agents of individual limitation and would name the spectacle of images a conception of an imperialist agenda. Images appeared to him as carriers of capitalist ideology, as temptations to expand the illusion of our lives through commodities. Debord condemns the image itself as commodity, as replacement for vivid and progressive social communication and action. The Society of Spectacle 2 was released in 1967 and his book inspired many to act against stagnation, to question not only the image but the very roots of capitalism-as-image-production. In May the following year, 11 million workers confronted French society with many of his ideas of a necessary revolution. DOK Leipzig, one of the oldest festivals for documentary culture in the world, was already in existence at this time. And it outlived Guy Debord. As his images have outlived him. As many images have outlived many essential voices of history and art. Ultimately, images are what may remain to be seen. They are indeed a currency. A currency of hopefully restless negotiation.
The now very visible Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is well known for his decision to quit documentary filmmaking at an early point of his career. Back then, he stated in a remarkable interview: “You can tell what an author thinks of non-fiction by the stance they take toward that necessary fictionality in their own writing.” 3 Without doubt, it is the way that people – filmmakers or not – negotiate the narratives of an event that says most about their relation to its substance. In Leipzig, keeping an ear out during the informal gatherings and on the hallways offers a comparably rich repertoire of storytelling. Some members of the film industry would, with considerable effort or a touch of pathos, link Leipzig to its remarkable tradition of defending independent programming. They would possibly see it as a constant presence of international scale within an ever-changing festival landscape as a whole. Discussing the festival’s differences with IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) makes perfect sense, as the Dutch event follows shortly after and offers a considerably stronger market orientation. Leipzig itself introduced its industry hubs only recently, under its former director Claas Danielsen. In discussing Leipzig though, one prefers to tell stories and show images of a shared past with the festival. Stories of a professional as well as a personal nature are very present here, as a culture of interpersonal exchange has survived the last decade of considerable growth. Festival visitors and programmers, several of them present in Leipzig for more than two decades, would draw a line between the present selection and remarkable works of documentary history. And then, the German past and a larger notion of contemporary Europe must figure in any considerations of the festival also, and was of course harmonious with the festival’s 2015 retrospective dedicated to the idea of moving borders as a notion of the European project. A vaguely political subtext and awareness accompanied many discussions about the event in its 58th edition and its new director Leena Pasanen, mixed with a certain curiosity towards the city’s recent boost in popularity. Leipzig and its festival seem to be in the middle of a transition period, between conscious political and curatorial roots on the one hand and a rapidly growing visibility and infrastructure on the other. Spectacle indeed appears as a very contemporary temptation.
To draw a picture of major festivals can feel a little like paint-by-numbers in endless variations. All festivals are in some way pre-defined due to their respective industrial presence and their reception may be more about the annual connection of its rituals than major year-to-year shifts. It is in fact a real challenge to discover unexpected elements. This is true for some veterans of filmmaking as well. And many of them are inevitably tied to certain festivals. The opening film of DOK Leipzig by Andreas Voigt embodies, very clearly, a defined sense of formal tradition. Then, after its 90 minutes that unfold over the three decades since 1986, it leaves us with not much more than a few words: Time Will Tell. Voigt’s latest work, titled Alles andere zeigt die Zeit in German, features protagonists from his previous films, who are clearly still struggling with their past in East Germany and the implications of a changing system. Renate faces her individual trauma resulting from Stasi surveillance and power abuse, Sven appears lost between perspectives of the left and right, Isabel struggles to embrace capitalist imperatives. All of them face a changing post-communist sensibility as citizens. Voigt has been a regular at the festival, he is a familiar face. In his new work about Leipzig, the strategy of re-interpreting past images to draw a picture of the present appeared seemingly uninspired to those familiar with his œuvre, and the film generated detachment and cynicism from some locals. Interestingly, colleagues from abroad found much more to see in his film; they were touched by his protagonists’ stories and saw in his editing an ongoing ambition to recount history through the evolution of cinematic form, ranging from early 16mm images to the digital shape of his more recent recordings. It is this variety of perceptions, the different perspectives of spectators from essentially different backgrounds, that strips images bare of the imprint of their creation and lets them become a part of shared negotiation.
Negotiating the complicated questions that accompany our present and its roots can make it, well, complicated to keep an agile mind. We might suppose that it is the imagination of individual and institutional authority that charges our contemporary condition with a certain inevitability of struggle. Authority generates two things: attention and manifestation. We remember Debord who claimed a considerable authority to use it for a purpose: to question the status quo. But authority in itself is not a question of purpose; it articulates first and foremost an often questionable presence. And through this presence, through the claimed and enacted authority of artists and agitators, politicians and capitalists, activists and terrorists, companies and organisations, images might indeed become degraded. They might become carriers of intention, as spectacle to underline, instead of unfold. They might become manifestations of ideas, slaves to perspectives. But then, in their light, we often blissfully forget what they were supposed to stand for – and quickly so.
Documentary filmmaking was once described as a “creative treatment of actuality”. 4 because it is the realm in which image and reality exist in the greatest possible proximity. The act of creating non-fiction images claims the process of filmmaking itself as being-in-the-moment, a process of gaze-becoming-substance, of light-becoming-object, light-becoming-weight. No matter which intentions lead to their creation, documentary images exist as an index of what they record, of a particular gesture, a particular constellation of the world. In the most interesting cases, any authority gets lost within this process and we end up being confronted with nothing but the act of seeing and with ourselves as source of a gaze. Accordingly, in the images of Vitaly Mansky’s Under the Sun we find nothing to believe and all to sense, to perceive, to experience. A film that reveals how a gaze is constructed while a North Korean family is constructed by their system to be filmed by the director. Mansky follows a scripted family story to shoot a documentary about North Korea with official permission. Obviously, in North Korea, there is no reality to document. Reality is ideology is fiction. The identity of these people remains obscure. Their life has been written, staged, imagined to become image. Mansky is controlled, as are his movements, his crew, his shots. But he films more than he is allowed and steals his material, to unveil how his images were meant to be forced under the authority of a system. What is staged for a purpose, for Mansky’s film to communicate an imagined North Korean society to the outside world, carries the weight of an ideology with such intensity that it reaches the level of parody. Mansky explains how instead of shooting a film he could have simply edited parts of the regular North Korean TV program with almost the same effect. But then we would have missed the tiny moments when the illusion breaks, when an apparatus is revealed in its depressing as well as comic dimensions. In his film, the possibilities of several films collide. It is the deconstruction of authority that offers us the freedom to see.
The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes
That’s what it’s all about. Not a replication of the real, but the revelation of reality appearing within the construction of images, through a formal notion of editing and composition. It was also how experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage titled one of his essential approaches to the field of documentary cinema. In 1971, he and his camera went into a city morgue in Pittsburgh to face death as the cornerstone and confronting imperative of human existence. His film looks deep into the physical condition and human limitation, the shots literally reveal the surfaces of our bodies as surfaces, hinting not only towards our human presence as individuals and species, but larger notions of presence and appearance. Our body, like every body: a constellation of insides and outsides, of depth and surface, its revelation essentially irritating our integrity, our authority as beings.
When this unity is dissolved, our gaze on the world and our self is aggravated. Like it is aggravated when we are exposed in our safe position as spectators. Or when an object of our voyeurism returns our glance. Sometimes we are faced by a depth or intensity we cannot comprehend, and become altered by this confrontation: we expand, we grow. Sometimes, reality faces us, so we have to face it in return. Like when Jakob Brossmann’s camera focuses the gaze of a refugee out of an anonymous crowd, looking through its lens at everyone who is paralysed by an imagined authority of wealth and safety. People who are confronted with the loss of their roots and identity in the face of global struggle have become a popular object for cameras, an object of cameras. Lampedusa in Winter tries through the authority of the image to defend their subjectivity. Any aggravation and failure of a perspective makes growth unavoidable – especially when this perspective is defined by human self-confidence and arrogance, by a notion of authority over the world. Often the essential question that unfolds is not: what do we look at? But: how do we look and what can we see? Or, as John Smith would put it: is there a tunnel at the end of the light?
An effective play with perspective and realism in documentary cinema often borders on the self-reflexivity of experimental film. And there is rarely a filmmaker who mingles the project of document and experiment in a more charming way than he does. Smith was visible and audible in Leipzig not only through an homage, but also through his new film Dark Light and as a one-man-jury of the festivals’ Next Masters Competition. His works make it in fact seem quite easy to approach our world and even the most devastating developments within it. His calm and humorous narration, linking the marginal to the essential, accompanies even a random hotel room with notions of philosophical and political substance. Besides his voice, it is often the presence of the (TV) image itself that forces a world into these tiny spaces, carrying messages of global struggle into our consciousness. Smith maps the “War on Terror” and the authorities of Bush and Blair within it. When we cannot be present where history unfolds, when we cannot see with our own eyes, it is the image that offers us at least the safety of a fragmented reality. A reality that in its complexity, abstraction and extremity, often borders on fiction.
Matters of Representation
In times of crisis, ongoing struggle and change on a global scale every perspective becomes fragmentary and only collective negotiation might help us see the larger picture. Representation becomes necessary, the image becomes an aspect of the texture of reality itself. A filmmaker who repeatedly chose to comment on recent history through a precise montage of archive material, of past and yet present images, is Sergei Loznitsa. After he chose this approach for Blockade (Blokada, 2006) and Revue (Predstavlenie, 2008), his new work The Event (Sobytie) follows a similar way. In its timelessness the film unfolds our very notions of context itself as object for negotiation. Structured and accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake the event of an uprising unfolds as a universal motif, pointing to its recurrence and disappearance throughout history while articulating singular moments in itself. The film preserves and at the same time re-presents some of the very rare images that were taken in Leningrad / St. Petersburg during the failed coup of 19 August, 1991 – one of the key happenings to initiate the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Systems change. And eventually, there appear constellations that no image can depict, that can only be imagined. Accordingly, the team of DOKLeipzig made the decision to take another step beyond classical ideas of representation itself and dissolved the separated status of animation throughout the entire program. Animation has been a part of the festival since its inception and a specific competition was introduced 20 years ago. From 2015 on, every slot of documentary works in Leipzig includes animation as well, contrasting and enriching the perception of both forms. The Magic Mountain was the single competing film that in itself dissolved this formal boundary. Based on a biographical script, it was directed by Romanian filmmaker Anca Damian, but formally offered autonomous sections to a whole team of animators to unfold a variety of expressive approaches. Similar to familiar works like Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008) or The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi, 2010), the friction between an imagined real and animation styles result in a very explicit notion of Verfremdung. As the story of Adam Jacek Winkler unfolds, we experience the disorganisation of a subjective, the development of a universal way of seeing an individual perspective as inseparable from its circumstances. They literally fold into each other. We witness a subject dissolve as history unfolds, becoming object, becoming image. What remains is fragmentary and in its fragmentation universal.
Debord’s claim to catch a moment in its unfolding, with all its potentials, is the single impossible task for cinema. What he was looking for was not cinema. It was situations. And in fact, there is a notion of a whole. The fragmentary nature of any single representation remains as inevitable as its ongoing collision with others: other temporalities, other moments, other realities. Where images appear on the screens of public perception, they appear as constellations. Film festivals often have a problematic tendency to make works of art compete for attention and awards, but in their problematic nature they articulate an essential unrest: there is rarely enough attention these days for images to be seen free of contrast. And still, it is this contrasting totality of all images that frees the image. In the present cultures of the visual, there never prevails a single image – and no authority within and over the image, neither conceptual nor practical, neither in Leipzig nor elsewhere. As no authority ever prevails when realities collide.
26 October – 1 November 2015
Festival website: http://www.dok-leipzig.de/en/
- See UbuWeb Film for the full version of the film. ↩
- The essential parts of his essay became part of his film, accessible also at UbuWeb Film ↩
- Find the full transcript on the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival website ↩
- See for example Peter Morris, “Re-thinking Grierson: The Ideology of John Grierson” in History on/and/in Film, Tom O’Regan and Brian Shoesmith, eds. (Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987), pp. 20-30 ↩