(This is the first entry of a four-part series. Thanks to Charlie Rivera for the initial approach, the invitation and the encouraging words. And thanks to Rojo Robles for reading my submission and his encouragement. Espero que lo disfruten. )
"Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its "general politics" of truth—that is, the types of discourse it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances that enable one to distinguish true and false statements; the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true."
Michel Foucault, Truth and Power.
From the moment the filmic apparatus made its debut on the world stage in 1895, cinema has mainly followed two very distinct tendencies meant to take advantage of the camera’s ability to capture “life.” In contrast to the first tendency, the fiction film, practiced by the likes of George Méliès, the documentary, originated by the Lumière Brothers among others, has offered the other alternative in the realm of moving celluloid. From this very beginning there has always existed a desire or, even, a necessity to capture reality. Yet, as critics like Erik Barnouw and Brian Winston have pointed out, once “captured,” the Real ceased to possess that aura that initially brought in the masses. The public wanted more than just the images of their lives filtered through a lens.
In John Grierson’ s socially infused notion of the “creative treatment of actuality” and in Robert Flaherty’s meditative individualist auteurship, documentary would find a renewed sense of purpose, as it asserted in these two distinct modes its most influential sets of precepts. For Grierson and his acolytes, documentary offered not only the opportunity to capture the Real; this effort also provided enough room for the development of the filmmaker as an artist. According to Grierson, the documentary filmmaker inhabited a space in between the creative, fictional filmmaker and the journalist. In the documentary filmmaker these two notions came together in the interest of finding a “truth” that was (and for many is still) believed not accessible otherwise. Yet, despite Grierson’s definition of documentary, it was always understood among Grierson’s followers that the Real was the ultimate objective; creativity would take a back seat to reality when needed. For the Griersonian realist documentarists, their work placed its sights on providing information, in revealing truths regarding the way society and its institutions helped or neglected its less visible citizens, and in capturing moments that could reveal or expose these truths.
Drifters, John Grierson (1929)
Flaherty, on the other hand, stepped in as the individualist auteur, intent on constructing a narrative out of the material reality offered. In Flaherty, the need to capture life for the greater good determined the method, even if this meant actually rehearsing or reenacting moments and cultural behaviors already confined to the dustbin of history, as is the case in his two most famous forays into the documentary: Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934). For Flaherty, it would seem, “truth” could simply be a tone, a mood, or an intention. “Truth,” according to Flaherty, hinged on the filmmaker’s idea of some form of reality, contained in the mind of the filmmaker and transferred onto the screen according to his or her interpretation.
Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty (1922)
Yet, despite their diverging methods and the underlying “poetics” dictating each oeuvre, both Grierson and Flaherty claimed the same thing; each believed that his work was successful in capturing the Truth. And it is this very claim that infused the documentary tradition with a belief in its status of proximity to the Real, all the way into the present. Consequently, beyond Grierson and Flaherty, documentary has grappled with this claim to Truth, both theoretically and actively in the very form it produces. During the upcoming months, I will explore these claims in a series of entries that will consider the idea of the documentary as defined according to three different practitioners of the form: Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris, and Chris Marker. But before we explore these artists individually, first we must attempt a definition of the documentary and the notion of Truth and how these relate to each filmmaker. In subsequent weeks I will deal in detail with each filmmaker in an effort to determine what I believe each is telling the viewer he considers to be the Truth and how each goes about that exploration.
Documentary’s claim to Truth, according to Louise Spence and Vinicius Navarro, finds its grounding in the apparent closeness of each documentary film to the phenomenal world. Spence and Navarro contend that, since documentaries are interested in capturing life without prioritizing certain techniques usually found in fiction filmmaking -- mise-en-scène, lighting, blocking, continuity editing, etc. -- the form provides the greatest access to the Truth when compared to other film forms. Therefore, in selecting representative filmmakers, I have decided to focus on three artists who approach the phenomenal in very distinct and contrasting ways, but who still claim to access and represent Truth in each of their respective works. Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris, and Chris Marker each have their own style of documentary filmmaking, this despite all of them engaging in what can be deemed a mixture of Griersonian realism and Flahertian artistry in their separate approaches. In looking at these filmmakers, I am also interested in developing the notion of what I will call “the signature,” a mark, sometimes tangible, more often elusive, which signals the presence of a conscientious awareness intent on constructing a version of the truth. This signature may serve as a way to grapple with each filmmakers’ claim to Truth by revealing the grounding intentions. Thus, one may speak of a pedagogical signature, an authoritative signature, or even a playful, comedic signature.
Frederick Wiseman’s documentary purpose often lies in the examination of the State and its institutions. With his “fly-on-the-wall” style of filmmaking -- often aligned by critics and scholars with the Direct Cinema movement, despite the filmmaker’s aversion to the term -- Wiseman seeks truth in the day-to-day activities witnessed at institutional settings such as hospitals, penitentiaries, churches and schools. Avoiding voiceovers and boasting a similarly sparse camera style, Wiseman’s films claim Truth through their supposed non-interventionist mode. Wiseman believes the camera’s presence in his films eventually becomes elided, allowing the camera and its handler to become invisible, a claim that has been greatly contested, mainly by Postmodernist critics, as Michael Chanan has pointed out. Yet, given the amount of instances of institutional abuse and mishandling Wiseman’s films have captured, along with the various legal obstacles he has encountered throughout his career, one must ask whether he is not in fact accessing some level of veracity only achievable in his choice dynamic.
Titicut Follies, Frederick Wiseman (1967)
Errol Morris also believes his films have access to Truth; moreover, he believes this access to be “unmediated.” Contrary to Wiseman, however, Morris, I will contend, reinscribes the authorial voice into the documentary space, employing the interview as his tool of choice, joining these with reenactments and archival footage, all of which lead to a highly ornate construction perhaps closer to the Griersonian tradition. For his interviews, Morris has devised the Interrotron (later renamed the Megatron), a camera system which allows the interviewer and the interviewee to look at each other during the interview, creating the illusion of unobstructed rapport between the parties. This illusion extends to the audience, who are invited to see themselves as the interviewers. Ultimately, the interviews as well as the reenactments and the archival footage converge in the same cinematic space, revealing the artifice of a constructed object. Still, in the act of acknowledging the aestheticized nature of his work, Morris problematizes the act of meaning making, revealing how it is always already an act of construction. Truth, in Morris, stems from our capacity and tendency for narrative; in this sense, narrative has the capability to capture the phenomenology of reality. An approach to Morris’ films should allow for an exploration as to whether these conditions of construction, in comparison with those employed by Wiseman, foreclose or further open the possibilities of accessing Truth.
The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris (1988)
Finally, Chris Marker offers simultaneously the greatest contrast from the two preceding filmmakers as well as the convergence of some stylistic elements found in both. Marker’s avant-garde, experimental ventures seem concerned with a different type of phenomenology. Whereas Wiseman invests his efforts in capturing the moment and Morris grapples with replicating the moment, one could make the case that Marker is interested in reinterpreting the moment. Memory, its permanence and impermanence, figure as Marker’s greatest focus. As such, one finds Marker raiding sites where memory is often believed to be contained: history in the collective realm; souvenirs and photography in the personal realm. Each of these sites converge and ultimately inform each other, first allowing for a meditation on the moment from each vantage point in space and time, then merging into what can only seem as Marker’s interpretation of a total moment where history and memory are irredeemably destabilized. Marker both reinscribes the Voice onto the documentary space like Morris but also seeks a vanishing or invisibility of the filmmaker as in Wiseman by attributing the Voice to other modalities such as the letter, the memoir, and the voice of an Other. Thus, Marker, it could be said, reshapes collective memory by including participants and audience members in the informal rereading of history, both personal and social. In Marker, separation and juxtaposition, not cohesion as one could argue is found in both Morris and Wiseman, offer the greatest possibility to accessing Truth.
Sans Soleil, Chris Marker (1983)
Thus, what do the different modalities of documentary employed by these filmmakers say about the documentary’s claim to Truth? And what influence does the role of the filmmaker play in each of these modalities? Comparing the three filmmakers’ widely distinct methods of inquiry in creating their films should grant a clearer picture regarding the task of the documentary filmmaker and each methods’ access, or claim, to Truth.
In his 1997 book, Doing Documentary Work, Robert Coles grapples towards a definition of “documentary.”
The word documentary certainly suggests an interest in what is actual,
what exists, rather than what one brings personally, if not irrationally, to the
table of present-day actuality. Documentary evidence substantiates what
is otherwise an assertion or a hypothesis or a claim. A documentary film
attempts to portray a particular kind of life realistically; a documentary
report offers authentication of what is otherwise speculation. Through
documents themselves, through informants, witnesses, participants,
through the use of the camera and tape recorder, through letters or
journals or diaries, through school records, hospital records, or newspaper
records, a growing accuracy with respect to a situation, a place, a person
or a group of people begins to be assembled. (quoted in Fricke, 546)
The context of Coles’ attempt mainly pertains to the recording of data and impressions during the treatment of his patients as a psychoanalyst. Still, the definition offers an entryway in the approach to documentary, since embedded in such a definition one finds hints at a history of the difficulties experienced by those who have engaged in the form, both creatively and critically, written or visual. Reading between the lines, one starts teasing out various elements that bring with them a torrent of unending questions: What can we consider to be “realistic?” How trustworthy are the documents employed in this search for authentication? How can something that needs assemblage not possess some element of the personal, and thus, be irredeemably informed by opinion? In looking at documentaries in the upcoming months, I am interested, not so much in answering these particular questions, but more in following the different roads which such questions suggest. The filmmakers discussed herein -- Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris, Chris Marker -- I will contend, have themselves approached the documentary as a need to explore, not a need to answer.
Chanan, Michael. The Politics of Documentary. BFI: London, 2007.
Fricke, Tom and Keith Taylor, Eds. The Documentary Imagination: A Special Issue. Michigan Quarterly Review. Fall 2005. Vol 44. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Marker, Chris. Sans Soleil. 1983. Criterion Collection. DVD. 2007.
Morris, Errol. The Thin Blue Line. 1988. MGM. DVD. 2005.
Spence, Louise and Vinicius Navarro. Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning. Rutgers UP: New Brunswick, 2011.
Winston, Brian. Claiming the Real: The Griersonian Documentary and its Legitimations. BFI: London, 1995.
---. Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries. BFI: London, 2000.
Wiseman, Frederick. Titicut Follies. 1967. Zipporah: Cambridge, 2007.