Week 2: people, ethics and a lack of poetry

Fellow documentarians, I’ve encountered a problem; I’m not ‘artistic’. As we watched Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera this week, I could recognise its (overtly positive) commentary on Russian society and its playful recognition of the filmmaking process through its poetic and reflexive nature. But I just wasn’t interested. Yes, the film does tell a story, but I suppose it isn’t the kind of narrative the holds my undying attention.

The kind of documentaries that I seek out are more obvious. They lay out a purpose or opinion, and then, either through a chronological series of events or ordered collection of information, provide evidence or commentary to make their point. I just don’t find Vertov’s “striking” use of montage as…well….striking as others do.  Perhaps it’s my short attention span, perhaps it’s simply me not appreciating its various and unusual filmmaking devices; either way, I struggled with this film.

So, as you would guess, the excerpts which we viewed in class with similarly ambiguous intentions also confused me to a point. While The River was almost propaganda-like in its representation of farming practices around the Mississippi River in the 30’s, I found its expository elements more engaging than the poetic focus of the similarly ‘patriotic’ Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. I felt that The Blood of Beasts lay somewhere in-between these two styles. It was classic in its approach to providing information, but it seemed to be saying a lot more than was written in the script by portraying the normality (or brutality, depending on your interpretation) of the slaughterhouse. Many, such as Marcus (2006), cite Nanook of the North as pioneering a new genre of film, combining elements of a narrativised version of the subject alongside their supposed reality to create their identity for foreign viewers (a docu-drama). However, again I wasn’t enthralled by the message of otherness or survival that these scenes of ‘reality’ depicted.

So, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just appreciate the poetry?

Bill Nichols’ book: Introduction to Documentary has helped me look at this another way. I think I need to accept the fact that there are a million and one ways to approach making a documentary, and in the end it’s all about people. One of Nichols’ main messages is about the relationships between filmmaker, subject and audience. Essentially, a documentary isn’t always a filmmaker saying something that they believe about a subject to an audience. It might be a more or less personal relationship between the subject and filmmaker, include or separate the audience and subject, or subjectively be saying something about the world. It makes sense that, to achieve these different goals, documentaries may require vastly different styles.

Within this, Nichols approaches ethics, which my word count requires me to leave for another day. However, in regards to this week’s viewing, I think the major point to note is about authenticity; how film-making requires a performance, can alter reality, how we use that material and how that approach can effect the subject.

Refer to the references…

Marcus, A 2006, ‘Nanook of the North as Primal Drama’, Visual Anthropology, 19, 3/4, pp. 201-222.

Nichols, B 2010, Introduction to Documentary, 2nd ed, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, USA.


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