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Above the Neck Skills

By Henry Breitrose

Alan Rosenthal, 'Writing, Directing and Producing Documentary Films', Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Publication date: August, 1990.

Too many film students and their teachers think that preparing for a career in filmmaking has to do with learning how to manipulate interesting technologies—learning "hands­ on skills." Look at the average reel of student films and you can't help but notice that too many of them are really about the same thing: camera angles. Look at the music videos done as class assignments at any of several Western European film schools and you'll see that, like fast-food and blue jeans, technophilia knows no national boundaries. There are important exceptions but the concentration on technique as an end in itself has resulted in altogether too many exquisitely wrought empty vessels.

Alan Rosenthal's new book comes as a corrective, and to anyone familiar with his previous writings and collections about documentary or his films, or who has seen him work with students, this is not surprising. Just as Rosenthal's books and films are about ideas, so his book is about "above the neck" (as distinct from "hands-on") skills. He writes about the conceptual crafting of documentary, the hard work, and quite correctly points out that while the technical literature of film production and the existing curricula of most film schools address issues of craft quite adequately, they leave the serious business of documentary producing, writing and directing woefully under­ served. By putting the emphasis on ideas, Rosenthal makes most of the theological disputations about film versus tape argument irrelevant, and acknowledges that the serious conceptual work in the producing, writing and directing of documentaries is virtually unaffected by whether the camera will be a Aaton-16 or a Sony Beta-SP.

There are very few practicing filmmakers who have articulated their practices with very much depth, and even fewer deep thinkers in the film part of the world who can write from the perspective of a working professional. The highest level of professionalism in filmmaking, like writing or cooking, is the result of skills so well learned and talent so well cultivated that the actual thought process seems automatic, a reflex, as though it were solely a product of the autonomic nervous system. At the level of ideas, as distinct from technology, teaching from experience is an exceedingly difficult task. Many professionals tend to use charming anecdotes—the students call them "war stories"—to talk about various events occurring during their careers but find it exceedingly difficult to be sufficiently introspective to explain what was going on inside their heads during the so­ called "creative process." Rosenthal is a splendid teacher because he is introspective and can call up his own experiences as a documentary filmmaker and as a teacher. He can evoke other filmmakers ' explanations of their decision-making in the production of key documentaries of the past ca. 20 years, and he uses both his own and other filmmakers' explanations to explain the process. He knows enough to avoid the "how did it feel when you... ?" school of oral history, and quite frequently drives some of his documentary filmmaker friends to a level of introspection quite beyond anything exhibited in their previous interviews. Rosenthal knows documentary filmmaking and he knows the films. He writes from his wide experience in production, writing and teaching, and from the experiences of many of the best documentary filmmakers of our generation.

Perhaps because of its grounding in experience, the book is intensely practical, and written with considerable wit and style. It is divided into five sections and characteristically the first section, on treatments, proposals, first-draft scripts and sequence outlines, begins with an uncredited allusion to the holy grail of documentary, what may have been Grierson's major contribution to documentary film: how to get someone else to pay for you to do what you want to do. He also addresses the joys and sorrows of the documentarian hired to do a film on a subject chosen by someone else, and usefully points out that it is a reasonable and frequently honorable occupation. What every documentarian knows from bitter experience and no beginning film student really believes (documentary students who want to "capture reality" are the worst offenders), is the extraordinary importance of pre-production. It takes but one real production to permanently engrave the value of proper pre-production on the student's forebrain, where it will remain for a lifetime. It takes but one experience with an unrealistic budget or a hastily­ drawn contract to teach a similar lesson, and while Rosenthal 's sections on budgets, contracts and pre­ production are solid and filled with excellent advice (he studied Law before film ), one wonders whether anything other than experiential learning can properly convince students of the importance of pre­-production.

The sections on production and post-production will be extraordinarily useful and are at the heart of the book. As a documentary writer /director, Rosenthal deals with what a director actually does during shooting and with the various methods of handling different shooting situations. Not only is this useful for students, but it should be required reading for the current generation of film sponsors, funding agencies and refugees from television newsrooms who think that documentaries are extended news segments made solely by cinematographers and editors—"capturing action" on film or tape and editing it into a kind of sliced-life or cinema dechiquete in the style of CBS' 48 Hours.

The working life of today's film students will extend well into the middle of the 21st century, and the changes in the technology of documentary production will be immense. The great value of Rosenthal's book is that while the "hands-on" skills necessary to make documentaries will change drastically, most of the conceptual "above the neck" skills he teaches will be as relevant then as they are now. The book is a major contribution to the literature of film teaching and will be immensely useful as a textbook and as a humane, intelligent and thoughtful refresher course for documentary makers.


Henry Breitrose is Professor of Communication at Stanford University where he is Director of the Graduate Program in Documentary.