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Book Review: New Challenges for Documentary

By Ilan Stavans

New Challenges for Documentary
Alan Rosenthal, editor.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
603 pages + xii + index.

The documentary as a film genre has been losing ground since the enormous impact of what today is understood as cinéma vérité—"objective" filming without intrusion by the filmmaker.

Vérité was interpreted by every director in different terms. In America, it meant direct cinema. That is, the filmmaker was to keep minimum contact with the subject and never ask anybody to do anything for the camera, thereby freeing the documentary genre from subjective ingredients. But the rise of structuralism allowed some critics to argue that any form of human expression, whatever that might be, encompasses some kind of symbolism, and during the seventies some polemical documentaries proved this point. Michelangelo Antonioni's Chung Kuo (1977), claimed to be a window into China for the Western imagination. Its quality was highly congratulated, yet the result was poor, a gathering of impressions in a short­ term traveler 's notebook. The Chinese complained that Antonioni's film distorted their everyday reality, the question of "objectivity" achieved popularity among intellectuals, and of course the response was that art is an interpretation of things, not things as they "really" are. A parallel example was Louis Malle's six-hour Phantom India, which was scorned by the Hindus.

The documentary has been in decline for other reasons as well. The most important one is the cultural transformation during the seventies that put an end to the anti ­establishment mood of an entire generation. The popularity of the genre was suddenly reversed; nobody was ready to bet on its success. Television gained an incredible amount of power by helping build a bridge between the world and the isolated, private living room, and insightful small-screen journalism now replaced those serious, well-crafted, "objective" films. That is why the majority of documentaries made today are created for, and shown on, Public Television, only a few making it to movie theaters.

(A notable exception is The Thin Blue Line, shown nationwide in 1989. Directed by Errol Morris, the film investigated the case of Randall Dale Adams, who was mistakenly convicted in 1976 for the killing of a police officer, and who, after a controversy set forth by the documentary, regained freedom on March 23rd, 1989.)

The explanation? Our present hedonistic concept of entertainment: we go to see movies the way we look for ephemeral happiness in Disneyland—to be enchanted, surprised and amazed by fictional characters, not real people. Hollywood has become the medicine for the contemporary­ citizen's day—today anxieties, an escape and an alternative. Audiences nowadays ask for action, audacious images, color, a score modulating its attention, and a morality in which Good prevails over Evil. Hence by contemporary standards the documentary is "boring" in nature.

The decline has forced many to push the discussion to a thoroughly new dimension. What ought to be the role of documentary in modern societies? How should the filmmaker perform his/ her tasks? Should the documentary compete with fiction or incorporate fictional elements or dramatization? Can documentaries return to movie theaters?

The history, technique and future of the genre have been well studied since the late sixties by authors such as Stephen Mamber, Lewis Jacobs, Richard Barsam, Pat Aufderheide, George C. Stoney and Peter Biskind. Yet its best known expert and promoter, one who at times has played the devil's advocate by creating a space for discussants that would otherwise be forgotten, is Alan Rosenthal. Rosenthal is both a theoretician and a practitioner. He has written extensively on the subject and has made films in Israel, Britain and America. Part of his memoir as a filmmaker, called New Boy: An Independent with Israel TV, appeared in 1981 in the Journal of the University Film Association. He now teaches in the Institute of Communication of The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In 1971, Rosenthal published an indispensable volume titled The New Documentary in Action (University of California Press). Readers had to wait nine years for the sequel, The Documentary Conscience: A Casebook in Film Making (University of California Press, 1980). And now, eight years later, comes the third: an anthology titled New Challenges for Documentary, where he gathers close to 50 critical essays and interviews on the subject by different authors, critics and filmmakers. Each of the three Rosenthal volumes contains high ­ quality, self-sufficient material, but when the trilogy is seen as a whole, one faces a collective, majestic, polyphonic parade of themes, techniques and effects. The parade starts with the founding fathers of documentary, Robert Flaherty, Paul Rotha and John Grierson, and sums up l'etat d'affaires until the release of The Thin Blue Line.

It is difficult to describe New Challenges For Documentary in detail, it's so ambitious and rich in scope. It is divided into six parts: Part One deals with diverse theoretical issues; Part Two and Three can be seen as a rendez-vous with the filmmaker and his/ her relationship with the ethics of the genre; Part Four examines television; Part Five is structured around the documentary as recorder of human events; and Part Six is the most Griersonian one, in that it deals with Rezeptionsgeschichte, or the study of how a particular film was received and understood in its time. Every item in Rosenthal's collection had been published before, sometime between 1968 and 1985. The authors included are Umberto Eco, who in De Interpretatione discusses the relativistic images of Antonioni's Chung Kuo; Peter Biskind, who touches upon censorship in the United Kingdom in 1979, when Black Britannica, a hour­ long documentary on the economic and social reality of the black population was prevented from being shown on Public Television; and Todd Gitlin, who analyzes the phenomenon of Phantom India. Other names included are Brian Winston, Eric Barnouw and Pat Aufderheide. Among the list of films commented on are Nestor Almendros' Improper Conduct (1984), Barbara Kopple's 1976 Harlan County, U.S.A., Pamela Yates's vision of Guatemala When the Mountains Tremble, and Craig Gilbert's An American Family, a sequence of twelve films dealing with the subject of individuality in the United States, in a fashion that reminds me of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

One item of special interest: the pros and cons of "docudrama." Rosenthal argues that mixing facts with fiction creates a troublesome product. He finds Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1980) a superficial picture of the Hindu martyr, and he criticizes several other films along the same lines. Conversely, he applauds Peter Watkins' The War Game, a documentary made in 1965 dealing with England's vulnerability to the atomic bomb. Rosenthal's inclinations are clear: while Attenborough transforms the real Gandhi into a marionette, Watkins mixes interviews with care­ fully staged functionalizations. This distinction sets, for Rosenthal, the limits of docudrama: fictionalization in the former is a goal in itself, whereas in the latter it is purely a means through which the filmmaker wants to discover truth. This topic is obviously of particular importance because it evidences the fragile line that separates honesty from entertainment.

An enduring documentary is one which captures the memory stamped in the life of an individual or a genera­tion, and the history of the genre is made up not only of every single movie produced, but also of aborted ideas and projects. New Challenges for Documentary is fascinating in that it analyzes how each cinematographer chooses his/her own style by neglecting others, how he/she expresses his/ her political conviction, and how he/ she sees the documentary not only as an art form but also as a forum of ideas and persuasion. A major part of it is dedicated to discussion dealing not only with existent documentaries, but also with non-existent ones, those embryos lost during the creative process.

This is an insightful book from A to Z. While Rosenthal does not leave us feeling that tomorrow a revival of documentary may occur, he displays here (and in the other two volumes of his trilogy) all the data available so that the reader may have a comprehensive view of the rise and fall of this most pedagogical and controversial genre.


Ilan Stavans is a Mexican novelist and critic who teaches at Columbia University.