From the Editor, Fall 1989
Whatever the final outcome of the Helms Amendment, significant damage has already been done. Arts institutions will now think twice before funding potentially controversial material, many no doubt opting out, a la Corcoran. (The Helms Amendment would restrict Federal grants for art that is deemed "obscene or indecent" or that "denigrates, debases, or reviles a person, group or class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age or national origin.") These provisions are, of course, vague, difficult to interpret, and ultimately leave the door wide open for the completely arbitrary suppression of not only "alternative" cultural expression, but any mainstream work the committee happens to disagree with for whatever reason.
These are troubled times too, for The National Film Board of Canada. At the end of the University Film and Video Association hommage to the Film Board, Mexican filmmaker Eduardo Maldonado stated: ''We see the NFB, which has been of invaluable assistance to many of us in the filmmaking community, drifting through lack of leadership. We find in the independent community, private sector filmmakers leaving documentaries through the indifference of funding agencies and national broadcasters. We are concerned to discover that very few of their own documentaries are seen by Canadians despite airings in other countries, despite the international awards they received..."
Peter Davis reports on the conference and suggests part of the Film Board's difficulty is due to its failure to come to terms with television, and find a new role for itself.
The need to find new roles, and critically reexamine the documentary form, is at the heart of Alan Rosenthal's latest book, New Challenges for Documentary, reviewed here by Ilan Stavans. "In the mid-1980's there is a feeling that documentary is in the doldrums and that unless the form can be revitalized or reenergized it will swiftly lose any general or social impact it ever had," notes Rosenthal.
Certainly too many documentaries (the majority, in fact), are unendurably boring, morally pretentious, and stylistically dreary. The journalistic mode has become the dominant mode, and there is little or no attention paid to formal concerns, as if somehow an interesting dramatic structure would undermine the film's integrity, rather than reinforce it.
But there are films which meet the challenge Rosenthal describes, and venture into new territory. Twilight City, an absorbingly lyrical account of personal and political displacement from the Black Audio Film Collective, is an outstanding recent example. Daniel Marks shows how the film's style becomes an integral part of the content, mesmerizing us in the process.
West German filmmakers Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky have also been searching for new ways to disrupt old patterns of thought. Karen Rosenberg talks to the filmmakers about how their respective poetic documentaries on technology seek to expose the cliches we have assimilated.
The success of these films should act as a salient reminder that it is not new subjects documentarians should be pursuing; rather new ways of seeing.