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The 2nd International Documentary Congress: In and Out of the Cold

By Tom White

Filmmaker David Grubin, a 1995 IDA Award winner for his remarkable study on Franklin D. Roosevelt, moderated the "In and Out of the Cold" panel, which explored the role that the documentarian and the documentary have played in the past 50 years of social change. Grubin labored mightily to harness this unwieldy subject and create a catalyst between two seemingly disparate camps: archivist Roger Smithers of the Imperial War Museum in London and Bill Murphy of the National Archives, on the one hand, and filmmakers Hartmut Bitomsky of Germany and Marina Goldovskaya of Russia, on the other.

Grubin opened the discussion with a reference to Edith Wharton and her assessment of the role of the artist as one akin to either a mirror, reflecting and recording reality, or a candle, illuminating reality with a light particular to the individual. Grubin offered a third metaphor : the artist as hammer, shaping and transforming our world. The panelists offered their own insights. Goldovskaya, who chronicled the fall of the Soviet Union via her personal video diaries, intimated that "what interests me is a human soul that experiences and reacts to political tension." In creating her personal diaries, she felt, she sought both to illuminate that human soul and reflect the political changes in her country. Bitomsky embraced the mirror and the candle, but added a third-the shadow. Citing the collaborations of Walker Evans and James Agee, whose work failed to find an audience until much after it was created, Bitomsky observed that "you can never rely on whether something will have an impact, but it's worth the effort."

From the archivist's perspective, Smithers observed that what has really shaped the documentary, at least in Britain, has been the shift in funding from government, which sought in its films to depict social problems, to the world of television, which is mandated to express balance.  This mandate, Smithers felt, served to weaken “the commitment of a definite sustained line in the documentary.”  Murphy observed that the documentary made 50 years ago mirrored the politics of the times and served as a tool of government policy.  “We question the efficacy of contemporary documentary films, but how do we go about determining whether documentaries from the ‘40s actually influenced people to make a decision, to change attitudes and perceptions?”

Grubin offered that perhaps the documentary gen re does not exude the same capacity for social change that it did in the I930s. Goldovskaya countered that documentarians were part of the perestroika equation and that the documentary was a very powerful and dangerous weapon as both an observer and instigator of change.  Murphy cited the American government’s skittishness about documentaries, a position that dates back to Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River: The U.S. Congress felt that films such as these would do great harm to the American public if they originated from the government. And up until five years ago it was illegal, under the U.S. Information Educational Exchange Act, to screen State Department films in the United States. Smithers maintained the documentary is more of an instrument for public awareness than for social change, and he lamented the decline of the "crusading" documentaries of the 1930s and '40s, attributing this decline to Great Britain's de-evolvement from an empire to a welfare state.

Grubin then posed the question that seemed to have dominated the 2nd International Documentary Congress: Have we ebbed to an era of more personal filmmaking? He discussed one of his own works-a documentary about a person of color in a predominantly white prep school-and how it had transformed from a story that he wanted to tell to something that had great social value to educators across the country. Goldovskaya went so far as to cast doubt on the fiction film's ability to provoke as much passion and thought as the documentary.

As a fitting coda to this discussion about the power and integrity of images, the panel screened a clip from John Huston's The Battle of San Pietro—a very personal film about struggle, survival, and death of average American soldiers during World War II. When it was made, the U.S. War Department censored the film because it had too much footage of the dead.

The 2nd International Documentary Congress Special