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The 2nd International Documentary Congress: The Documentary Eye

By Tom White

"The Documentary Eye," the brain child of IDA Executive Director Betsy McLane and a work-in progress, took the audience through the rich cinematic history of the documentary, from the Lumiere brothers to the Burns brothers and beyond. Ricky Leacock and Joan Churchill, veteran filmmakers from different eras, provided entertaining insights and anecdotes about the past, present, and future of the documentary at key points in this seminar.

"The Documentary Eye" was an ambitious undertaking for both the IDC and its producers, but they stumbled slightly by opting for slides of stills when the desired footage was not readily available. As honorable as the intention was to present an imagistic evolution, the inclusion of stills here may have had the same disengaging effect that one might have happening upon a film in the middle of a photography exhibit. But this is just a quibble. "The Documentary Eye" has the promise to succeed in many ways as an educational tool for documentarians and laypeople alike.

The audience was treated to a riveting collection of images from world history, from Ruttmann Berlin: Symphony of the City to Flaherty's Louisiana Story to Jennings' Listen to Britain to Robert Drew's Primary to Henry Hampton's Eyes on the Prize to, finally, the St. Petersburg Documentary Film Studio's meditation on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. McLane provided an informative context about the technological and artistic developments that moved the documentary forward through the century. Indeed, in terms of technology, the documentary has always been there first: from the earliest cinematic images of trains through the evolution of camera equipment and film stock to such recent innovations as IMAX and interactive technology, the nonfiction film has figured prominently in every stage.

Leacock, one of the giants of the documentary, joined McLane on stage to share his experiences and provide some living history. Having worked as a combat cameraman in World War II and honed his craft under the aegis of Robert Flaherty, Leacock regaled the audience with reflections on the headier days of cumbersome cameras and antiquated sound recorders (try using an acetate-coated glass disk with a diamond stylus!). He praised such developments as synchronous sound and hand-held cameras—innovations that figured in Louisiana Story and Primary, respectively.

Seguing to the next generation of documentarians, McLane brought on Joan Churchill, who developed her craft as a cinematographer on projects such as An American Family and Dear Mr. Gorbachev before directing her own works, such as the acclaimed Soldier Girls. "I was very impressed by verite," she remarked. "Filmmakers like Ricky Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker inspired me to use the camera as an extension of the eye." Surprisingly, Churchill hasn't been seduced by new technologies in her 20 years as a filmmaker; indeed, she's never even made a work in video. Video and forms of digital technology made for a touchy subject for McLane and Leacock, McLane casting doubt over their ability to be preserved and Leacock vigorously maintaining the potential for steel disks to capture a digital image.

"The panelists turned to the impact the documentary has made over time, Leacock naming the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War as one of the most vital periods for documentary filmmaking, an era that dovetailed with the continued development of synchronous sound and the mobile camera. Churchill observed that audiences have changed and, despite the great influence of the earlier documentaries, it is harder to make propaganda. She cited the current trend toward smaller personal films such as Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter as a means to comprehend the larger, more worldly issues.

"The Documentary Eye" reminded the nonfiction filmmaking community of its rich tradition and promising future. One would hope that as this work-in-progress is honed into a compelling educational tool, the laypeople of the world—this writer included—will benefit as well.

The 2nd International Documentary Congress Special