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Amsterdam Documentary Teachers Conference: "The Hammer and the Mirror"

By Michael Rabiger

The conference (13-14 December 1997) was part of the second Visions Project, the ongoing documentary work­ shop organized under a wing of Centre International de Liaison des Écoles de Cinéma et de Télévision (CILECT, the world confederation of film schools) for European film school students. Thirty-four teachers were present, from Brazil, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Hungary, Indonesia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Russia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the U.K. and the U.S.

Visions 2 is being led by Madeleine Bergh (Dramatic Institute, Stockholm) and Chap Freeman (Columbia College Chicago). Since I had led the first Visions workshop, I was invited back as conference moderator and charged by the Amsterdam organizer, Rolf Orthel, with setting a lively agenda (the two previous documentary teaching conferences I'd attended—in Berlin 1995, and Mexico City 1997—had generated few obviously burning issues or schisms). Writing the introductory notes, I decided to confess my own uncertainties as a teacher and hope that these would resonate with colleagues. Chief in my mind was the memory of 35 documentaries, submitted for the 1994/5 Visions, in which there was little sign of the upheaval and savagery again rending Europe. Just as worrying was an avoidance of spontaneous filming situations in general. To get things going, I began with Brecht's famous dictum that "art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it."The conference title thus became "The Hammer and the Mirror." My notes posed these concerns:

  • If "all acts of cruelty begin from a failure of imagination" then the work we do—the training of film artists—ought to lead toward an activist art, one that awakens imagination and empathy. Yet few young people are using film art these days as a weapon for justice... too often the modem [student] documentary is a self­ involved essay displaying the aesthetic sensibilities of its maker.
  • A number of disturbing questions emerge from this train of thought. If there is ever to be a saner and more generous world, shouldn't we somehow teach that one should care more about others than oneself? Without a belief system such as Marxism or a religion, doesn't this sound like hypocritical moral blackmail? Of course, there's room/or all kinds of film, but why is most crusading left to TV journalism ? Can we teach the concept of service to our fellow human beings in any way except by example? And, can one expect anything of one's students that one isn't doing oneself? If I am too busy teaching filmmaking to make films myself, can I expect to have any moral authority? Can I expect to have any authority at all?
  • Are there in fact any means—legitimate or otherwise—to get film students to acknowledge the world's ills? And dare I encourage anyone anywhere to make another "victim" or "role­ model" film? Is there the slightest evidence that audiences are moved to action any more by documentaries, or is this just some­ thing I choose to continue believing? Is the argument that documen­tary is a voice in the democratic process enough to justify the expense and trouble that documentaries cost? Why are most documentaries so routine and so ineffective as instruments of changed consciousness?

Four panelists opened the conference with responses to my queries. Gyorgi Karpati (National Film School of Hungary) said that documentary, being art, deals with unanswerable questions. A documentarian proposes an hypothesis, so he or she is a walking question mark. Students often feel they should make films giving authoritative answers, so it's important that we teachers share our own doubts and failures. Because students are attracted to dark and negative sides of life, to the brutal and the bloody, we should instead provoke them to try to reflect what is life-affirming. We must support them in this since it's easy to get labeled as a senti­mentalist. Running counter to peer wisdom takes special courage.

Klaus Stanjek (Hochschule fur Film und Fernsehen, Babelsburg—the former East German film school) said that hammers are for metalwork and art's job is to contem­ plate. Documentaries have changed. The breakdown of socialist systems has silenced the criticism of capitalism and seems for the time being to have extinguished utopian ideals. Twenty years ago films were apt to support movements and agitate in pursuit of political power. Their language favored Madeleine Bergh and Chap Freeman facts and logic, but they neglected emotion. Today's documentaries include more portraits and social approaches. The sledgehammer has been displaced by poetics. If the new forms lack political power, they are more subtle, refined and restrained. Crusading is left mostly to TV and print journalism, but we must support the occasional student who chooses a big, humanistic subject. It's also important to question "lesser" films to ensure that form follows function. Our own work and lives do matter to students since they compare what we say with what we do.

George Stoney (from the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and surely the doyen of American documentary makers) said that campaigning films accomplish nothing unless linked to ongoing social action. Working with his students, he lives through their filmmaking and they live through his. In making Uprising of '34 he and his students dealt with grassroots organizations, and they got to know real people involved in real situations. Work on the film—which is about how the failure to unionize among exploited Southern cotton workers had caused them to repress their own history—had made students deeply appreciate and honor its partic­ipants. The movie lives on because local organizations use it extensively in their work of arousing conscious­ness of American labor history.

Dick Ross (National School of Film and Television, UK.) thought that my notes used words and ideas that are old fashioned and even embarrassing to students. Thatcher's children have expunged words such as "virtue" and "compassion" from the national lexicon, so we usually tell them what they want to hear. In today's entertainment, where Klaus Sranjek (Babelsburg) imagination run riot produces horrendous displays of casual violence and suffering, the television set has become a piece of furniture for voyeurs. But Snow White (a Dutch video documentary about heroin-addicted mothers, produced for Visions by Jelka Anhalt) is a film that Ross has seen more than fifty times because it unfailingly reminds him of his capacity for compassion. Making art of this order takes generosity of spirit and a willingness to engage in formal and personal experiment. Letting our students risk failure is something we too often avoid. Because we are still moved by documentaries and even by issue films, we must encourage students to care about others. This is easier when we dump the destructive auteur model. And we can and must expect better of our students than we have accomplished ourselves. At admissions time, we should select students for the relevance of their ideas. Nothing else is so important.

After a coffee break, the conference launched into a spirited open discussion. We can only teach, someone said, through our own experience. Though making documentaries is the shortest way to poverty, we are surely blessed to work in documentary and with documentary students. In the Soviet Union, with active encour­agement from Gorbachev, journalists and filmmakers helped tear down the system. But they were so destructive that the whole country tore up its own roots. Now there's still too much negativity, too much rejection in documentaries, so it's terribly important to make films about the human heart and soul, about our very being.

A participant from Turkey said that it's important to show what goes unacknowledged about a country's dark past and human rights situation. Many oral history projects are under way in Turkey but it may be necessary to set up alternative distribution systems to get the truth out. We must have faith, because film projects can still bridge huge gaps ­such as that between the Turks and the Greeks regarding Cyprus. Films really can create "impossible" alliances and positively affect international relations.

And another view: in Britain, we have to teach students how to resist systems, how to give up being stylishly negative. Cynicism and impotence are the rule in Britain, and students are obsessed with surviving as entrepreneurs. Every new class of students has its own chemistry, but each individual needs something special to push against. Human beings don't create well without opposition. We must help them make films about what truly matters to them. Snow White is a good example of one that positively handles a painful subject. It does so because the filmmaker—an ex-addict herself—acknowledges her own place in it.

Later, the Visions Project students obligingly fielded our questions. In Austria, one person said, most students are interested in fiction, but working in documentaries is enriching and a good way to find characters and stories. Indeed, it's a way to explore the miracle of life itself. The Visions course was good because it put people from many countries together and brought them back to basics like this, to responding to a subject in a purely visual way.

Some schools, the students said, are over-organized and concentrate on technicalities. They need to allow a little more chaos, to encourage more experiment, to have more of the roughness of real life. Some cast their students from the outset as either crew or directors, and it's a huge loss to directors never to handle equipment. It was good that Visions expected this of them. The conformities of the film industry are being reproduced in film schools, but schools should and must pioneer new forms. Interestingly, commissioning editors for TV don't just accept the unusual, they actively search for it—but mostly in vain.

Teachers said that in the new Europe, students have to pitch ideas and films. True creativity lies in choosing a good subject and promoting an original form for it. Coproduction is making way for more, not less, documentaries; but one must learn to use new forums for the communication and exchange of ideas. A student said that being taught to survive such a system too early would have paralyzed her—she needed first to develop her skills and ideas. Another felt he was too free in his school and looked for challenge and pressure so he'd have to answer for himself. Another said that he'd had insufficient help and felt abandoned because there was no discussion of ideas in his school, only tech­nical matters. Directing students reported difficulty getting production students for a "mere" documentary. The Visions course succeeded in focusing on "how to create order out of the chaos in our heads"—to this, production details are secondary.

One student said it was nice to have so many teachers listening. She felt that Sweden needed the hammer approach because family life has been decimated, yet public discourse holds to the nice and polite. Only a forceful message will have any effect. A Dutch/Mexican student found herself torn between two cultures, Mexico needing social-message films while "Holland needs more films that make us feel, as in Holland we are desensitized."

Everyone felt that documentaries could remain effective only if their makers think bigger and get more work into cinemas. How ironic that it took Schindler's List to get people talking about the Holocaust again! But how, someone asked, can we ever put documentaries on the level of fiction? There is increasingly a market for good student documentaries—while it's impossible, a teacher said, to know what the TV commissioning editors want, they always reject films lacking "personality" and character. Another teacher insisted that a vast market exists for documentaries and more are being shown than ever before, but what is the climate in your school for discussing and developing ideas? What is the energy like? Who listens to whom?

Returning to the documentary's supposed inability to rouse audiences, one teacher from Britain said that TV documentaries there (about Romanian orphans and the famine in Ethiopia) had polarized public opinion. Even as a mirror the medium can be powerful; it can trigger political change by sensitizing people into making informed voting choices. A Bosnian participant agreed, saying that news organizations had changed the behavior of the superpowers and put the Balkan war on hold.

The conference used the second day to break into small groups that revisited many of these ideas in greater depth, discussing teaching exercises, texts, films, policies, markets and the ethics of mentorship. In a truly magical moment, the lights went out to reveal candles burning throughout the auditorium. It was the night of Santa Lucia, and to our astonishment the Scandinavian women entered singing in small procession. They were dressed in white robes, silver crowns, and bore candles Lighting a darkened world. We were hushed and moved at this transfiguration.


MICHAEL RABIGER is Professor and Chair of the Film/Video Department of Columbia College Chicago; he has directed 25 documentaries and is the author of Directing the Documentary and Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics. The proceedings of the Documentary Teachers' Conference 1997 were recorded for transcription and future publication. The previous Visions teachers conference is published (in a combined English and German text) as Teaching Documentary Film in Europe and can be ordered post free for $25 from: Vistas Verlag GmbH, Bismarkstrasse 84, D-10627 Berlin, Germany.