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Critiquing The Documentary Cinema

By Dan Marks

The organizers of the U.S. Film Festival in Park City, Utah, invited three distinguished filmmakers to come and critique documentary cinema. Jean- Pierre Gorin, Dennis O'Rourke and Errol Morris attempted precisely this and it was clear that all three were capable of delivering to documentary cinema (whatever it may be) a devastating critique. But the large audience of well- behaved and polite skiers and movie-goers appeared to this writer to be thoroughly uninterested in such a critique. It is a mark of the profoundly reactionary times in which we live that the audiences who attend such events neither argue with nor challenge the panelists. It has become difficult for panelists even to say anything controversial and challenging because people are listening so hard for harmony and communication that they do not hear disharmony, disagreement and discord when it is sounded. In part it was the pressure of the audience's lack of expectations that stopped the event from being the "inspired dialogue... pushing the form to accept new personal, political and artistic challenges " as which it was billed. It was, however, a revealing and sometimes exciting event.

"Critiquing Documentary Cinema" is an ambitious title for a seminar. Nevertheless, Morris, O'Rourke and Gorin conducted a dialogue that was thoughtful, candid but unpretentious in an unhurried and unsystematic way. They considered documentary film—what it is and what it should be, as they sidled towards (or perhaps away from) the "critique" of the seminar's title.

While the "documentary " film may be difficult to define, everyone knows one when they see one. Its stereotypical style and content have become so familiar that as Morris said, "when we hear the term documentary we all know somehow what we're going to see." He could have added "...and we groan" because we expect it to look a certain way and to be 'about ' "worthy " subjects like "retarded children, hootenannies at old age homes, wrongly charged mur­ derers and the like.''

Much of the seminar consisted of a dissection and rejection of this unsatisfying form and of the presump­ tions and dogmas that maintain and perpetuate it. Without any dissent, Gorin (Poto & Cabengo, Routine Pleasures) claimed that "I don't think anybody on this table effectively defines himself as a documentary filmmaker. I don't think that we define our work in relationship to that."

For Morris (Vernon, Florida: Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line), "documentary film doesn't have to look like anything, it can look like whatever you want it to look like" and for him it is a dogma descended from the tradition of cinéma vérité about the kinds of exercises in which documentary filmmakers should be engaged that has to be overcome if we are to reach this conclusion.

"Even that expression, cinéma vérité is incredibly misleading. As if the documentary filmmaker all of a sudden got it into his head that ah ha, truth telling is our business. This is what we're doing, this is what we are involved in. When in fact it's no more the business of documentary film­ makers than it is of anybody else. It 's all of our businesses, it's our collective business to seek the truth...It's not the province of documentary to give us the truth," and anyway "truth is not guaranteed by style or anything else. It amazes me that people ever thought that it was. Truth is something that we work at and sometimes, but rarely achieve."

Of course, if the guarantee of capturing the 'truth' lies in the film­ maker's ability to remain aloof and watch the flow of life go by with omniscient camera and infallible recorder, then such a notion of truth is meaningless and shallow. This is the truth that must be waiting for the filmmaker to come along and reveal it. And the filmmaker is able to reveal it because s/he(unlike everyone else in the world,) has the privileged sight to see it (not being compromised by being in any 'particular place' relative to it).

But as Morris reminded us, filmmakers can no longer assume that they have such privileged sight. We have no such abilities, and we are charlatans if we pretend that we do. Such an admission removes the onerous task of what O'Rourke (The Shark Callers of Kontu, Half-Life, Cannibal Tours) calls "the theological position of the documentary film­ maker." For blessed with this special sight we surely have an obligation to attend to these moral questions and to convey our insights. Removed of these obligations, filmmaking or documentary filmmaking is no longer what Gorin calls an "abstract exercise in morality." For him, "the fact is that you're a mercenary. So you do your job. Your job is to be a filmmaker. No bones about it. o sentimentality about it. No glorification of the situation of being a filmmaker. It 's a job and you do this job honestly."

O'Rourke has replaced the simplistic cinéma vérité notion of a monolithic truth with the relativistic view of multiple "truths " that he tries to capture in his films. For him, "truth is a movable feast, the Irish have it right when they say, 'it be the truth for him.' There's my truth, there's your truth—and my truth today is not my truth tomorrow."

But relativism is not the only position which allows for the development of a more critical documentary cinema. Indeed, one might argue that such a relative posi­tion actually avoids many important questions, and Morris' is not a relativist position. For him there are events that happen in the world, events that occur and take their effect no matter where one stands relative to them, nor what one's interests are in them. He is unconcerned to examine the "truth-from 'your' or 'my' point of view but claims that "one of the things that documentary filmmaking could or should to call attention to the ways in which we look at the world and those conventions that we accept as being truth­ laden or truth-bearing." The question for Morris is not whether events take place or objects are really there. For there clearly are events and objects in the world that are more solid and more real than a relatively defined perception. The question in The Thin Blue Line of whether or not Randall Adams is a murderer is more than a matter of opinion or position. It is a question of fact and ultimately of life or death. The notion that Randall Adams could be the figment of somebody's perception is as absurd as the notion that boiling water on human skin is a relative notion. Mor­ ris is particularly interested in the ways in which people understand and manage the events and interactions of their lives. Like the others, Gorin rejects a simple view of "the truth" on which is predicated a simple and simplistic cinema. In his filmmaking "you as the filmmaker are the only marker that you can give the audience. And to look at people and to absolutely cover up the fact that they can create in you feelings of utter boredom or hatred and love and admiration-to refuse to cover that range in the name of 'the interests' of your subject is absolute treachery of the highest order.''

So what we are left with? What kind of a cinema do we need? What is an honest documentary? At this seminar there were no programmatic statements, no offers of a coherent methodology, style or content for documentarians to follow that would guarantee a successful and critical cinema. Such an offer would have been cheap and simplistic.

Objecting to current mores and styles in film and generally attending to the inadequacies of current definitions of "documentary " is an important analytical task. But we must recognize that it is more than definitional inadequacies or chance that produce and reproduce the patterns in documentary film to which the panelists objected. There are, of course, systematic and systemic reasons for this, and a critique of such reasons is an exercise which is less of a philosophical one than it is political. And as Gorin said, "politics is a bad word and a far worse word than the word documentary," quite accurately he said that "there's one thing that people don't want to say in film festivals—which is how bad the situation is in filmmaking today.''

About half way through the seminar there was a vivid illustration of the forces which maintained the current cinema in such a bad way, and of the difficulty of overcoming them.

The debate was hi-jacked by an extended question from the audience. It was a revealing and excruciating encounter. The questioner insisted that each of the panelists say what they would do if a soon-to-be-executed Ted Bundy (the serial murderer ) demanded to be interviewed on videotape by them. He appeared not to be interested in the ethical dilemmas implied by his question, but in the relative superiority of videotape or film. As this incredible truth emerged, so the panelists struggled not to get drawn into an increasingly absurd scenario, and as they struggled, so he pursued them. Morris said that he would not go, so the questioner responded by positing that it would be Morris or Geraldo Rivera! Now your turn, Dennis... What about you, Jean-Pierre? Here was an audience member (and a filmmaker) whose tone of question was the unctuous and intimate that we have come to associate with the "professional" interviewer. The questions themselves were utterly meaningless and yet because of his tone, the tone of the television and the "true" documentary, it required a real effort to dismiss the question as irrelevant and thereby to deny conventional authority.

For O'Rourke, Gorin and Morris there was consensus that most film products of the historical times in which we live are shallow and irrelevant. In their shallowness they divert from important and profound questions and problems that film might otherwise address; indeed Morris claimed, "I hate almost everything that I see.''

But it was Gorin who put the inadequacies into a larger and systemic political context. "For all sorts of historical reasons, by generalizing about the fate of either fiction filmmaking or documentary filmmaking we absolutely, constantly and systematically refuse to talk about the reality of the historical times in which we live. And the fact is that what makes a film move is the intelligence behind it. That intelligence is anchored in a specific time and in a specific situation. It 's our glory as manifest that interaction and to be able despite yourself at times to effectively provide that marker to enable a certain culture to recognize itself at a certain point in time."

O'Rourke sees in most documentary film that "the real functioning of these works in modern culture is not to confront the world, but to allow us to avoid confronting the issues." And for him, the critics are collusive with that process insofar as "the critical environment is just non-existent." For Morris, "most documentary films play on a whole set of viewer expectations—they pander to audiences. They give people what they want to hear and when they don't, they are roundly attacked."

Throughout the seminar and in their rather different ways, the panelists expressed their impatience with mainstream "documentary" film. But it was Gorin who most strenuously argued that the issues which had to be confronted were political issues and that without such a confrontation we, (as documentary or any other kind of filmmakers) would inevitably be party to the pro­ duction of work that was non-confrontational, and positively collusive with a trend that he described as "creeping fascism." He noted that when Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange and Sally Fields are asked to testify before a congressional committee on the fate of small farms on account of their having played farmers in previous films, then "as long as the relationship from that to the aesthetic that is pro­ duced is not put in the clear, we won't be out of the shit-hole."


Daniel Marks is a documentary filmmaker and anthropologist. Together with Thomas Fleming he was nominated for an Academy Award in the 1989 Documentary Short category for the film GANG COPS.