Skip to main content

Documentary and Authorship

By Michael Rabiger

A man wearing glasses smiles at the camera.

People who attend film festivals—especially those featuring student work—would probably agree that there's a plateau above which very few films (or videos, of course) manage to rise. The explanation seems self-evident—after all, how many can be "best"? But the divide online, I think, is less one of professionalism than of emotional effectiveness. Very few films really and strongly connect with an audience's emotions: this is particularly true for short fiction.

The dearth is often explained as a talent issue: "You either have it, or you don't... and few do. Don't expect too much." So goes the argument. But, writers or painters—even those of scant training—seem much better able to produce work that touches the heart. What 's the difference? Film is, of course, a more complex language, and using a crew and equipment to make an authorial statement is difficult. But this reasoning fails to explain why, in festivals wherever beginning and advanced work are shown together, it's often the novices who connect. More experience—far from reducing the slick or soulless work—sometimes actually increases it.

From conversations at NYU and USC, and at professional seminars and festivals as distant as Norway, Holland, and New Zealand, I hear the frustration that production quality keeps improving, while authorial vision and originality do not. Why i s this? It 's certainly not the lack of subject material, since every group I've ever taught—both students and professionals—were keen writers and had a large reservoir of wonderful experiences, issues and stories. But somewhere, somehow, this material expires on its way to the screen.

Here are some ideas about the underlying causes, and some approaches to alleviating them. I think films most often lack impact because the force behind their conception gets lost in the making. Production being along, intensely socializing process, directors lose their bearings under well-intentioned pressures from crew, cast (or, if it 's documentary, participants) and from received opinion and "what the audience wants." Something which started out as a singular idea gets diffused by a thousand little modifications: it ends up devoid of the precious angularities of individual voice and vision.

Strong films on the other hand remain passionately authentic to their makers. Some American examples that spring to mind are Salesman, Harlan County USA, Best Boy, Sherman's March, Roger and Me, and Memories of a Dutiful Daughter. Each had a strong theme thoroughly explored. May be documentarians have advantages denied to fiction makers, working as they do with a smaller crew, and filming actuality rather than a simulacrum. They can take a faster, more intuitive and improvisational approach. Perhaps this is the reason that Britain's national film school immersed their students in documentary before allowing them to make fiction or animation. Students learned to trust the profundity of the real, and Nick Park's Oscar-winning animation The Wrong Trousers, which draws upon wonderful character observation, show what happens when an original mind steps away from orthodoxy.

Most beginning directors are ill-prepared by schooling or industry wisdom for how strongly the tail will wag the dog. Additionally, they often feel they must choose between being successful, on the one hand, or developing as an artist and a person, on the other. But these goals are not antithetical: an audience impervious to facts or information immediately open up when a film provokes deep sympathy is. Whoever—in fiction or in documentary—uses the medium as a sounding board for their own deepest concerns will likely be among the few who change us by touching our emotions.

Having watched many filmmakers evolve, I believe people reach their creative potential once they know their own inner dynamics and use the medium to explore them. Preparing for this takes a two-tier process. The first covers ideation, that stage when a film idea is being developed to its fullest extent, and the second involves retaining focus and authority during the depleting process of filming.

First, ideation and finding one's own authorial identity. I have students develop a self-profile by (privately) listing their most deeply moving experiences. These may have moved them to joy, hate, love, lust, regret, jealousy, terror or any other strong emotion. Then after organizing the list by groups, they decide—as objectively as possible—what someone marked by such experience should be doing as work in the world. This gets discussed in seminar—important because confidence grows (and with it, authority) when peers understand and approve.

Students are also asked to profile a few characters and themes that resonate for them, from history, literature, drama, sport s or any other area that interests them. Peter Watkins, recognizing a fellow spirit in Edvard Munch, not only helped produce a fine biographical

documentary, but surely some breakthroughs in understanding himself. Identifying alter egos helps to solidify one's outlook and sense of positioning toward the issues at hand. (I discourage comparison to film characters only because I feel that filmmakers should make life and the other arts their resource, not just other films.)

Developing topic or story takes research, as everyone knows, but it also requires inner inquiry to discover what, in one's topic or theme, speaks to one's own unfinished agenda. Seldom do we undertake topics or characters for the reason s we first think, and arriving at a deeper understanding usually takes a long and perturbing journey. A graduate student, who was making a film from material she shot before her beloved brother died of AIDS, had to go through a considerable evolution. Her peers' questioning—as a surrogate first audience—pushed her to delve more deeply into her relations with her brother and their family, and eventually to acknowledge her guilt and sorrow at having spent so much of their shared life in conflict. Raising into view what has been hidden invariably seems to n arrow and deepen the scope of one's project.

From this work, virtually everyone acquires more purpose and energy. It is best done in workshop milieu sustained over several months and demanding a volume of fast, short, personally-focused writing. This builds a group energy and momentum which is supportively critical and demanding. Students see an increasingly clear picture of their own dramatic territory, authorial identity and social purpose; and this helps them lock onto what for them truly matters. Of course, in the world of commercial survival, directors don't have a student's freedom, but choice is never entirely absent; there is always some opportunity to further one's own quest, no matter how alien a job may seem.

I try to encourage students to take an experimental, playful attitude toward the storyteller's role, even to semi-fictional size when necessary. Sherman's March and Roger and Me each uses an artfully constructed narrational persona which is anything but straight autobiography. These films were freed from the earnest confessional mode and could take on whatever narrative voice the film required.

When nothing is any longer unexamined or arbitrary, the director has the belief and resolve to shoot with a clear head. Patiently, even obstinately, directors must hang on to who they are and what they know. All too easily they can be sidetracked by crew, cast, or technical problems, and lose control of the film's point of view.

Point of view is central to a film's soul, how ever enigmatic and difficult to explain. Unlike literature, where an author/ storyteller mediates events already past, films forever in the present. To the unwary it seem s neutral and without a point of view. But the storyteller—a role that I think directors should construct as something separate from themselves ­ exists very definitely. For whenever we follow a film 'is stream of consciousness, we submit to a channeling intelligence that is thinking, reacting and processing the events as they happen. It's Like being plugged into someone's hearing and sight: That someone is the storyteller, the films soul and intelligence.

This "channeling intelligence" can be driven by chance, by convenience, by the dictates of equipment and lighting, or according to the movement of an integrated human mind and heart. A film shot and edited like this as an integral storyteller presence and gives the spectator a powerful, authentic and dream like sense of being inside the film. The power of this point of view, so absent from most fiction films, is best learned from making documentary. Especially when shooting cinéma vérité, materials are caught as they happen by people thinking on their feet. Here the humanity of director and crew is separably present in the material.

Editing, the highly significant last phase of constructing a film, is usually done well because there is time to think, to experiment and to recognize what works. In documentary it is not just time to assemble to a plan; it's a new period of "writ­ing", of deep and creative reverie when the creation talks to its makers. From editing, directors learn what their work truly is, and what they have really been doing. This and the audience's reactions represent closure in films creative process. This is often the time when a new project is born, like the phoenix rising.


MICHAEL RABIGER is Professor at Large, in the Film/Video Department of Columbia College, Chicago; he has directed 25 documentaries, and is author of Directing the Documentary and Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics (both Focal Press).