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Pandora's Dox: Opening the Doors to What It Means to Be Human

By Michael Rabiger

Michael Rabiger was a professor and chair of the Film/Video Department at Columbia College Chicago

Like many film people, chance and accident have steered my 50 years with the medium. At 17 I became a cutting-room assistant in British feature studios and saw the extraordinary Method work of Rod Steiger in its raw state. Later, working under Tony Richardson and others in the Free Cinema movement, I saw film artists putting raw British working-class life on the fiction screen. An employment hiatus led me into editing documentaries, and then, freelancing for the BBC, I was lucky enough to direct a series of biographical and oral history documentaries. Mass unemployment in the early 1970s sent me (temporarily, as I thought) to Columbia College in Chicago, where I began teaching fiction filmmaking. My documentary experience proved most useful.

I believe my path mirrors the way documentary has come of age in academe. In the mid-’70s, equipment and budgetary restrictions at Columbia meant we could only teach documentary history and interviewing. Then, as our equipment increased, we taught a rudimentary production that was hampered by the expense and unwieldy nature of 16mm production. Its staggering outlay put our students in such a funk that the best they could produce was the cramped essay-journalism of public service TV.

The videocassette revolution threw the doors wide open by allowing us to show world documentary. The camcorders that followed let students try shooting. In no time their dailies began showing the delightful vagaries of actuality. But tape-to-tape post-production stymied authorship. Students faced a Catch 22 situation: Only solid experience of filmmaking could let anyone plan a film before assembling it, and by definition students lacked this. To incorporate almost any new idea or improvement meant reassembling literally everything. It was like novel-writing on a manual typewriter, and all wrong for the circularity of documentary’s artistic process. But once digital editing came along, student production roared into orbit. With the freedom of digital acquisition and the nonlinearity formerly available only in film editing, they poured forth a torrent of authored, responsive, interactive documentary—their trailblazing heroes being Ross McElwee and Michael Moore.

Experienced or not, today’s filmmakers only need a phone camera to catalyze and capture the most transient materials of human life. Then, through sustained meditation at a computer, they can determine a narrative. That anyone can look so deeply into actuality is nothing short of a revolution, and is profoundly significant to grassroots democracy.

Teaching film’s creative process has changed me quite as much as those I’ve taught. The pressures and momentum in a working director’s life inhibit much deep thinking, but to stop and teach is like unpacking one’s bags after a long, stumbling journey. A documentary class, from its members’ first groping shots, works collectively at identifying sense and order. This is learning at its most intense. What other group can visit, revisit and circle around the same actuality, and travel ever closer to its ultimate flow, associations and meaning? The goals—to distill meaning, to develop an implied statement, to render a complex point of view and to grip an audience—are not new, of course. Narrative art has always done this, but since Renaissance times we’ve insisted on seeing the artist as a lone individualist. Creating collaboratively returns us to the way that actors and poets created the great authorless narratives of the past. What mattered was to discover truth and beauty together, not to acquire ego gratification for the individual.

Making the humblest documentary reveals that reality is never commonplace. Always it turns out to be an encrypted mystery. Students grasp this viscerally and are deeply excited. Inspired perhaps by a film like Capturing the Friedmans, they will often first probe, question and gaze into their own family. With their class as a trial audience, they discover an endless well of possibility. Most experience the awe, excitement and sense of being at the very threshold of existence that one felt as a child. Reality is no longer something banal, to be replaced with car chases and escape entertainment, but a mystery to be embraced and penetrated.

One day in a moment of epiphany, I discovered that a hidden life of the heart and mind had been directing my every move as a director. I realized that something similar must be directing my students too. By pressing in the right places, I could often alert a student to hidden connections between the person and his or her art. Most importantly, clues and revelations about such links would often come from other students.

Students who make documentary their way of life are special. Usually they are marked by some emotional baptism that has left them with an inchoate mass of feelings to discharge. Perhaps it’s losing a loved one or growing up with a handicapped sibling or parent. Often such students are outsiders—gay people, for instance—stigmatized into awareness by the pain of being considered abnormal. Equally likely, the student carries a torch for someone admired and beloved who fought for an ideal or belief. Most who adopt documentary have keen, sensitive minds that hunger to explore “what is.”

Resonating in class to the transient beauty, order and meanings lying under the skin of normality is like a religious experience, and brings a group very close. The teacher, mediating between the everyday world and the metaphysical one, often can reveal the most profound and wonderful purposes of art itself.

The great development today is that documentaries at last have palpable authorship. Democratized and freed from the balance-obsessed norms of group-think television, the documentary has come of age. The veils of political, social, moral and historical life are being torn aside by a generation that documentary itself has helped produce. Their work––if the critics at Sundance are right––is routinely more mature and rewarding than its fiction counterpart. The best films no longer preach for the establishment, but open doors to what it means to be fully human. Their authorship is replete with warmth, compassion and, yes, humor.

Many of this new breed started watching and making films collaboratively in classrooms when only the children of the establishment, the lucky or the obsessed, got the chance to utter. Now the lid is off Pandora’s Box. 


Michael Rabiger was a professor and chair of the Film/Video Department at Columbia College Chicago; he received the IDA Preservation and Scholarship Award in 2003.