Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On documentary film

Film is much on my mind at the moment. I'm currently halfway through a semester of co-teaching a class called Story in Fiction and Film International, which concentrates on the process of creating story as it emerges in fiction (such as Murukami, Allende, Kincaid, and other non-white or non-American writers) and films from around the world.

Then there's the recent interview I posted with Bruce Sheridan, chair of the Film and Video department at Columbia College Chicago. (By the way, for those who don't know this, the F & V program is the largest in the USA for interdisciplinary learning in film, and certainly one of the top two or three programs in the country by any standard you want to compare it to).

The teaching, and thinking about what Bruce said about language in relation to film, made me wonder why it is that the best films that I've seen recently have been documentaries, or non-fiction narratives in one form or another. "The Rape of Europa", about the industrial-scale looting of art by the Nazis in WWII, or "Which Way Home", about a group of migrant children travelling to the USA, are two that spring to my mind from films I've seen recently.



Or there's Bruce's film about Frank Sargeson, "Perfectly Frank", or Ken Burns' films about the Civil War and the history of Jazz. What is it that I find more satisfying about those films, as narratives, compared to the stuff that Hollywood shovels our way at the moment?



I think it's largely to do with the different pace. The non-fiction filmmaker doesn't feel the need to change shot every ten seconds, or even more quickly than that. Yes, there are the visual cliches of documentary -- the slow zoom out from the detail of a still photo, the contrasting pans back and forth across same -- but even those serve an important purpose: not just to animate the static frame, but to give the sense of attention lingering over something, taking the time to get meaning from it, to match the sense to voice-over and narrative.

There, in the end, is the key word: narrative. Story. So many films, even independent films, start well, but lose their nerve by the end, stray away from the implied (usually darker) resolution of the material in favour of something lighter, more hopeful. A good recent example would be "The Kids Are All Right", which to a large extent I enjoyed, but which seems to just peter out into a number of bland set pieces, presumably because the film-maker decided that she could lose her audience if she didn't corral the story back into the pen of domestic comedy.

Non-fiction film, documentary, call it what you will, can present its view of its subject, no doubt partial, never entirely the whole truth, but inits own time, and according to its own narrative pace. Perhaps I'm comparing apples and oranges here, but frankly I only seem to get a bitter taste when I bite into one, not the other.

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