How do documentary media differ from narrative media? STOP RIGHT THERE, my wife says. You are supposed to be blogging, not writing an essay, and a stiff, academic, atherosclerotic one at that. But, I whine, The Public Humanist is not really about blogging, which needs to be a daily mind dump. We’re just academic essayists trying to catch a ride on the fashion du jour. She is unrelenting. If you want anyone but academics to read it, you’d better be more real. Besides, she adds grimly, if you’re going to write like a professor, you could at least get paid like one. Ouch.
OK, OK, re-boot.
Why do I make documentaries instead of narrative films? (First of all, I hardly make either. Since winning the New England Film Festival in the late 1990’s, I have only finished one additional full length documentary, and have three in progress, one of which is a music video, a first try at fiction filmmaking.) Basically, I work at the pace of a glacier, but without its power. Still, that gives me all the more time to pontificate on the subject.
Some of my students say they want to make documentaries because they are ‘truer’ than fiction films. I’m sorry, mes enfants: TRUTH is something we make up to console ourselves for being specks of dust on a rotating rock. To claim that a documentary against capital punishment like Steve James and Peter Gilbert’s 2008 At The Death House Door presents a ‘truer’ picture of the reality of capital punishment than a fictional film like Tim Robbin’s 1995 Dead Man Walking is simply nonsense. All filmmaking is artifice, all films manipulate sounds and images in accordance with the prejudices of their makers, and insofar, documentary and fictional filmmaking are equally subjective.
Furthermore, the categories are themselves slippery. As the Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev once observed, ‘Over time, every fiction film becomes documentary, and every documentary fictional.’ When we look at an ‘I love Lucy’ episode in 2008, we’re looking at a documentary about how Americans dressed and talked in the early 1960’s, what their houses looked like, what they found funny, etc.
But the reverse is also true, in a more subtle way. Have you ever seen the famous documentary ‘The River,’ directed by Pare Lorentz, photographed by Willard Van Dyke and scored by Virgil Thompson in 1938? That film originated as a progressive effort by the Roosevelt administration to persuade Americans of the virtues of flood control and rural electrification by way of the creation of a series of dams which would come to comprise the Tennessee Valley Authority. But by the 1990’s, the TVA had become the biggest source of pollution in the Eastern United States, mocking the message which in the 1930’s had seemed so progressive. When we see the film now, it’s not the ‘truth’ of the material, but the poetry of the presentation which moves us: the elaborate montage of water sources, the incantatory narrative enumerations of place names, Thompson’s brilliant score, all elements which are staples in fiction films.
OK, you may say, but you’re just nibbling at the edges of the difference. Here’s the biggie: fiction films have scripts and actors; documentaries don’t. But hang on.
Isn’t someone being interviewed by a filmmaker acting, in some sense, since they are conscious of potentially playing a role in someone’s movie? Some documentary makers have attempted to suppress this ‘acting’ by not allowing interviews. In American style cinema verite, for instance, interviews are a no no. The filmmaker is a fly on the wall, documenting things that would be happening regardless of the filmmaker’s presence. Of course, except in the case of hidden cameras, the subject is still well aware of being filmed and hence potentially modifying their actions for the camera.
In the case of scripting, too, the difference between documentary and fiction films is not always so clear. Take a typical TV news documentary. There is a script which is written in house before the camera crew goes out, and the director just interviews people until he or she gets the response that is already in the script. It is simply too expensive to work otherwise, which explains why so much TV news is so boring. A news sequence on abortion will feature two or three rabidly anti-abortion views and an equal number of pro-abortion ones. (What you almost never see in TV news stories is people actually thinking on camera, forming an opinion as they speak. Bill McKibben, in his book The Age of Missing Information, tells of recording all 100 plus cable channels from a suburban Virginia franchise, then spending the next year analyzing what he saw. He was particularly struck by the Nature documentaries. In them, he observed, ‘Nature’ consists of a series of ‘slam dunks.’ Everything is ‘birth, copulation and death.’ Never a dull moment, though in twenty-five years of walking and camping in the wilderness, he had never seen an actual instance of any of those things. Are these docs the ‘truth’ about nature?)
But I digress. Let’s exclude from our consideration that kind of ‘documentary’ altogether, and exclude the more formulaic fiction films as well. To me, the biggest difference between docs and fiction films is not so much in the product as in the sensibilities of the folks who make them.
The difference is this: control. Fiction filmmakers play God. They attempt to transfer a fully formed vision which exists in their head onto the screen. They have as close to total control as one may have without actually being God. They write or cause to be written the exact words that are spoken in the film. They make marks indicating exactly where actions in the film begin and end. They hire professional actors to speak those words and perform those actions. If they don’t do them to the director’s satisfaction, they do them over and over again until he or she says stop.
Documentary makers, alas, are failed gods. Not because they lack vision, but because they cannot fully control the material from which their films are built. That material, after all, consists of the flow of ‘actuality’ which is going on without reference to the wishes of the filmmaker. Fiction filmmakers create a world, while documentary filmmakers have to wrestle with a world which already exists.
This is one reason why it is relatively rare for fiction filmmakers to do documentaries, and vice-versa. The temperaments required are very different. The best fiction filmmakers tend to be control freaks, whereas many of the best documentarians are looser, more indirect, counter-punchers, improvisers.
And more modest — or less secure, take your pick. Me, I would be embarrassed to be given the resources to make a fiction film. Then, I would have to take complete responsibility for the world I created, a frightening prospect. As a documentarian, I can always shrug and say: I did my best, but the world went in another direction&
But here’s the deeper story: most documentary makers don’t want to be in control. We are explorers rather than nation builders, and that is what makes our work thrilling, at least to ourselves. For us, the script lies at the end of the journey, not the beginning.
To be concrete: when I began my documentary on the recycling of the Boston’s ancient elevated subway in the late 1980’s, I was primarily driven by a fascination with demolition which went back to my childhood, when I used to build model airplanes only to blow them up in mid-air by sticking fire crackers up their tail pipes.
But when I started interviewing older by-standers along the demolition route, they were sad it was going. They didn’t share my esthetic fascination with destruction. I discovered that they associated the by then rusted old structure with the excitement of their youth, when they would take the subway for the first time downtown where they could re-invent themselves outside the pull of family. Now that it was coming down, it reminded them of their own mortality, reminded them that they were going to be coming down as well. Because I was an older guy too, who was re-inventing himself as a filmmaker, this resonated with me and became one of the dominant themes of the documentary.
This is a typical of documentary. Your ‘vision’ collides with the implacable march of actuality and the subjectivities of all the other observers and makers of that actuality. At the end of the process, what you have is neither you nor the world, but something new, evident only at the end of the process, when the fragments have been re-assembled, the jigsaw puzzle completed, though always with some pieces still missing. This is why editing is the central creative act of documentary filmmaking, whereas it is only a craft in the process of fiction filmmaking, where the script remains sovereign. Ultimately, in fiction films, meaning is ‘revealed.’ In documentaries, meaning is ‘discovered’.
Is one form superior to the other? It’s funny. If someone put a gun to my head and made me list the ten films which have most moved me, most all of them would be fiction films. But if you asked me which films I would rather have made, all of them would be documentaries. Why? Because if it is a serious documentary, you are not the same person at the end of it as you were at the beginning. What more could you possibly ask of work?
[So I show this revision to my wife. She gives me a thin smile: ‘Congratulations, dude. Nice little essog.’]