Still… What Makes Documentary?

This should apply to all documentaries, but will probably only apply to the good ones.

It is almost pointless to try and say what qualifies a film as a documentary or not because there are so many arguments and factors.  In the first chapter of Sander’s book, a good point is made: What makes An Inconvenient Truth more a documentary than United 93? Now, I have never felt the latter a documentary in away way, and I’m sure there are not many who do.  But the point remains, this shit comes up and if someone is very good at B.S. and a convincing speaker, they may very well argue anything could or couldn’t be a documentary.

Something I am starting to notice in the documentaries I like the best (Thin Blue Line, Page One) is the role of the director.  The director is the creative force in control; God, if you will.  As a class, we pick on Michael Moore a lot because frankly, he is unethical and his movies are very entertaining, but pieces of shit as documents.  But instead of thinking about how much I don’t like what he does, I starting thinking about what others do well and why it’s different and then it hit me:

The director needs to step away.

This will not apply in all cases.  In film (or art, in general) NOTHING applies in all cases, but in most of these documentaries I hold in the highest regard, the director is not present.  He is the chief observer and the relayer of information.  But the quality of the film is better when it is presented in the view of the subjects. Always.  Interference is a huge issue in documentary, because it doesn’t always imply Flaherty asking a dude to eat a record, it could be unintentional manipulation of editing or questioning.  Moore is the epitome of interference and manipulation, and while Morris recreates scenes from footage that does not exist, he leaves the story and the character to the actual characters/subjects interviewed.

Documentary and film in general will always be up for debate, but I’m noticing more and more this claim seems to ring true.  Even essay films with directors narrating and dictating the story require them to draw from what they have observed, not what they have contrived.



Stock Soleil

Wow… Woah.

We have talked about movies we consider “great” before and how we can watch them for what they offer but not much for entertainment value on a Saturday night, Man With A Movie Camera being an example.  There were two screenings today, and both challenge convention and the viewer.

The short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee was so serene…  Someone spoke in the discussion that you could meditate to it (or fall asleep) but I was surprised at how engaging I found it.  Mostly in the cinematography.  It was gorgeous and the slow pans drew me in to try and take it all in.  But it was all from an insider looking out perspective: most of it was looking out windows into the jungle; the light from the darkness.

Sans Soleil is also very calming, but in a different way.  I don’t want to say it is more blatant.. I think it is MUCH more experimental.  It doesn’t cover as specific topics as the former film (violence and repression) but focuses on human elements: memory, culture, history… Now, maybe I’m wrong but some of that is some big shit, and being such a large scope makes it more general in a way.  Traveling around to these different places (and filling in with some stock footage) makes some segments seem surreal, even something like the cat statues.  I don’t know anything about cultures that hold stuff like that in high regard, so I am to apply my own thoughts and experiences when the narration doesn’t interfere with my train of thought.

The narration is what shifts these films: there were a few things in Soleil I thought I could completely grasp.  She talked about a scene in Apocalypse Now,  that should be right up my ally.  I knew the scene, I love the scene, but it was applied in a new way to a culture I know barely anything of.

I will say that it was much easier for me to get lost in Letter because of the freedom: being more able to take it wherever I needed it to go.  Both have the narration.  Both are experimental narrations of some sort, but with less specific guidance, I found what I thought the film should give me in Letter.  Sans Soleil was enlightening, but I felt more detached.

Hoop Dreams REVISED

There isn’t much to say here.

I watched Hoop Dreams again and have determined I was in a less than enthusiastic mood during the first viewing.  Unfortunately, we read an article that undermines what I have just recently gained from it… or at least attempts to.  The film still remains moving, and I had an easier time keeping track of everyone this time around.  However, in class we sometimes must tear down what we build up.

This blog post is my apology to the film itself and to make myself feel better.

McElwee’s March

… What?

Talk about misleading.  I love this movie.  It is so absurd, but I wouldn’t say by accident.  We’ve talked about the intent of a filmmaker creating a documentary and how it can be out of their control depending on what they get in the footage.  Well… that doesn’t exactly fly here.  Regarding Sherman’s MarchRoss McElwee was in control, TECHNICALLY.  He was the Writer, Director, Producer, Narrator, Star, and the man behind the camera.  However, he can’t focus.  He is the creator of this film and is not in control.  Break-ups are hard.  They suck.  But McElwee keeps getting distracted and can’t separate his emotional emptiness his ex-girlfriend left him in from the task of creating the movie.

That said, what we get is very personal.  Very whiney, somewhat annoying, but very hard to look away.  How many women does he meet and “fall for” over the course of filming this movie?  He is so upset about his break-up that he can’t ignore attraction to these women, when really he just wants someone to fill his void.  His march doesn’t mirror Sherman’s Civil War march as much as the initial intent may have hoped, but when the sole person who has the intent is altered so much on a personal level, their output will as well, including their work, interactions with others, thoughts, etc.


Side note: I don’t know what we are going to discuss about this film in upcoming class, not a clue actually, but I still don’t feel bad about not liking The Gleaners and I.

Window Water BOOM Baby

At first, I could only think “What Doctor allowed this?”

Window Water Baby Moving is not easy to write about.  It is an experimental film depicting the birth of the director’s child.  That alone is enough to make a lot of people cringe, as was the case in the classroom I watched it in.  But having witnessed a birth recently, I thought they were actually pretty generous with what they could have showed.  Granted, at the very end, they started to be a little less generous,  but when you are literally watching “Life” I personally find it hard not to appreciate it, in all its disgusting beauty.

There is no sound.  This makes the movie more intense.  I’m not sure why, but it draws you in more, and the classroom had never been so quiet.  It was experimental in the editing: the way it was chopped up and kept calling back to the opening.  The film has a linear narrative, it just has random bits thrown in between.

There is an odd sense of beauty,  like some of the shots in the bathtub with the water dripping off the belly.  I knew what was coming, and when it did, I’m glad it kept reverting back to those, even if the frantic editing and silence adds intensity.  And a good point was made in class about the early portion of the birth being portrayed in a somewhat sexual orgasmic way.  Out of context, showing her hands gripping and moaning, what would you think?

At least it kept going back to the bathtub.  That really was something.

The Gleaners and More Gleaners

This movie had no hope for me in the first two minutes.  Then the rap song came on and there was a slight chance.  Then it all went back to hell.

The Gleaners and I did nothing for me.  My nitpicks destroyed my viewing experience of it.  The fact that they wouldn’t stop saying the word “glean” upset me much more than it should, I admit.  And then the filmmaker herself…  I don’t know what point she was trying to make, or what kind of drugs she possibly was on.  “I like these trucks.  I’m going to grab these trucks.  All for me” …… Yeah, that’s great.

I will say that I was intrigued by the talks with the people living on the city streets.  The fellow who eats nothing but trash on pure principle was an interesting character.  It’s awful, but I commend him for his beliefs and commitment.  I was hoping the film in the beginning was going to focus more on how similar the worlds are from the fields to the streets, and honestly, maybe it did but I wasn’t engaged.  I tried, I really did, but this was the only movie we have watched all semester that did nothing for me.  At all.  I don’t like Michael Moore but I can get something out of his movies, even if I’m just laughing at him.

Nazi’s and Fog

Night & Fog was thirty minutes of contemplation.  But not in the way most WWII/Holocaust movies are.

The majority of films regarding this subject matter make it a point to hammer home how horrible the Nazi’s were for what they did at these camps.  This film said that without EVER saying it.  It took archival footage… This was footage I didn’t even know existed, but they filmed it like it was their job.  Just like the architects we discussed who put these buildings and courtyards together as their occupation.

People have criticized Schindler’s List for painting the war in the one good man vs. one bad man stance.  I don’t view it that way because Hitler is not even in the film and it is supposed to be about one man did, but I always thought that movie seemed so realistic it almost seemed horrifyingly unrealistic.  Watching the real footage, I still felt the same.  The piles of hair, the bulldozer of bodies, etc.

The film was made at a time to make the statement that people did this, and the fear it could happen one means it could happen again.