Bruzzi, Stella, New Documentary: a critical introduction, Londres, Routledge, 2000.
The aim of this book is twofold: to invite the reader to reassess some of the ways in which documentary film has been theorised and to bring the theoretical discussion of documentary practice up to date by focusing on output from the 1980s and 1990s. Even when older non-fiction material is examined, the intention is to introduce the significant antecedents to this more modern work. There are very simple reasons for this bias towards the modern: those interested in documentary find films that are familiar and relevant to them more engaging than older texts, and theoretical writing on documentary has, by and large, not kept pace with developments in critical and cultural theory. Not enough writing on documentary has tackled readily accessible, contemporary examples, nor has it advanced the manner in which non-fiction film has traditionally been discussed. The prime motivation for this book is to introduce an alternative way of discussing documentary; to initiate this, this Introduction is largely given over to outlining the shortcomings and preoccupations of documentary's theorisation.
ESte libro tiene una doble intención: invitar a los lectores a reexaminar algunas de las formas en que el documental ha sido teorizado y hacer una puesta al día de la discusión teórica sobre la práctica documental focalizando en la producción de los ’80 y los ’90. Aun cuando examinamos materiales no ficcionales más antiguos, la intención es presentar los antecedentes significativos a estos trabajos más modernos. Hay una razón muy simple para esta parcialidad hacia lo moderno:
The first issue of documentary's theorisation that needs to be tackled is the imposition on documentary history of a ‘family tree’. The most influential genealogy is Bill Nichols' chain of documentary ‘modes’, which are assumed to beget and in turn be superseded by those that follow. There are others, such as Paul Rotha's early ‘evolution of documentary’ outlined in Documentary Film in 1936 or Erik Barnouw's genealogy of sorts in Documentary: A History of the Non-fiction Film(1993), but Nichols' ‘family tree’ is the one that has stuck, although hybrid, eclectic modern films have begun to undermine his efforts to compartmentalise documentaries. Nichols has, to date, identified five modes: the Expository; the Observational; the Interactive; the Reflexive; and the Performative. He is keener on some modes than on others (the Interactive and the Reflexive, particularly) but his categories have increasingly become negatively and weakly defined by what they are not.¹The premise is that documentary has evolved along Darwinian lines, that documentary has gone from being primitive in both form and argument to being sophisticated and complex; as a general rule, his modes suggest a progression towards introspection and personalisation. Although Nichols' descriptions of various documentary modes are illuminating (his use of terms such as ‘interactive’ and ‘performative’ will, unfortunately, mean something quite different to most readers), the rigid use to which they have been put is not. The fundamental problem with his survival-of-the-fittest ‘family tree’ is that it imposes a false chronological development onto what is essentially a theoretical paradigm. So, because the Expository mode is primitive and didactic, Nichols maintains that it is also the earliest, rather arbitrarily attributing it to the 1930s. It is simply not tenable to maintain that voice-over (the sine qua non of the Expository mode) is any less popular a device in nonfiction film now than it was; narration is everywhere, likewise observation –frequently in the same documentary. If Nichols' genealogy holds, then what about the very self-conscious, reflexive films of Vertov or Vigo in the 1920s and 1930s? Or contemporary didactic documentaries? A further problem with this ‘family tree’ is that, in order to sustain itself, wildly heterogeneous documentaries are forced to co-exist, very uncomfortably at times, within one mode– a dilemma that is examined more specifically in Chapter 2 of this book.
Documentary has not developed along such rigid lines and it is unhelpful to suggest that it has. In fact, Nichols himself now acknowledges this, commenting (in parentheses, though) ‘None of these modes expel previous modes; instead they overlap and interact. The terms are partly heuristic and actual films usually mix different modes although one mode will normally be dominant’ (Nichols 1994: 95). If this is the case, then what is the point of constructing genealogical tables? The result – whether conscious or not – of having imposed this ‘family tree’ on documentary history is the creation of a central canon of films that is deeply exclusive and conservative. With this in mind, this book stresses the development of a dialectical relationship between more innovative on-fiction films and the established documentary canon and considers the many ways in which rigid classifications of documentary have been repeatedly problematised, though this debate is at times more emphatically entered into than at others and an alternative canon will certainly not be supplied.
An insistent implication of Nichols' ‘family tree’ is not merely that documentary has pursued a developmental progression towards greater introspection and subjectivity, but that its evolution has been determined by the endless quest of documentary filmmakers for better and more authentic ways to represent reality, with the implied suggestion that, somewhere in the utopian future, documentary will miraculously be able to collapse the difference between reality and representation altogether.
Documentary and fiction are forever the polarities that are invoked in this debate: Nichols' latest genealogy bizarrely begins (that is, pre-Expository) with ‘Hollywood fiction’ whose deficiency is the ‘absence of "reality"‘ (Nichols 1994: 95). The inverted commas around ‘reality’ are telling here, as if the real can never be authentically represented and that any film, whether documentary or fiction, attempting to capture it will inevitably fail. Michael Renov (1986:71-2) likewise asserts it is important to recall that the documentary is the cinematic idiom that most actively promotes the illusion of immediacy insofar as it forswears -realism' in favour of a direct, ontological claim to the ‘real’. Every documentary issues a ‘truth claim’ of a sort, positing a relationship to history which exceeds the analogical status of its fictional counterpart.
Not only is Renov's claim naïve (that documentary has the capacity to bypass its own representational tools and establish a direct relationship with reality) but he instinctively distrusts what he is saying by perpetually placing that elusive realm beyond the image again in inverted commas. Sometimes it seems necessary to remind writers on documentary that reality does exist and that it can be represented without such a representation either invalidating or having to be synonymous with the reality that preceded it.
Later, Renov returns to this differentiation between fiction and documentary when he comments
There is nothing inherently less creative about nonfictional representations, both [fiction and nonfiction] may create a ‘truth’ of the text. What differs is the extent to which the referent of the documentary sign may be considered as a piece of the world plucked from its everyday context rather than fabricated for the screen. Of course, the very act of plucking and recontextualising profilmic elements is a kind of violence. (Renov 1993: 7)
It is very odd to suggest, as Renov does here, that not only is documentary as creative as fiction but that its ‘truth’ (that is that murky half-truth that lives between inverted commas) is the ‘"truth" of the text’, the real world having got lost along the way. Particularly devilish is Renov's final aside that ‘of course’ the act of representation is automatically a violation of the truth (without inverted commas, presumably).
Continuously invoked by documentary theory is the idealised notion, on the one hand, of the pure documentary in which the relationship between the image and the real is straightforward and, on the other, the very impossibility of this aspiration. In this vein Brian Winston somewhat hysterically suggests that, in the future, documentary will simply be mounting a panicked rear-guard action against marauding fakery:
It seems to be likely that the implications of this technology [for digital image manipulation] will be decades working themselves through the culture. However, it is also clear that these technological developments, whatever else they portend, will have a profound and perhaps fatal impact on the documentary film. It is not hard to imagine that every documentarist will shortly (that is, in the next fifty years) have to hand, in the form of a desktop personal video-image-manipulating computer, the wherewithal for complete fakery. What can or will be left of the relationship between image and reality?
(Winston 1995: 6)
This is a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water: that is, that everything authentic about documentary is thrown into doubt because a couple of charlatans could conceivably create faux documentaries. ‘Fakery’ has always been a possibility, it does not require a Harry, as Richard Dimbleby's April fool’s Day ‘pasta grows on trees’ documentary (that apparently had some non-Italians fooled) amply demonstrated. Its presence similarly does not invalidate legitimate documentaries nor does it mean that the spectator will, from no won, dismiss all documentaries as ‘fake’.
All too often, documentary is seen to have failed (or be in imminent danger of failing) because it cannot be decontaminated of its representational quality, as Erik Barnouw (1993:287) suggests when declaring
To be sure, some documentarists claim to be objective – a term that seems to renounce an interpretative role. The claim may be strategic, but it is surely meaningless. The documentarist, like any communicator in any medium, makes endless choices. He (sic) selects topics, people, vistas, angles, lens, juxtapositions, sounds, words. Each selection is an expression of his point of view, whether he is aware of it or not, whether he acknowledges it or not.
Barnouw's claim is simple but erroneous: that the minute an individual becomes involved in the representation of reality, the integrity of that reality is irretrievably lost. What is, time and time again, entered into is the perennial Bazin vs Baudrillard tussle, both of whom– from polar perspectives– argue for the erosion of any differentiation between the image and reality, Bazin because he believed reality could be recorded, Baudrillard because he believes reality is just another image. Because the ideal of the pure documentary uncontaminated by the subjective vagaries of representation is forever upheld, all nonfiction film is thus deemed to be unable to live up to its intention, so documentary becomes what you do when you have failed. The purpose of the ensuing discussions is to suggest, from a variety of perspectives, that the pact between documentary, reality and spectator is far more straightforward than these theorists make out: that a documentary will never be reality nor will it erase or invalidate that reality by being representational. Furthermore, the spectator is not in need of signposts and inverted commas to understand that a documentary is a negotiation between reality on the one hand and image, interpretation and bias on the other.
Documentary is predicated upon a dialectical relationship between aspiration and potential, that the text itself reveals the tensions between the documentary pursuit of the most authentic mode of factual representation and the impossibility of this aim. This is not a new phenomenon – the fissures are there in Huston's war documentaries, for instance, or the ‘collage junk’ films of Emile de Antonio – it just has not been talked about much within the parameters of documentary theory, a body of work that has concentrated up on the desire (really only articulated fully by the American founders of direct cinema) to attain the ‘grail’ of perfect authenticity. Many antecedents of the modern documentary were not so haunted by issues of bias, performance and authorial inflection – Esfir Shub did not consider the fact/fiction divide between her portrayal and Eisenstein's of Russia's recent political history to be particularly significant, identifying the fictionalised Battleship Potemkin as the catalyst to her search for news reel material with which to compile another film to ‘show the revolutionary past’ (Jay Leyda, quoted in Macdonald and Cousins 1996: 58). in this frame of mind, the repeated use of Eisenstein's dramatization of the storming of the Winter Palace in October as a piece of newsreel is not so anachronistic. The suspicion and cynicism with which Robert Flaherty's reconstructions in Nanook of the North or Man of Aran are now treated stem not from an understanding of why he reconstituted an Aran family or recorded their dialogue in a studio (technical limitations, a desire to make a record of a bast way of life, and so on) or of how such films may have been understood for what they were by contemporary audiences. Likewise, John Grierson's early definition of documentary in light of Flaherty's work as ‘the creative treatment of actuality’ (Rotha1952: 70) has been viewed as contradictory. As Winston (1995: 11) suggests: ‘The supposition that any "actuality" is left after "creative treatment" can now be seen as being at best naïve and at worst a mark of duplicity.’
And yet, as Winston later points out, Grierson himself differentiated between documentary and other, lesser, forms of non-fiction film, and openly acknowledged the ‘contradictions’ in his definition by stressing repeatedly that the element which documentaries possessed but which other forms of non-fiction film lacked was ‘dramatisation’ (Winston 1995: 103). Grierson, the Soviets, Paul Rotha and other early practitioners and theorists were far more relaxed about documentary as a category than we have become.
Worries over authenticity and the evolution of documentary are frequently linked to the increasing sophistication of audio-visual technology. Whereas technical limitations certainly influenced the kinds of documentaries that were feasible in the 1930s when Grierson was first writing, this is no longer the case, so the return we are currently witnessing to a more fluid definition of documentary must have another root. The role of American cinema vérité has proved the crucial historical factor in limiting documentary's potential and frame of reference, and it is significant that, although many theorists suspect and criticize direct cinema, most of them dedicate a large amount of time to examining it. Richard Leacock and his fellows believed that the advancements in film equipment would enable documentary to achieve authenticity and to collapse the distance between reality and representation, because the camera would become ‘just a window someone peeps through’ (Donn Pennebaker quoted in Winston 1993: 43). As Errol Morris has bluntly put it:
I believe that cinema vérité set back documentary filmmaking twenty or thirty years. It sees documentary as a sub-species of journalism. ... There's no reason why documentaries can't be as personal as fiction filmmaking and bear the imprint of those who made them. Truth isn't guaranteed by style or expression. It isn't guaranteed by anything.
(Quoted in Arthur 1993: 127)
As Morris's timescale suggests, it has taken time for documentary filmmaking to rid itself of the burden of expectation imposed by direct cinema; furthermore, virtually the entire post-vérité history of nonfiction film can be seen as a reaction against its ethos of transparency and unbiased observation.
Obviously the problem now is not a lack of technical equipment capable of recording actuality: DVD cameras, hidden cameras and self-authored diary television have all been hurled at documentary to prove this. It is no longer technical limitations that should be blamed for documentary's ‘contradictions’ but rather the expectations loaded onto it by its theorisation. It can legitimately be argued that filmmakers themselves (and their audiences) have, much more readily than theorists, accepted documentary's inability to give an undistorted, purely reflective picture of reality. Several different sorts of non-fiction film have now emerged that propose a complex documentary truth arising from an insurmountable compromise between subject and recording, suggesting in turn that it is this very juncture between reality and filmmaker that is the heart of any documentary.
The most sustained questioning of American vérité's fantasy has emerged through the examination of films based on performance and authorship. Documentary practice and theory have always had a problem with aesthetics, as John Corner observes, ‘The extent to which a concern with formal attractiveness "displaces" the referential such as to make the subject itself secondary to its formal appropriation has been a frequent topic of dispute’(Corner 1996: 123). The discussion in Chapter 1 of Abraham Zapruder's 8-mm recording of the assassination of President Kennedy posits that there is an inverse relationship between style and authenticity: the less polished the film the more credible it will be found. Performative documentaries, a discussion of which concludes this book, confront the problem of aestheticisation, accepting, as does Nick Barker, authorship as intrinsic to documentary, in direct opposition to the exponents of direct cinema who saw themselves as merely the purveyors of the truth they pursued.
Likewise, the role performance plays in documentary has become, in several instances, not the death of documentary but rather a crucial way of establishing its credibility, as the dialogue on the subject of control between Molly Dineen and Geri Halliwell in Geri illustrates. The later films of Nick Broomfield take this notion of constructed truth a stage further as they build themselves around the encounters between subjects and Broomfield's on-screen alter ego – encounters that, in turn, form the basis for a reflexive dialogue with the spectator on the nature of documentary authenticity. What emerges is a new definition of authenticity, one that eschews the traditional adherence to an observation or Bazin-dependent idea of the transparency of film and replaces this with a performative exchange between subjects, filmmakers/apparatus and spectators.
When arguing against Bill Nichols' presupposition that objectivity in the documentary is impossible, Noël Carroll points out that, because documentaries do not, on the whole, reveal the process of their construction, this does not mean that they automatically deny the existence of these processes (Carroll 1996b: 293). To conclude, Erik Barnouw's assumption is that the intervention of the camera necessarily distorts and alters human behaviour, ergo that the resulting piece of film cannot be objective or truthful so that film is deemed to have failed. Why failure? It is perhaps more generous and worth while to simply accept that a documentary can never be the real world, that the camera can never capture life as it would have unravelled had it not interfered, and the results of this collision between apparatus and subject are what constitutes a documentary – not the utopian vision of what might have transpired if only the camera had not been there. If one is always going to regret the need for cameras and crews and bemoan the inauthenticity of what they bring back from a situation, then why write about or make documentaries? Instead, documentaries are performative acts whose truth comes into being only at the moment of filming– a moment that, in turn, signals the death of the documentary pursuit as identified by critics such as Erik Barnouw. The paradox that now dominates - as documentaries such as Broomfield's seem more spontaneous and authentic because they show the documentary process and the moment of encounter with their subjects– is that they also flaunt their lack of concern with conforming to the style of objectivity dictated by documentary history and theory. This is, erroneously, taken by many as a sign of the performative documentary's fictiveness; Izod and Kilborn, for instance, refer to the‘denial of realism’ (Izod and Kilborn 1997: 78) that ensues with the intrusion of the auteur, as occurs in the films of Morris, Broomfield and Moore. A final difficulty arises, from many performative documentary filmmakers citing direct cinema as the biggest influences on their films. Perhaps what Broomfield et al. mean by this is that they have realised that American vérité produced such powerful films not because of what Leacock and his colleagues believed in, but because their films are the ultimate expression of how hard it is to disguise the impossibility of what they were trying to achieve. The link between the observational and the performative is just one of the ways in which documentary can be seen to be going against both the ‘family tree’ structure and, conversely, proving the notion that documentaries will always tread the line between intention and execution, between reality and the image.
Organisation and structure
Although the above introduction to documentary theory has touched on some of the ways in which this book has structured its arguments, I will conclude by outlining briefly its organisation of material. Part I comprises two chapters: the first deals with the issues of film as record or archive, the second with documentary's use of narration. These discussions are intended to function as a polemical introduction to the problems posed by seeing documentary as an eternal conflict between objectivity and subjectivity, positing that accidental film, such as Abraham Zapruder's home movie footage of Kennedy's assassination, exemplifies non-fictional film at its most objective, whilst the use of narration – an overt intrusion of the filmmaker's bias and didactic point of view – exemplifies documentary at its most subjective. As both discussions conclude, such categorical definitions are crude and invalid, Chapter 1 by focusing on the dialectical re-use of archive material in documentaries such as The Fall of the Romanovs, Millhouse: A White Comedy and The
Atomic Café, and Chapter 2 by pointing out the very different relationships established between the voiceover and the image in films such as The Times of Harvey Milk, Hôtel des invalides and Sunless. Chapters 3 and 4 follow on from an introduction that looks in more depth at the problems posed to an understanding of documentary practice by direct cinema – or more precisely the way in which the exponents of direct cinema defined their achievements. The discussions of 1990s' British observational documentary and of documentaries that adopt the structure of a journey serve as illustrative examples of the ways in which documentary centred on observation has moved on since the 1960s and how the moment of encounter – so key to direct cinema– has become the starting point for a varied reassessment of the aims of the observational mode. The particular emphasis of Chapter 3 will be the phenomenal success of docusoaps, whilst the journey documentaries to be discussed in detail are Claude Lanzmann's Shoah and Patrick Keiller's London. Part III tackles the question of performance in documentary, from, broadly speaking, the perspectives of the subject-performer and the director-performer. Chapter 5 examines the ways in which the American presidential image has evolved from the era of Kennedy in the early 1960s to Bill Clinton in the 1990s. The starting point for this discussion is the representation of Kennedy in the direct cinema documentaries Primary and Crisis, progressing to the disillusionment with the presidential image that follows Nixon's use of the television broadcast as a platform for lying and concluding with an examination of The War Room, Feed and Clinton's Grand Jury testimony against a backdrop of presidential politics dictated by spin and image-making. Chapter 6 looks at documentaries that are themselves performative, adopting as its point of departure the use of the term by J.L. Austin and Judith Butler (thereby understanding the term ‘performative’ in a very different way to Bill Nichols in Blurred Boundaries).The films of Nicholas Barker, Molly Dineen and Nick Broomfield are examined as exemplary of the thesis that underpins this whole book: that documentaries are inevitably the result of the intrusion of the filmmaker onto the situation being filmed, that they are performative because they acknowledge the construction and artificiality of even the non-fiction film and propose, as the underpinning truth, the truth that emerges through the encounter between filmmakers, subjects and spectators.
Documentaries will continue to evolve and continue to re-visit old terrain. Who would have thought that, at the very end of the twentieth century, even the methods of Robert Flaherty would be revived? But that is exactly what has happened with a film such as Twockers in which real people are rehearsed to play themselves as if in a drama.