Features

The Objectives of Documentary

Casting the Documentary Eye between the Internet and Oil

The Men of the Lake, dir. Aaron Noar, Bolivia/USA (2007)

Now that oil prices are spiking, travelers hesitating over high airfares are remembering how sorely their hobby pollutes the planet. Meanwhile, even the most adventurous of explorers can now satisfy their visual curiosity online. If air travel is immoral, and the Internet has contracted geography, then what kind of window is the documentary screen today?

This question rang in my mind throughout the 2008 Hot Docs festival, as we bounced between sold out films amid huge, exuberant audiences, who rushed visiting filmmakers after every screening, bursting with congratulations and questions. 85,000 people attended Hot Docs, a staggering twenty-five percent increase over last year. What did all those people come to see? This question may seem facetious written in a magazine devoted to documentary culture, but poised at this moment, twisted as we are between high energy costs, an overboiling environment, and an explosion of Internet video, a peering look at the objectives of documentary does seem in order. Since Hot Docs offered a dismaying lack of discussion of online video, the writing on the wall of documentary culture and its elephant in the room, here is a tentative entrance into a fray that I can only hope will soon blossom.

Ever since the nineteenth-century experiments in ethnographic filmmaking, and Robert Flaherty’s visual colonialism in Nanook of the North, documentary film has been predicated partly on the idea of elsewhere, the notion that, bound to one location, viewers let filmmakers be their eyes on the other side of the planet. So many of the films at Hot Docs this year succeeded in precisely this objective: Infinite Border transported viewers into the fraught migration of workers struggling between Mexico and America; the intensity, splendour, and tragedy of cockfighting swelled out of Blood and Incense; a snapshot of marginal existence in Bolivia emerged in Men of the Lake. While filmmakers often take up local topics, many focus on stories far from home, and, as a result, documentaries have always left heavy carbon footprints. From development visits to the final festival parade with the completed film, it’s normal for one documentary to require several round-trip flights for the director alone, and usually others too.

Yet since the advent of Flickr, Google Earth, and You Tube among other sites, this carbon-heavy service of visualizing far-flung places for an audience of homebodies may no longer be necessary. Like modern cathedrals, big visual websites prompt us to fall down in worship of the wonders of the world, transubstantiating the unknown masons of the middle ages into 21st-century programmers. We can now see whatever we want to see. There are webcams at intersections the world over; there are ottercams, kittycams, and eaglecams. These feats of vision are reminiscent of the work of animators, who famously rendered the perspectives of house mice in Cinderella, or National Geographic photographers, who stocked the North American imagination with shots from remote scenes. Thousands of photoblogs and videoblogs are maintained by artists who are hardly amateurs, but rather highly skilled individuals free from corporate affiliation. In general, the blind areas online, where renaissance mapmakers might once have written in, “Here Be Monsters,” are receding like glaciers. This planet was mapped once, and now it has been seen.

The most direct challenge to documentary filmmaking in this virtual realm is YouTube, yet the popular site was barely referenced at Hot Docs ’08. No one seemed to be really interested, or bothered, or excited by YouTube at all. Granted, since its startup in late 2005, it’s become old news, but it still opens the traditional notion of the documentary auteur for reconsideration. Documentary has been perennially motivated by the desire to broadcast unheard voices; the NFB, ground zero of the genre in the minds of some, prioritizes stories from underrepresented communities. YouTube accomplishes this end while elimi- nating the middleman, the professional filmmaker. Uh-oh.

YouTube lets individuals distribute their own little films free from the constraints of high production costs. Roughly ten hours of these little films are being uploaded every minute, and viewers watch hundreds of millions of them a day. The upload quality is rather poor, and acts as a kind of leveler: no matter how you shot your film, on YouTube it looks like you used a cam- corder. Small rough stories get told, usually unconstrained by narrative conventions; they tend to be simple snapshots of the world some stranger sees. The videos are all short, since the site limits all clips to ten minutes or less. Longer stories can be told only in segments. When one video ends, the site draws up an array of other similar ones, allowing viewers to extend the time they spend viewing into TV-like sessions, minus only the advertising breaks. The aesthetics of the site can be somewhat controlled by users, but essentially the viewing window is always the same, and bordered by unharmonious white space cluttered with snicky-snacky web gibberish regarding viewer statistics, sponsors, exterior links and commentary.

These viewing statistics and commentary features are among the site’s most important and potentially most harmful elements. While it’s entertaining to know exactly how many people have seen a particular video, and in some cases viewership does denote quality, in general low viewer numbers act as a negative review. Assigning merit to work based on view counts presages a Dark Age ahead for quality in film and video. Furthermore, while the commentary feature empowers viewers, it distracts from the videos, and makes film- makers vulnerable to as much needless criticism as unnecessary praise. I’m not sure how crucial it is for a viewer to remark that a singing stuffed animal is cute, or that Fredric Jameson is an important theorist—both among the most trenchant comments that have been made on videos I’ve uploaded. While the principle of accommodating viewer response is noble, the vast majority of viewers make no response at all, and the ones who do leave their marks often do so without cause or thought. Their comments wrongly seem to speak for more reticent viewers, and sit like graffiti on the work: not necessarily evil, not necessarily useful, not necessarily necessary. Some of YouTube’s most distinctive features are of dubious benefit to the video-makers or their viewers, some of whom post to know they exist, rather than to further any kind of real discussion.

One way for the film industry to acknowledge online video is to excel where it fails. Thinking back to those packed theatres at Hot Docs, it becomes clear that, by comparison to online video, a major feature of traditional cinema isn’t that it precludes viewer response, but that it gathers people together in one room. While the theatre mode of film distribution developed as a result of technical constraints and is anachronistic now, it still retains certain benefits that ought to be preserved. If viewers deserve to respond, why not foster more discussion after films? Hot Docs already does a wonderful job of giving audiences and directors access to each other, but could these exchanges be enhanced, perhaps by being made less formal, with more relaxed time constraints? Could better use be made of digital tools to foster discus- sion and engagement after screenings? Maybe these record-breaking audiences come to Hot Docs for the scene on the ground, to be part of a physical community, to get away from YouTube.

While online applications have the potential to enhance audience experience at these large-scale events, they could also lead us to question the objectives of festivals themselves. All the movies shown at Hot Docs could be put online, and reach far greater audiences, even if only for the brief span of the festival itself. Of course, making the films so accessible would downplay part of the industry intent, which is to find major dis- tribution for these films—if they’ve already been seen online, their shelf life might be wasted.

To my amusement, Hot Docs had acknowledged online video enough to use it to poorly thought-out ends on its website: no one wants to watch a thirty second video that includes a magisterial day-three greeting from the artistic director just to find the address of a venue, or to see the list of newly added screenings. Because of the design of the website, these were sometimes the inevitable, and, sadly, most exciting applications of Hot Docs’ online video. The stunning ineptitude of this use of a technology that could revolutionize film festivals illustrates just how much work the documentary milieu has to do to reconsider its mechanisms.

One result of a better-wired festival that extends its relevance by straddling virtual and real worlds could be a reduction of its own carbon footprint. While Torontonians appreciate having a doc fest at home, and seem to enjoy watching new work in theatres as opposed to at home on the computer, maybe filmmakers don’t need to expend the carbon to show up in person, given the plethora of video conferencing tools now available. Of course, a major reason why filmmakers attend festivals is to network over cocktails, make funding and distribution deals, and enjoy some new connections. The assumption, however, that face-to-face-over-a-beer interaction is still the only way to connect insults the human legacy of resourcefulness. A clever combination of Skype video calling, and some well-thought out Facebook applications (or the like) could do away with the festival shmooze forever—or at least push it into another dimension. Where would we be without the free booze? Maybe somewhat less warm—since air travel accounts for roughly nine percent of human impact on climate change, and that figure is growing fast.

The Infinite Border, dir. Juan Manuel Sepúlveda, Mexico (2007)

As one example of the migration online on the film festival horizon, the Rooftop Film series in New York has partnered with the Independent Film Channel to put their films online. The organizers downplay the move, however, since the accessibility of their films is a priority, and they’re wary of the middle-class assumption that online media is universally accessible. High speed Internet access, which online video requires, is still prohibitively expensive for a vast number of households, and can be entirely absent from rural areas. Filmmakers with a desire to have their work seen may discover they have an incentive to agitate for more affordable Internet access. Online video has a huge bearing on future distribution and, by extension, copyright—rumour has it that a Hot Docs industry panel on the topic came to a rowdy end. The issue promises to remain contentious, since the line between open copyrighters and copyright litigators (who point out that artists need to eat) is fraught, especially in documentary film, which is already so oriented to the left.

Filmmakers do always need to protect their sources of funding, but with production costs plunging, altruists might seek out viewers rather than royalties. A million online viewers may be the most exciting paycheck out there. While the digital divide still excludes communities all over the world from the universe online, filmmakers now have as much of an onus to promote Internet access as writers have to promote literacy.

We can imagine that it will be only a matter of time before Internet delivery becomes the model of choice for documentary distribution. The recent announcement by the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) of its intention to reconsider its 1999 New Media exemption order, which allowed Canadian content to go unregulated and unpromoted online, foreshadows the next stage of this progression. Whether the current vogue for short format pieces is sustained through this conversion, however, remains to be seen.

While shorts have become popular partly because of technical limitations online, they also satisfy the contemporary love of the brief, punchy, succinct, and—did I say brief? Unwieldy file sizes, and the expense of bandwidth, not to mention the relative discomfort of computer chairs, all conspire to keep online video short.

The rise of the short may also be the result of the thirty-year dominance of the remote-operated VCR and channel changer in middle-class homes. User-controlled pacing, with its accelerations, pauses, and rewinds, has sunk deep into the motion-viewing lexicon. A landmark in this progression was the recent release of the interactive film Late Fragment, whose interactivity relies upon the assumption that the viewer will become bored or dis- satisfied with a shot before it’s complete.

I had a wonderful conversation during a Hot Docs party with an organizer of a doc festival in Mexico City about how documentary films are collections of “tiny little moments.” Tiny little moments! Tiny little moments, he enthused, and then hurled me into a fast samba, twirled me around the floor, daring anyone to snap a video of us and put it on a screen somewhere, or everywhere. If documentary films really are just collections of these quick shots, like individual insights, maybe YouTube gives us all the documentary film we need. Like visual eavesdropping, the short form, the glimpse, requires no filmmaker’s commentary, and lets viewers enter stories as they would peer down an alleyway. Audiences today do have short attention spans and demand more in faster sound bites—so the short may outlive the practical constraints that promoted it. With all these turns to the quick, we might wonder why we still have long format cinema at all.

And yet, and yet—the long format argument piece survives not only as the ambition of professional filmmakers, but also as the birthright of audiences who demand high-quality information. The accumulation over an hour or two of shots chosen to document a complex reality, or to further a logical discovery, is both enduring and irreplaceable. While rough and ready “documentary” shots are retrievable on YouTube, the well-developed personal argument, delivered in a tasteful venue, remains the prerogative of the documentary film. Still, the kinds of stories that seem worthy of telling in the long format may in future need to withstand more structural pressure to deserve their audiences’ time. Meanwhile, we might also see a turn towards the individual artist’s voice, whose surprising and sophisticated engagement with a topic can transcend the brief and poorly categorized work available online. Sound pompous? It is, but online “amateur” arts activity demands that “professionals” live up to their name.

This turn towards the personal, the artful voice I anticipate, will mimic shifts in other art forms that have occurred in reaction to new technologies. With the invention of photography, painting became first impressionistic, then abstract. In response to digital tools, photographers are adopting more abstract modes. A similar motion may occur in film once directors apprehend the impact on their art form of new tech- nologies, which include YouTube, and also digital HD, the cheapest, highest quality video capturing technology yet invented. The new cinema, more personal, more imaginative, may look more like a poet’s essay. While funding patterns and the ideological basis of documentary have privileged topics of obvious wide public relevance, low equipment costs and decentralized distribution may encourage filmmakers to focus on their more esoteric interests. Video art may have started this movement, but online video is likely to complete the revolution.

Reenactments, puppets, animation, montage—distortions that clarify—seem poised to saturate film as it responds to the new order first articulated in Peter Greenaway’s memorable call for a cinema freed from the real visible world. Cinema fabricated as much as shot can be a source of heightened honesty, and oddly enough, is a logical technique in the documentary toolkit. This year’s Hot Docs festival stunner Shadow of the Holy Book made adept use of this trick in hypothetical Turkmen talk show conversations, while the short film Cyanosis animated the artwork of its subject. Last year, Helvetica made superb use of restrained motion graphics, while I Met the Walrus demonstrated the promise of the animated documentary seen before in Ryan. Drawing and illustration have made a huge 21st-century comeback in graphic design, making it odd that documentary film is still so reliant on photography, especially given the availability of cheap and simple software for motion graphics. As Scott MacKenzie pointed out in the last POV, animation and documentary have been friendly since their origins, but their acquaintanceship has room to grow.

As films become more fabricated, a technique that can be seen as animatronic is the complex weave of date-stamped footage. Toying with the margins, endpoints, and best-before dates of shots so as to create a variegated chronology of a film expands the capabilities of documentary. The memorable Santiago from last year’s Hot Docs gave a virtuosic display of this kind of technique. Among the films at the 2008 festival, Betrayal contains footage from a student film project done in the ’80s, while Dear Zachary uses home movies shot during the director’s adolescence.

The opportunities and hazards that filmmakers encounter when mucking about with old footage allow them another avenue by which to be expressive, to work with the chronology of the footage itself as one of the plastic modifiables in the creative process. Cuban Song and Citizen Havel were both shot in a long-term vérité style by directors who died before they cut their films, and didn’t leave instructions for the editing. New directors took on the projects. Adopting the projects allowed the later filmmakers to explore, if not showcase, the impact of their editing choices on the emergent stories.

These admissions that documentary is as personal to the filmmaker as it is objective, as artful as it is real, herald the cinema we need despite YouTube. A perfect example of this kind of work, a montage halfway between news story, museum piece, and music video, Tehran Has No More Pomegranates repeatedly emphasized its own fictionality. To its credit, and almost as a direct response to the world-historical aesthetic questions that hang like black flies around filmmakers today, it lightly and unponderously portrayed the filmmaker’s reaction to his subject as much as it documented Tehran itself. In a similar vein, in exploring one of the transit routes between Albania and Bulgaria, Corridor #8 took a fancifully wide scope. A balloon trailing along the highway, a cycling gravedigger, and a family under house arrest all came to be symbols and components of the larger story, without any direct explanation, or heavy-handed comparisons drawn. The film contained enough shifts, slippages, and gaps in the elaboration of its meaning to satisfy any post-structuralist French critic. Both these films fulfill that classical mandate of documentary by delivering pungent impressions of places, but do so by bringing viewers not to a visitable place, but one as elusive and unrepeatable as the filmmaker’s impression of the place. These much-lauded films are popular for a reason: they represent the kind of visual storytelling that is urgent today, that takes viewers beyond travel, beyond Flickr snapshots, and into an impression that only the filmmaker can communicate.

Corridor #8, dir. Boris Despodov, Bulgaria (2008)

A retired diplomat assured me last month that there is no replacement for travel, yet many people, conscious of their pocketbooks and carbon footprints, may come to satisfy their wanderlust through documentary film as much as with the cornucopia of visions online. Documentarians have the opportunity to trade in wonders, bringing home visual flavours, oddities, curiosities as surely as ancient seafarers. As global culture becomes more homogenous, documentarians have an exciting mandate to preserve pockets of singularity, at least on celluloid (or digital media files!), before they vanish. Those pockets may be as particular as one artist’s perspective rendered in motion graphics, or a glimpse of a village Internet café in Vietnam, or a history shown in a weave of temporally contingent footage. These are exotic rarities, windows on otherwise unseen worlds that deserve the attention of lifelong filmmakers despite the hoary and wonderful mass of video online. If documentaries do increasingly replace travel, documentarians may come to be seen as they really are, nomads who conjure up spectres of elsewhere for the awe and enlightenment of their audiences, and who receive in exchange license, not to kill, but to burn carbon.