What, of course, made documentary successful as a movement was that in a decade of spiritual weariness it reached out, almost alone among the media, towards the future. Obviously it was the public purpose within it which commanded government and other backing, the progressive social intention within it which secured the regard of the newspapers and people of goodwill everywhere, and the sense of a public cause to be served which kept its own people together. These facts should have made it clear that the documentary idea was not basically a film idea at all, and the film treatment it inspired only an incidental aspect of it. The medium happened to be the most convenient and most exciting available to us. The idea itself, on the other hand, was a new idea for public education: its underlying concept that the world was in a phase of drastic change affecting every manner of thought and practice, and the public comprehension of the nature of that change vital… Our job specifically was to wake the heart and the will. —John Grierson, 1949
THE CLOVEN HEART
For me, being a documentary filmmaker means living with a cloven heart. Paradox is built into the job description. I’m called to bear honest witness, only to produce a bit of artifice, conjured with light and noise. As a filmmaker, I yearn to create works of beauty, but the only raw material at hand is coarse and balky real life. I have to do my subjects justice, even honour, but first I must slip past gatekeepers whose allegiance, usually, is to the circus. I’m responsible to the citizenry that subsidizes my efforts, but I do, after all, have a family and an ego to feed. Sometimes the bi-polar strain is a bit much to bear, but, happily, that’s when the ghost of John Grierson appears—awesome in the hairshirt he proudly wore—to offer some down-home advice.
If documentary filmmakers have a patron saint, it is Grierson. He coined the genre’s label (in 1926), helped develop its grammar, championed its original masters and founded the National Film Board of Canada, which is, by any measure, the greatest documentary institution in film history. And he knew a thing or two about paradox. He was a gruff and ascetic Scot who spent his career pushing governments to support documentary making and championing daring cinematic experiments. Yet, he urged filmmakers to value public service over cinematic ambition for reasons that were not moralistic, but artistic.
What’s surprising, reading Grierson now, is that the scene he describes sounds so contemporary. In 1949, British government and commercial interests spent a million pounds making documentaries in a country still under rationing. Dozens of independent production companies produced some 200 documentaries that were shown in cinemas that year, a couple of which won Academy Awards. (“From Hollywood no less!” Grierson harrumphed, considering an Oscar naught more than a doorstop.) The genre was thriving in every Western country, even war-blasted Germany. The young Canadian setup held particular promise, Grierson said, because the government understood documentary’s value in nation-building, beyond mere propaganda. Then, as now, there were arguments over funding and control, but he believed a reasonable balance would be found. The trade was healthy, in his opinion, but most of the films were crap.
“The writing in general is terrible,” he wrote,“the camerawork cumbersome, editing stale and sound mediocre in films that had neither concentration of energy nor the happy exercise of special fortes.” He blamed a “confusion of ends” among directors who flattered audience prejudices—rather than challenging them—in the hope of gaining a shiny doorstop for a sunny Hollywood office. Grierson believed that ambition folly, not that he gave a damn about vain directors having their dreams crushed.What he cared about was his craft and he knew that valuing populism over public service would always produce lousy films.“Documentary’s freedom and quality lie where they always did lie—in the simple process of serving where service is wanted, however modest the prizes may seem to be.”
Few of us—despite cloven hearts or credit card bills—would openly disagree. On the other hand, the righteous road is not always clearly marked. You never know if this shot or that line will make your work more or less popular, much less whether that will provide a public service—by making the subject known—or not—by making it not worth knowing. Anyway, here in the 21st century, you just don’t go around chest-thumping about the moral good of “public service.” If Grierson’s artistic ideals still jive with our times, his tone seems quaint. Terms like “public education” are the yoke we have laboured to lift from the neck of our craft, recalling (as Peter Wintonick noted in Cinema Verité) NFB classics like The Extension Ladder. Moreover, the badge of “service” hints at giving refuge to the untalented, just as, in these ironic times, declarations of democratic motivation suggest totalitarian intent and claims of religious piety imply depravity. When I made my first feature documentary, I insisted on calling it “a nonfiction movie” because even the word “documentary” seemed dowdy. Like square black spectacles and bowling shirts, it had not yet crossed over to become hip.
If our trade’s elements haven’t changed since WWII, it has exponentially grown—with specialty channels,“reality TV,” cinematic success and all the rest.We are now, de facto, in showbiz, which is like being the bookish kid in a ’hood run by gangs. You learn to keep your mouth shut and your eyes averted, lest you draw dangerous attention to your nerdy self. By sheer numbers, there’s probably more civically-minded documentaries on private TV today than on public, but nobody wants to advertise that, unless they’re before a regulatory committee. We assume people don’t like what’s good for them, despite contrary evidence from the non-fiction bestseller lists. That’s why certain gatekeepers at the festival pitching forums consider it dry wit to label a project “worthy”, which signals—hell, it chortles—a big fat bald assumption that the proposed film will be boring. I think most documentary directors (and some producers and broadcasters) would like their work to serve the public good, but most are afraid to outrightly say so.
So it is too for kindergarten teachers and mail carriers in a time of unbridled capitalism. I am almost 50 and my entire working life has been under the reign of politicians who gained power by deriding government. Sure, it’s ironic but, really, it’s tragic. These corporate ciphers all but destroyed the idea of public service by slandering its employees—wasteful, obstructionist, lazy—and undermining their working conditions. A society where nurses call their charges “clients” is not one that is proud of civil service. I’m a partner in a corporation with my brother, Michael, and our friend Kristina McLaughlin. We started out to make films, not build a business, but Michael, savvy to the sharp-clawed times, realized we could not do one without the other. So we learned the ways of the business clans but remained, emotionally, civil servants—just like our mom, a surgical nurse, and dad, who ran a transit system. I don’t remember them ever using the term “public service,” they just did what they did and with considerable panache at that.We grew up assuming that civic work was not only noble, but cool. Given my druthers, I would not have chosen to work as a privateer. I’d have been happy in the days of yore with a tiny office off a wide hallway, working toward a reasonable deadline and calmly smoking a pipe. But those days are long gone. Today, most professional witnesses are “independent”; a pleasing way of saying that, like environmentalists or relief workers, we are freelance civil servants, gleaning the tideline between the sands of charity and the rollers of profit.
This amounts to bondage for some, held fast by their conscience, and pays others handsomely. In every Western country there are production companies that ply the high seas in armour-plated convoys, just like real pirates, but their holds, like our bait buckets, are replenished by national treasuries. There are few documentary makers (in which I include creators, producers and exhibitors) who are not on the public payroll in some way (direct or indirect; by employment, association, institutional affiliation or hidden subsidy). In rich countries, and many poor ones, governments provide documentaries as a basic service, like roads and drinking water. Even Washington, ideological seat of capitalism, spends tens of millions of dollars annually funding documentaries through its allotment for public broadcasting. Apparently, even neo-conservative politicians realize that their citizens regard non-fiction witnessing, like noncommercial art, as part of a civilization’s well-balanced diet.
It seems only fair, in turn, for us to ask ourselves whether we are giving taxpayers good value for their money. Of course, there’s no agreement on how to analyze that. To government bureaucracies, the main criteria is fealty to the flag in choosing personnel and subjects. Arts organizations use the same Keynesian arguments as auto manufacturers, wielding charts that show tax money magically expanding through spinoffs to make more jobs than the dollars alone could buy. My partners like to note that many industries are sustained with public money: think of eggs or pharmaceuticals; trucking, oil or wheat; railroads or guns. If these sorts of arguments work to keep the lights on, then I’m grateful for them. But I think it behooves those of us in the creative department to look at our work itself and ask: what is it about the realities we depict, and how we depict them, that fulfills a public purpose? As the old Scot said, we should ask this question—at least we should not be embarrassed to ask it—if only out of the selfish desire to keep our tools sharp. Still, it may be wise for us to ask it discreetly, among ourselves. It’s not my wish to get us all beat up for being Goody Two-shoes. Struggling with the answer is vexing enough. It’s one thing to have an inner brogue hectoring you to “wake the heart and will.” It’s quite another to know what, then, you must do.
When love is gone, there’s always justice.
And when justice is gone, there’s always force.
And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom!
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms…
In your automatic arms, your electronic arms,
Your petrochemical arms, your military arms.
I don’t know what “the public” needs or wants and I doubt you do either. We all go by the yapping of headlines and what’s bugging our cab drivers and whatever other grist we distill to get the zeitgeist—the time spirit—of the crowd. Our hunches are individual, influenced by our friends and by our stage in life, but they also have similarities. We all know that our neighbours are more materially comfortable than people have ever been, yet are wracked by anxiety, depression and fear—largely because of what they experience through the media. Some of this effect is mere narcissism, but much of it is a sensible reaction to living nightmares: environmental crises, population explosion, war, random violence, corruption and extremisms of all sorts. You might argue that many horrors that press upon us—like Middle Eastern wars or African famine—do so merely symbolically, unless we’re immigrants and the people in those World Vision commercials are actually our cousins. Marshall McLuhan would beg to differ. The rebellious University of Toronto academic, who invented the study of electronic media, McLuhan thought long and hard about the reality behind his two famous, intuitive aphorisms: “the medium is the message” and “the Global Village.” He concluded that the media’s touch is physical—via waves of light and sound— and the feelings they provoke are real. Moreover, he saw that the means we use to protect ourselves—our insulated walls, our mutual funds, our armies—are physical extensions of our bodies. Just as middle age brings the panic of realizing your mortality, there comes a time when a chubby society intuits that it may not always stand. The anthropologist Ronald Wright has pointed out that civilizations can be remarkably stable for centuries and then, rapidly, collapse. I think people understand this, if mainly subconsciously; they suffer “spiritual weariness” because they face actual danger and have no clear idea of how to respond. What, then, can our craft offer them?
McLuhan argued that physical and psychic survival in perilous times requires pattern recognition. You may be caught in a vortex, but if you learn to read the current you can save yourself from drowning. And if not, not. This perception seems to me a key to realizing what documentaries can usefully provide in this century. People yearn for comprehensible portraits of reality through which they can ‘reach out toward the future’ as functioning citizens. To shine light in dark corners, as journalists supposedly do, is no longer enough. It’s not information we need, it’s understanding. Getting to that requires grappling with the reality behind the platitude that “everything is connected.” Without question, this is the fundamental and daunting truth of our age, as the sciences constantly remind us. Biologists, long past categorizing species’ traits, now struggle mightily to map the dynamics of simple ecosystems, such as wetlands, even as most of them accept James Lovelock’s daunting Gaia hypothesis, which sees the planet itself as a single, self-regulating organism. Likewise the physicists, whose discoveries in quantum mechanics show that all things are essentially the same thing and life is but a hugely perplexing flow of blossoming tendencies. In the social sciences, historians, economists and sociologists often seem pained by the effort of making the rest of us see how old and deep and tangled are the roots of so many problems that headline writers consider to be news. Despite feuds about the details, there is, in contemporary thought, an emergent consensus of perception about the interwoven complexity of reality. Theoretically, it means that if you don’t understand, say, the relationship between the desires of China’s middle class, the chemistry of the troposphere and the desperation of politicians in the Ohio Valley, you will never actually know why your wheat crop failed or your coastal property washed away. Practically, of course, we can’t hope to grasp the dynamics of the forces batting us about every day. Yet the least that citizenship now demands is the realization that many forces are always in play.
All of which leads me to conclude that the most valuable service I can provide with documentaries is to try to limn the contours of complexity. Regardless of the subject matter, this, to me, means striving to find as wide an angle of view as possible—one that errs on the side of context rather than character, dynamic rather than detail—to show that the challenges we collectively face are systemic in nature. This seems a minimum kindness to offer media-saturated people who are told daily that their life support systems—ecosystem, health system, security systems, etc—verge on collapse, yet who have hardly any idea of how those systems work in the first place. Thus we slouch toward the apocalypse, hopeless and clueless about how to help ourselves, our kids, our country, our world.
Certain documentary makers have always pursued this sort of vision. Grierson recognized Flaherty’s narrative genius, but preferred the spirit of Eisenstein, whose structuralism aimed to portray society’s workings. Many of the films Grierson produced (and film students still study) —like the lovely Night Mail —had the same ambition. As do contemporary films by, say, Frederick Wiseman, which weave simple verité imagery into sophisticated analyses of institutions as diverse as Central Park and the Strategic Air Command. Yet, in every era, documentaries that serve society by X-raying its structures are a tiny minority.
One reason for this is that powerful people hate it and are never disposed to cooperate. What do you know, for example, about what actually goes on inside a bank and what’s the likelihood of getting the access to find out? Or of getting into a political caucus room or pharmaceutical lab or any of the other institutions that make our world spin? The pervasive smirk of the powerful is not just self-satisfaction, it’s also a message: “I know stuff you don’t and that gives me power.” Not power in the I-own-the-secret-sauce-recipe sense, but power in the you-don’t-have-all-the-facts-so-you-just-have-to-shut-the-fuck-up sense. It’s a mystique thing. Anyone who’s seen an FOI brief, filmed on a military base or interviewed a CEO knows that what bureaucracies keep secret is utterly banal. Occasionally, they really are up to no good or are genuinely worried about terrorists or client privacy or whatever. But, mostly, they just don’t want us seeing how salaries are structured, clients managed or workers treated. Heaven forbid that we should wonder if societal problems that seem intractable are actually conscious design choices. Documentaries can reveal such things, which is, often, why we are denied access. The powerful don’t really fear being caught in lies. They fear a public too sophisticated to swallow lies in the first place.
On the other (more depressing) hand, a lack of faith in the public’s sophistication is built into the structures by which documentaries are conceived and created; built, perhaps, into the very medium of film. It is, finally, not external issues like access that thwart complex portrayals of reality, but our institution’s own limitations, chief among them the perceived need to tell a gripping tale.
One of the proudest moments I’ve had in raising children happened at a neighborhood Father’s Day picnic when my oldest son was about six. Invited onstage and asked to say why he loved his dad, he blurted: “I love my dad because of the stories he tells.” I was delighted to feel I was giving my boy such joy with a steady diet of tall tales. So, just to be clear, I love a good yarn; love hearing ’em, love telling ’em. Nevertheless, it seems to me that sometime in the last couple of decades the meme of “story”, its cultural meaning, began to metastasize in a really unhealthy way.
It started as a harmlessly broad observation, something like “people are hard wired to understand the world through stories.” True enough, I suppose. But, constantly repeated, the notion began to take on a stiff-necked sense of certainty consistent with the reigning populist politics. The critic Robert Fulford did a whole radio series trumpeting the idea as a rebuttal to academics enthralled with highfalutin’ post-modernism. Public relations people showed executives how to “tell their story” over the heads of carping reporters. Over the years I’ve heard homilies to the old-fashioned virtues of story many times from media executives, but also from politicians, scientists and educators. Always, there is an implied assumption that we have an agreed notion of “story”—regardless of audience—and that it is the only way anyone can understand anything. This idea strikes me as at least incorrect, if not dangerous.
The critical literature on narrative is vast and contentious, but there are things on which we’d probably all agree. Human beings are “hard wired” to notice repetition, variation and change, to recognize patterns in that interplay and to look for meaning by charting a course through them. This, as McLuhan argued, is basic to survival. Some aspects of the process are the same whether we are writing a fairytale, building a bridge or conducting a medical experiment. All have narrative elements and you might call each a “story,” but their language, grammar and representation are so different as to make the term meaningless. We are “hard wired” to notice specks of light in the night sky too, but we are also endowed with the logic and tactile facility to build telescopes, read Doppler shifts, understand what they mean about the expansion of the universe and so on. It is possible to reduce all of astronomy to a “story” and useful if you’re talking to children but less so if you are talking to grownups.
The defining spirit of grownup sciences and arts for almost a century has been non-linearity, a result of what we’ve learned about the wonders and horrors in nature and humanity. In The Great War and Modern Memory, the American historian Paul Fussell argues that the senseless slaughter of WWI, which had no real cause but lots of effect, transformed the Western imagination by killing the Enlightenment belief in a clockwork world and ultimate rationality in human affairs. The dream of a victorious, happy ending had turned out to be not just wrong, but nihilistic. Ever since, art has been flavoured by irony, disjuncture, relativity and chance. Think of Dada or Cubism, serious literature or rock ’n roll. Think “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” The 20th century did not invent non-linear art (Bach fugues and Haida totems already existed), rather it retrieved what had been a common way of understanding the world before the successes of industrialization tricked us into thinking that life could be simple. Today, the clean, neat, linear stories so beloved by the Victorians seem charmingly naive, suitable only for advertising campaigns and the moral instruction of kids. And, of course, for cinema, the fiercely industrial medium that dominated the century.
Film cameras are nothing if not clocks and they are at their best capturing movement through space and time, over hill and dale, from high emotions to low. Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd are the archetypal movie characters. Hollywood’s genius has been to always maintain perfect sync with its technology and thus to burnish linear narrative to a brilliance that makes American movies shine everywhere, delighting the child in all of us. There are various terms to describe the kind of stories Hollywood tells. Critics call them “classical,” which is a shame, since the wildly experimenting Europeans and Russians have been in the game for just as long. Others call them “heroic” tales after the inevitable Hercules who can’t rest until the chalice is found, the gal saved, the vengeance wrought. I call the stock linear form “melodrama,” which my dictionary defines as “a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.” It’s not perfectly precise, but it’ll do. What filmmakers love about great cineastes—a Fellini or Kurosawa—is their inspiring, alchemist’s insistence that film is “rich and capable” enough to transcend its mechanical limitations. What unifies all the polyglot expressions of “art cinema” is their search for new narrative forms. It’s like that line in Anna Karenina about families: Hollywood films are all alike, every un-Hollywood film is un-Hollywood in its own way. Most viewers are uncomfortable around an un-Hollywood film because it is unpredictable and thus feels spooky. Unless it’s a documentary.
Traditionally, audiences have expected—allowed—documentaries to be relatively free in form, cutting their cloth to fit their subject. Consider any films in the vérité or essay traditions, from the Maysles’ bleak Salesman to Errol Morris’ comically obtuse Vernon, Florida; from Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai to the Wintonick/Achbar agitprop masterpiece Manufacturing Consent. Each film (or at least filmmaker) is pretty much its own genre, but they don’t alienate a mainstream audience, as idiosyncratically structured dramas do. Documentaries don’t have to follow story conventions because every child knows that reality doesn’t. Yet, since Flaherty, most documentary directors have tried to use linear melodrama for the same reason dramatists do: it’s easy. When I and my collaborators made a documentary about McLuhan’s ideas, we swaddled them in the heroic tale of his rise and fall which, though interesting, was meant to sugar-coat what we feared would be a bitter pill.We bought the nostrum that an identifiable hero “sutures” viewers into the film. Our motives were heartfelt, in a cloven sort of way. We wanted populist success (absurdly, given our subject), but we also believed McLuhan’s personal story was a microcosm of his ideas.
That latter motivation is a powerful one for those with a liberal arts education, which includes most directors.We believe in creating sympathy for individuals who represent something larger and assume our audience “reads” culture metaphorically—like we did as undergrads—without us needing to spell out that Bobby’s tragic tale only serves to illustrate that ghetto violence would be lessened by eliminating poverty. Now, I totally believe, with Blake, that you can read the universe in a grain of sand. But, I think most people, most often, just see a speck of dust. Perhaps, in the past, people easily grasped allegorical art—as medieval cathedrals attest—but contemporary folk are too inundated to be bothered delving beneath the literal. The rise of identity politics—with its laudable goal of giving voices to the hitherto silent—produced boatloads of confessional films in which the travails of individuals stand in for those of their race, gender, sexual preference or illness. Maybe some viewers are socially awakened by this strategy, but it’s just as likely to have the opposite effect. It can be inspiring and galvanizing to personally witness a friend battle cancer or racism, moving us perhaps to campaign against toxic pollution or prejudice. Reduced to an hour on TV, that struggle may provoke sympathy and donations to the victim’s trust fund. But there’s no reason to believe it will promote reform of the underlying problem because the medium really is the message and form overwhelms function.
Witness, as a random journalistic example, CBC reporter Brian Stewart’s 1984 story about Birhan Woldu, a starving Ethiopian girl, who became “the face of famine” and helped prod a relief effort. She survived, prospered and, last year, appeared at Live 8, with Madonna, to “prove” African aid has results. Her story is truly heart-warming. But it’s no criticism of Stewart or Live 8 to notice that two decades after that famine, hunger in sub-Saharan Africa has grown, to gnaw on fully half the population, largely, the NGOs say, because Western citizens don’t grasp their role in keeping the continent desperate. Grierson believed that this sort of disconnect is inevitable. He loathed the melodramatic in documentaries and argued that their tight narrative arcs and final catharsis led only to “a good, brave, tearful, self-congratulatory and useless time had by all.” If “closed” linear narratives—no question left unanswered, no world beyond the frame—could open people’s eyes, Hollywood would have retooled long ago. Imperial clowns are not in the business of fomenting revolution. Easy to make, linear melodramas are also easy to sell. More than ever, documentary buyers want to know what they are financing and most require long treatments or full scripts; some want character reels. Various aspects of “pitching” take up the majority of most directors’ days, and the higher the concept, the more cracking the story, the more efficient it will be. A busy executive, to say nothing of the audience for a 10-minute pitch in a festival forum, is best seduced by a bright thread and bold personae. Forums, since Roman times, have never been places for expressing complexity or nuance.
Everything about film culture pulls documentary toward melodrama, but, happily, surprisingly, television provides a countercurrent. McLuhan called TV a Dadaist medium because watching shows broken by commercials—or zapping provides an absurdist ride through dozens of stories and styles. Many intellectuals think this disjuncture makes serious meaning on television impossible, but they ignore the optimistic brainiac’s first principle: the message of the TV medium is non-linearity. It has, by now, schooled two generations in synthesizing multiple plot lines, complex referential systems and paradoxical arguments. Few broadcasters give audiences credit for this sophistication and the more seriously a show is supposed to be taken—as in “important” journalism or the high arts—the more plodding will be its execution.What makes shows “edgy,” and relegates them to late night slots and pay services, is not language or content but the depth and complexity of audience address. The best bets for finding that in the mainstream are shows aimed at adolescents, like The Simpsons and South Park. Their satirical success requires audiences to know a lot about science, politics and pop culture; to follow multiple stories and random tangents; to recognize huge casts; to be alert to subtle inflection, double entendres, veiled meanings; and, most of all, to be wise to a sophisticated worldview in which institutions and people plausibly embody conflicting traits—are, in turns, endearing and revolting, principled and venal, generous and mean. The shows ask far more from 12 year-olds than most pallid sitcoms—hell, most news shows—ask of adults.
Whatever their vices, television, and now the Internet, teach audiences, especially young ones, to perceive the non-linear, the paradoxical and, ultimately, the complex. That may be why the biggest audiences for some of the most interesting documentaries are kids. This is new—when I was in Grade Five we wouldn’t have cared about the issues in Bowling For Columbine nor understood its grammar. (We only got five snowy TV channels, none of them in
colour.) Now, this engaged young audience is spawning its own documentary makers — who were raised fearlessly wielding extraordinary technology, inspired by a few brilliant examples and who are beginning their work just as the old gates are crumbling and infinite horizons aborning. Not since Grierson was young, has a generation been given brand new tools of infinite potentiality and the exhilarating task of re-inventing the grammar of captured reality that a brand new century urgently requires. Lucky them! Civilizations may indeed suddenly fall, but we should never underestimate their capacity for renewal.
One of my favourite privileges in making documentaries is filming from the air. Hanging from a plane at 1,000 feet is a fabulous reminder of how glorious it is to live in our time, free to see in a way previously only given to birds or shamans. The fragility of small aircraft also reminds you that to fly blithely—to ignore that you bet your life every time—is to forget where, and what, you are. That’s the sort of forgetting urban life requires all the time. The paradox is that our technology creates the conditions, but also gives us the tools to appreciate them. Up there with the angels, we gain the aerial perspective to understand how we actually live down here. Fly over New York and you see that for all its storied importance, it is but a brittle technological island lapped by the heedless ocean. Fly over the desiccated Middle East and you see that what matters down there is not oil or religion, but water. An aerial perspective reminds you that we are nothing but our interwoven relationships—with the tiny technological tunnels we have built, with the other beings scurrying about them and with the groaning world beyond, ever poised to sweep our machinations away with a shrug of its shoulders, a puff of wind, a splash of water.
The documentaries I love most, for both their public service and their expression of craft, are those that strive for what I think of as an aerial perspective. They are films without a vanishing point, that view life through a lens that is wide and mindful of the interweaving that creates reality, in all its nonsensical glory. Content is irrelevant, as is tone. Often they are superficial, less interested in ferreting out minutiae than in bearing witness to the dynamic interplay of connections in a shifting context. Crude as it may be, what the metaphor of aerial perspective represents, to me, is a cinematic way of looking, and of recalling, that provides a window on reality suited to our age. It is not about a given style, but about an aspiration.
Canada is especially rich in documentaries that strive for aerial perspective, as you’d expect of a land where the groundwater wells with aboriginal culture, communications theory and anti-imperialist sentiment. At the risk of being (even more) presumptuous, I’d argue that the desire to assay complexity and interconnectivity unifies much of the documentary community, from Achbar to Zweig, embracing directors as stylistically different as Mann and Mettler, as motivationally distinct as Wild and Weinstein. This commonality seems to be tacitly assumed by filmmakers, understood (but rarely mentioned) by domestic critics, and unnoticed or ignored by most bureaucratic gatekeepers – a disjunct that is often frustrating and always ironic. Clearly, Grierson – who invented Canada’s film culture – had a greater influence on directors here than those who came after the NFB’s heyday may appreciate. Yet, his mark on the bureaucracy he spawned is so faint that filmmakers who use aerial perspective must still claw for it, film by film, with the persistence and stoicism of highland crofters. Then again, because aerial perspective goes beyond what the grammar and business of filmmaking easily allows, its achievement is not easy anywhere.
Internationally, for two decades, the Prospero of documentary, commanding the tide that lifts all boats, has been Michael Moore. Since Roger and Me showed distributors that a small documentary could make a bundle, Moore has led a charge that has brought dozens of documentaries popular success. Yet, he has also attracted more enmity from mainstream journalism than any documentary maker before. His facts are challenged, his motivation questioned; he is labeled an ideologue and a charlatan. But what most irks his critics—and pleases his fans—is that Moore connects the seemingly disparate—murderous teenagers, nuclear weapons, slavery, poverty—to create funny, tragic X-rays of American culture. He reveals hidden malignancies that his young viewers already suspect are lurking beneath the national facade and thus he shows them they’re not crazy. Documentary succeeds when it shows us something we didn’t know — and even more when it confirms what we did know but that other media refuse to say.
Almost uniquely, Moore achieves both public service and populist success with structures that explore societal complexity through mock heroic quests. The tactic all but parodies TV journalism and particularly recalls Mike Wallace, investigative reporter emeritus, who was also controversial once for drawing uncomfortable parallels and confronting privileged miscreants. Moore is Wallace in working class clothes, without the imprimatur of a network logo. Instead, he built a persona outlandish enough to garner fame, which is its own kind of flak jacket. But it’s also a distraction. Moore’s considerable presence in and around his films makes them about the author as much as his subject, which is why—though he has imitators, like Morgan Spurlock—most documentary makers avoid his approach.
Strategies that find other ways to show connections have their own weaknesses. Take for example Koyaanisqatsi and the other films in Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy. Reggio constructs fugues of imagery to portray the interface between the machine world and the natural one. He says his strategy is to “rip out the foreground” of narrative—characterization, plot, story—and to “ennoble… with the virtues of portraiture” the background environment. Nikolaus Geyrhalter does something similar with the recent Our Daily Bread, which documents food production through a symphony of beautifully composed images of assembly lines disembowelling cows and grinding up fluffy chicks. These techniques create films that are rapturous, disturbing and capable of transforming a sympathetic viewer’s sense of self and place in the world. Then again, with no welcoming voice, no vernacular human presence at all, the films can, to a neutral or unsympathetic viewer, seem kind of annoying. An example which finds the balance between these extremes is the work of my friend Mark Achbar and his collaborators Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan. In The Corporation, they adopt the brilliant conceit of analyzing corporations as the individuals that they are in law—and (surprise!) finding most of them dangerously psychotic. The cleverness of the device makes the film accessible while aiding a sweeping vision that connects many dots—financial markets, environmental toxins, workers’ rights—to survey the depredations of a powerful institution.
Unlike melodrama, which may be stamped from templates, films with an aerial perspective are always handmade, forced to innovate and, as a result, are often coarse. This is most obvious to me in my own attempts, particularly in a trio of landscape films— The Falls, In The Reign of Twilight and Intelligence —which aimed to show how mechanical, economic and cultural systems develop to contain natural ones and, in doing so, alter the people they shelter. I wanted to look, for example, at how we grasp the physical energy of a phenomenon like Niagara Falls, its giant tumult a barrier to navigation and a mesmerizing spectacle, a torrent of electrical power and an economic engine—and all these things on a scale expanding through time and morphing the fortunes, beliefs and even health of the surrounding community. This is all too complex and layered to express in a time-based medium that can show only one element at a time. My way around this is to create a faux narrative, a line of recurring imagery that is something between a story and a time-lapse. For example, to show the mighty Niagara River harnessed, I repeat aerial shots in which it is increasingly constricted by the technology on its banks. Over the course of the film, these shots give a sense of transformation over centuries, though it’s obvious they were all taken in the same hour. By weaving this faux narrative with others that represent differing manifestations of the same phenomenon, the film attempts to convey the dynamics of interaction and transformation. It doesn’t fully succeed. I suppose it never could.My goal is not to give viewers a world, but simply a reasonable map.
One of McLuhan’s influences, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, spoke of the noosphere, an electric vapour of reality, surrounding the biosphere and atmosphere, that is the sum of our culture and beliefs. The noosphere develops organically and contains all the media enveloping us—TV, the fountain pen, the Internet, the human voice. Think of it as the planet’s consciousness. This is where documentary makers actually ply their trade, rather than in any specific medium. I think that’s essentially what Grierson meant when he said that documentary was not a film idea—that celluloid was nothing more than an exciting and convenient receptacle. Today, it’s all but obsolete. Television remains the most popular media available to us, but its sun, too, has an orange tint. It won’t be long before the burgeoning array of interactive media becomes the most convenient available to documentary makers. Already, they are the most exciting.
Who knows what documentary will become as these new media develop? We are moving into a future in which we will have YouTube-like sites for given subjects, in which people will not be sending in goofy pictures of themselves or their idols, but contributing unique viewpoints to a collective picture—like honeybees building a hive of information or like the sculptors who carved a little of the Cathedral of Chartres and were well pleased with that. Consider, for example, The Degree Confluence Project, in which contributors all over the world have taken it upon themselves to document the landscape at more than 24,000 places where latitude and longitude lines intersect. “This creates,” writes founder Alex Jarrett, “an organized sampling of the world” which he hopes will “document the changes at these locations over time.” Jarrett is a computer programmer and outdoor enthusiast who began the project as a lark. In a decade it has morphed into a world-embracing effort in which some 9,000 people have amassed more than 60,000 images documenting 4,800 locations in 173 countries. Collectively, they hope to do for the planet what Michael Apted did for the subjects of his Up! films. The Degree Confluence Project has a form we might not easily call “a documentary” and it’s still too early to know what its ultimate value will be. But it’s easy to see that it rises from the same desire to witness—and is fueled by the same yen for adventure—that always drives documentary makers and sometimes takes them beyond the known boundaries of the craft to forge new roads into the future.
Who knows what amazing new visions of reality will come of a world where most people—most 12 year-olds!—walk around carrying a satellite-linked broadcast studio in their pocket? Surely it won’t be long before cell phones cease to be envisioned as teeny portable televisions and emerge as magic wands, capable of interfacing constantly with a sphere of grounded knowledge revealing all that is invisible in our environment (what’s in the water coming from that tap; what’s the carbon footprint of the product on that shelf; who sponsored the politician wishing to shake your hand…) For now, the majority of the content of the new media is just the old media, as is always the way. But media inevitably creates its own message. Already the tools are reshaping the behaviour of their users and new modes of perception are arising.
All people play a part in the noosphere, but documentary makers are entrusted by the public to fulfill a particular responsibility to the whole. It’s up to us to make sure there’s a crow’s nest jutting above the fog of current events and melodrama, and to stand watch for movement on the horizon. By curious, lucky coincidence, this century, like the last, has given us powerful new tools with which to refine our craft. Wonderful tools, but tools only. Almost a century after the term was coined, the “documentary idea” remains unchanged: to bear honest witness, to elucidate and educate, to wake the heart and will. If we embrace that ideal, it will guide us to use our tools to shape the aerial perspective that it is our destiny to acquire, if it is our fate to survive.