HOW REAL IS THE REALITY IN DOCUMENTARY FILM?
JILL GODMILOW, IN CONVERSATION WITH ANN-LOUISE SHAPIRO
Documentary film, in the words of Bill Nichols, is one of the discourses of sobriety that include science, economics, politics, and history discourses that claim to describe the real, to tell the truth. Yet documentary film, in more obvious ways than does history, straddles the categories of fact and fiction, art and document, entertainment and knowledge. And the visual languages with which it operates have quite different effects than does the written text. In the following interview conducted during the winter of 1997, historian Ann-Louise Shapiro raises questions about genre, the relationship of form to content and meaning, with documentary filmmaker Jill Godmilow.
In order to explore the possibilities and constraints of non-fiction film as a medium for representing history, Godmilow was asked: What are the strategies and techniques by which documentary films make meaning? In representing historical events, how does a non-fiction filmmaker think about accuracy? authenticity? invention? What are the criteria you have in mind when you call a film like The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl "dishonest"? How does the tension between making art and making history affect documentary filmmaking? Should documentary filmmakers think of themselves, in the phrase of Ken Burns, as "tribal storytellers"? What kind of historical consciousness is produced by documentary film?
We have been speaking about documentary film. I want to start with a question about the word documentary. How comfortable are you using that label?
I do use it, for convenience, but I hate it. Why? Because everybody thinks they know what the term means, because everybody has seen some television programs labeled documentary neither televisual "white papers", that is, so-called objective journalistic presentations of social problems, or history programs that chronicle certain social movements, or portraits of famous artists or historical figures and the like. Unconsciously embedded in these forms called documentary is the conceit of "the real", which substantiates the truth claims made by these films. These general notions about documentary film produce a fairly limited understanding of what non-fiction cinema can be and do. They certainly don't encompass any of my recent work. I should say at the start that I am way out on the fringe of documentary filmmaking; you're not talking to someone who is in a central or mainstream position.
I have actually spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to call the kind of work I do. I've been looking for a label to replace "documentary" that would include, besides the kind of films I produce, all the films that make some kind of claim to represent a real (not fictional) world, and that do not contain performances by professional actors (but by social actors) that is, everything but scripted drama. So we're talking about a category that could include propaganda films the CIA produces for export abroad, television's Hard Copy and CBS Reports, Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North, Luis Bunuel's Land Without Bread, Trinh T. Minh-Ha's Reassemblage, Ken Burns's eighteen-hour baseball series, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, Fred Weisman's Hospital, the films of the contemporary German filmmaker Harun Farocki, Su Friedrich's feminist films, Raoul Ruiz's early non-fiction work, George Franju's Blood of the Beasts, Barbara Kopple's feature-length, Academy Award-winning labor dramas, and the work of certain American avant-garde filmmakers, such as Bruce Connors - just for example. How can they all be in one class? I think they all exhibit a common defining trait: inherent in their stance toward their audiences is the claim not so much to educate, but to edify. So I like to call this huge class of films "films of edification", or "edifiers". At least this label avoids the classic truth claims of documentary and acknowledges the intention to persuade and to elevateÑto raise up the audience to a more sophisticated or refined notion of what is. How else could Barbara Kopple's Made in America, a totally narrativized documentary that dramatizes the closing of a Hormel meat-packing plant in Minnesota into a tearful epic tragedy, sit in the same category as Ken Burns's Civil War, a nostalgic compilation film fashioned out of re-performed actual artifacts (period music, period photos, period letters home from the front) and on-camera expert speculations by American historians? When I teach documentary film, I actually insist that we use my new name -- in fact I play a game with my students: when they slip and say "documentary" in class, they have to bring the beer to the next screening. It's just a consciousness training game to keep us from making unconscious assumptions about the form.
Better than documentary is the label "non-fiction", but it's tainted too. It's a term built on a concept of something not being something else, implying that because it's not fiction, it's true. When I made my film Far from Poland in 1984, I anticipated that I was going to have trouble getting it into documentary film festivals, and I did. Far from Poland is a feature-length "non-fiction" film about the Polish Solidarity Movement, shot entirely in the United States, containing a total of five minutes of "actuality" footage supplied by the Solidarity Press Agency. It combines re-enactments of certain texts, soap-opera-like interventions, interviews, speculations, formal devices, and some clearly marked imaginary history. In the press release I called the film a "drama-tary" to indicate that it was not what's considered a classic documentary, but not a fiction film either. I was trying to skirt the odious word "docudrama", which it decidedly wasn't, and to call up a certain awkward, two humped beast, for imagery.
Dd it show in festivals in the category of "documentary film"?
It was rejected by some documentary festivals, like the one in Mannheim, Germany, because it wasn't "pure" documentary, and from some Eastern European ones, because of its complex yet somewhat celebratory treatment of the Solidarity movement in Poland.
That's interesting . . . it makes me think of Art Spiegelman's Maus, the autobiographical/biographical story of an Auschwitz survivor told by his son in comic book form. It was initially listed in the New York Times Book Review under fiction. Spiegelman apparently called up and insisted on a non-fiction category. I think that when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, they had to find a category that was neither fiction nor non-fiction, to invent a new category.
It would be interesting to know what they finally called it because so many of the best documentary films fall into the same ambiguity: theyÕre clearly non-fiction, yet ignore classic documentary "bottom-lines", and thus refuse the "purist" orthodoxies that pedigree the film as truthful or historical. That's one good reason to get rid of the term, but it is very hard to undo.
Shall we use it then, for convenience?
As you were talking, I was thinking of Bill Nichols' discussion of documentary film. He talks about "discourses of sobriety" in the same way that you are talking about edification films, and he links documentary to other discourses of sobriety, including science, economics, politics, and history. He talks about them as instrumental - not just edifying, but instrumental - that is, seeking to wield power in the world for particular ends. What do you think about that usage: to change the world, to exercise power?
Yes, I do agree with Nichols. I use his term "instrumental" when I teach. To change peoples' minds or ways of seeing is always there at the basis of all non-fiction. But the notion of "exercising power" sounds a bit heavy for most documentaries, unless we can agree that we mean that these films exercise power by changing consciousness, by their deliberate attempt to alter their viewers' relationship to a subject by recontextualizing it in the proffered time, space, and intellectual field of the film.
If we think of documentary films as above all instrumental, what specifically do you think they should do?
I want them to do two things: first, acknowledge their interpretive intentions (their instrumentality), that is, cease insisting on their innocence as pure description; and second, put their materials and techniques in the service of ideas - not in the service of sentiment or compassion-producing identification. Sad to say, the practices of most non-fiction filmmakers have continued unchanged since the 1970's. The essential claim that traditional documentary films make is that there's unmediated truth here because this was not scripted - because the materials are "found in nature" - thus, the text built out of them is truthful as well. That truth claim is still at the center of most documentary work. I hope it's not too presumptuous to say that I'm really interested in ideas and in the critique of culture. If a documentary filmmaker takes up historical materials, it shouldn't be to produce and/or claim to have produced a comprehensive description of the movement of events, but rather to engage the audience, somehow (and there are many, many ways), in a discussion about ideological constructions buried in representations of history - constructions as simple as the oppositions good/evil, desirable/undesirable, normal/abnormal, and the big one, us/them.
What's essential to me, also, is to produce an audience of individuals (not a "community") who become active intellectual participants in a discussion of the social conditions and relationships represented. I want to produce an audience of individuals who can learn some conceptual tools with which to articulate a critique - a critique applicable to all kinds of social and historical situations, not just to the materials at hand. That involves breaking up the comfortable and classic contract arrangements that the documentary film usually proffers its audience. Structured into most traditional documentaries is an unspoken promise to its audience that they can have a particular feeling about themselves. The audience is invited to believe: ÒI learn from this film because I care about the issues and people involved and want to understand them better; therefore, I am a compassionate member of society, not part of the problem described, but part of the solution.Ó The documentary film knits us into a community of "we" - a special community by dint of our new knowledge and compassion.
The real contract, the more hidden one, enables the viewer to feel: "thank God that's not me". Thank God that's not me, saddled with two Downs syndrome children and on welfare, or dying of AIDS, or downsized out of a job, and, in the historical film, thank God that's not me who had to send all three sons from our struggling Illinois family farm to fight to their death on the battlefield of Gettysburg. The disappointing thing is that these are still current models of documentary success: in the field of history, for example, the kinds of films produced by Ken Burns, the first American, household-name documentarian in this country maybe since Robert Flaherty. He's the house organ of the NEH, the filmmaker laureate of PBS, and I don't trust him for a minute. His work is frightening, but it has become the model of the high-minded documentaryÑas opposed to low-minded reality TV, which takes up "actuality" for its own, somewhat different purposes.
Why is he frightening?
Because he uses documentary as a kind of national therapy, producing a kind of mourning moment, a nostalgia for the past, in which one can find no useful questions or analyses that we could employ in today's realities. And there's no active audience produced - just a sort of dreamy, passive audience that gains a sweet, sad knowingness about the Civil War, but not a knowledge that provides insight into the economic, social, and racial structures that produced so many dead bodies, such waste of property, and such difficult political problems for the future.
Your criticism, then, is not about the accuracy of Burns's representation of the Civil War, but rather, you seem to be arguing that he has produced a closed story, one that is finished when the viewer has finished seeing the film - that the film provides a kind of closure that's inappropriate to the topic.
Absolutely. That has been a big problem with documentary. Burns didn't invent that problem. From the beginning, (if it wasn't straight newsreel, with a clearly stated information function) the documentary film has been perceived as a kind of poor step-sister to the fiction cinema of entertainment - rated as somehow inadequate, as a lesser form (maybe a feminine form) to the bigger brother of drama. To survive, to take public space and attention, it has had to borrow all kinds of structural and strategic devices from fiction in order to achieve what I would call "satisfying form", that is, to send the audience out of the theater (and/or off to bed) feeling complete, whole, and untroubled. One of those borrowed devices is narrative - which entails sentiment and closure. General audiences seek and expect closure, even from documentary films.
And for the filmmaker, it's a difficult thing to deny an audience. Even expository films, structured as arguments (not as stories) and based on documentary evidence, typically conclude in a pretty emotional way. Often they point us toward an imaginary future where the problems are likely to be resolved. I'm thinking, for example, of the 1968 CBS Report called Hunger in America. At the start of the film, the on-camera anchorman, a young Charles Kuralt, insists emphatically that hunger in America is one thing, but starving babies are too much (presumably un-American). After fifty minutes of footage of limp, lethargic, undersize babies from four poor communities (Navajos on a reservation, Latinos in San Antonio, black sharecroppers in Alabama, and poor whites from Maryland), babies with their skin literally hanging off their bones (and one even dying on camera), and many demonstrations of local health care workers and hospitals doing their level best, but failing, to keep the babies alive, we learn that the problem is that "we" are feeding these people only from surplus food suppliesÑthat is with starches and lard, but with no proteins, fresh fruits, or vegetables. The hopeful epilogue of the program suggests that once we correct this problem, there will no be more starving babies in America. Now that we know what we know, and have wept together for these tiny creatures and their humble, docile parents, we feel that somehow the situation is in the process of being corrected. What actually produces the starvation of babies in the richest country in the world - that is, underemployment, unfair labor practices, historical land-holding arrangements, lack of education, racial problems - never come under discussion.
You are suggesting that it is important to make the audience uncomfortable, unsettled. This perspective sounds quite different from that expressed by Burns who has criticized historians for Òhaving abandoned their role as tribal storytellers who craft tales about the past in which the nation can find its identity. 2
Well, I think that classic feature films - certainly those with historical subjectsÑmore than adequately fulfill the task of tribal storytelling. However, it does makes sense to me that historians would prefer documentarians to do that job, because feature films (like Spielberg's, for example) so unabashedly use the assertion of a real historical subject to satisfy box office demands, and those box-office demands often generate films that are either ahistorical, unexamined, and ideological, or heroic/tragic dramas, like Schindler's List. However, Ken Burns's plea to use actual artifacts, texts, and recordings from history to support the production of national mythologies is anathema to me. It seems to me that if you're addressed, and if you agree to be addressed, as a member of a tribe, then any action of your tribe, taken in the interests of tribal survival, can be rationalized - as Hitler knew. Or, as in the Old Testament, which addresses its readers as Jews (members of a very special tribe - God's chosen), the reader is asked to celebrate the destruction of another indigenous tribe, the Canaanites. I guess you have drawn me out far enough to say that I have no use for any history written without a critical stance and a political purpose or for one that addresses a national community. For me, Hans Jurgen Syberberg's expressionist film, Hitler, A Film from Germany, is a much better use of history, especially for Germans, than any straight historical documentary on the rise of Nazism, partly because it makes no claim to represent history in the classic sense of "sticking to the facts". It's a nine-and-a-half hour film and very difficult to characterize, but we could say that it attempts to raise to consciousness the psychic investment the German people made in the figure of Hitler, and to point to its remnants in contemporary German culture, using a combination of Brechtian theatrical strategies, artifactual film from the Nazi period, gender inversions and the like. Susan Sontag says that he invokes a kind of Hitler substance that outlives Hitler, a phantom presence in modern culture . . .
So, how do you characterize what you consider to be valuable documentary films?
The documentary films that I most respect don't come to closure and don't produce audiences of compassionate spectators of the dilemmas of others. They don't produce identification with heroics or sympathy for victims, both of which are dominant strains in the American documentary tradition. The welfare mother, the native American, and the family with the Downs syndrome child - these are the typical subjects of films that produce caring audiences, audiences who feel they're somehow part of the solution, because they've watched and cared. The filmmakers I admire, who might approach those same subjects, would be doing so in order to deconstruct the subject, to take apart that exact relationship with the audience. They would have a much more complex set of intentions and would resist closure.
Most of the filmmakers IÕm thinking of here, including myself, owe a huge debt to Bunuel's 1932 film, Land Without Bread. Bunuel was an anarchist and so it makes sense to me that he's the guy who wrenched open all the important questions about the conceits of the documentary form and its contract with the audience.
Can you say more specifically how he broke the contract, so to speak?
Land Without Bread takes up one of the most abject peoples in the world, the Hurdanos, who live on land that is literally uncultivatable in a mountainous region of central Spain near Salamanca (where, Bunuel cynically notes, one of the oldest universities in the world is located). Bunuel's film treats these people and their condition in brutally ironic termsÑusing references to cultural anthropology and to travel films to point out their "folkloric displays", which validates our prurient interest in "bizarre peoples" and their curious customs. There is no escape from the ethnocentricity of the viewing position. The audience has to struggle with their pornographic desires for the real (in this case, real debasement) and their discomfort with the documentary form that delivers it to them which Bunuel insists they be cognizant of.
Your description of the persistence of comforting, tightly organized stories - the failure of Bunuel's more self-reflexive model to become dominant - seems somewhat ironic to me, because in fact the possibilities for the disruption of linearity, or the rejection of coherence, seem much greater in film than in writing. In discussing the effects of post-structuralism, Nancy Partner has recently observed that - for all the sophistication of the theory-saturated part of the profession, scholars in all the relevant disciplines that contribute to or depend on historical information carry on in all essential ways as though nothing had changed since Ranke, or Gibbon for that matter . . . (3) It seems as if in writing history, it's very hard not to produce a single, linear narrative that comes to closure. In film one would think that the medium allows for a kind of flexibility and the tools for disruption that should make possible a very different kind of story. And yet you're saying that there is a pronounced disinclination to depart from the traditional form.
Yes, other than to add a certain kind of (once new, but already worn out) glitzy "look", now that special digital effects are both acceptable in documentary forms and are cheap and thus available to everyone. Documentary filmmakers are the most un-self-conscious artists in the worldÑmaybe because they see themselves as heroic truth-tellers with a mission to make a powerful "humanizing" statement in any way that works. Most donÕt examine their techniques in theoretical or methodological terms. Certainly, the commercial producers of documentaries (the networks and cable companies) have absolutely no interest in such considerations. For independent filmmakers, production is long, arduous, and usually underfunded. Simply finishing the work and getting it to the public is unbelievably difficult. The "sexier" the film, the more likely one is to find distribution opportunities, which are few and far between.
Today, you can't get a feature documentary about the cartoonist, R. Crumb, distributed if it simply examines Crumb's art. You have to psychologize the artist and visit with the bizarrely distorted members of his family "to understand" what his art is all about . . . that's what makes Crumb sexy, and a minor box-office hit. In moments like the present when everybody is quite fearful of social disorder, it is sensational stories about deranged parents who keep their children tied to a chair in a basement for seven years that are consumable. Or films where the filmmaker performs a heroic task simply by making the film - in the case of The Thin Blue Line for example, a film that claims to have saved an innocent man from the electric chair through the filmmaking process itself. Or films like Hoop Dreams, an odyssey of working-class black kids and their dreams of escape from poverty. What most of these films provide is an opportunity for the audience to sit there and say "isn't that awful", or "isn't it tragic what happened to the dust bowl farmers, or to the Russian kulaks", or "aren't those Chinese kids in Tienanmen Square courageous", or, in the case of Hoop Dreams, "I'm really hoping that Jamal will somehow get at least a B- in history so he can go to a big basketball college and make a lot of money". On the surface there is the conscious "Isn't it awful that the Polish workers are suffering so", and underneath, the repressed "thank God I'm not the wife of a Polish coal miner, standing in line two hours for a pound of sugar". What I'm saying is that the traditional documentary enables viewers to have the coherence, manageability, and often the moral order of their lives reaffirmed, while simultaneously allowing them to feel that they're interested in other classes, other peoples' tragedies, other countries' crises. By producing their subjects as heroic and allowing us to be glad for their victories, or by producing them as tragic and allowing us to weep, the audience experiences itself as not implicated, exempt from the responsibility either to act or even to consider the structures of their own situation.
What enabled you to produce the innovations that emerge in Far from Poland innovations that critics have described as "an expansion of the vocabulary of filmmaking, film criticism and social criticism at the same time"?