Cinema Seattle. Presenter of the Seattle International Film Festival

May 2002 - Volume 10, Issue 2

Documentary Tsunami


by Andy Spletzer

It's often said that every new cinematic "wave" comes via film critics, constructing their own films via the deconstruction of classics.

A critic and co-founder of the best-known "wave" in film, Jean-Luc Godard’s camera documented life. If you want a good insight into the youth culture of ‘60s France, look no further than Godard and the rest of the French New Wave, not just because they captured what the kids were doing, but also caught them when they were bored too. They showed deeper, subtler elements of the culture that had previously been overlooked. When you look at the work of the New Wave itself, it becomes obvious that the true inspiration for these films is documentaries.

Jean-Luc Godard's first short (Operation beton, 1954) was a documentary before he moved into fiction films, but it can be said he never left behind elements of the doc form, particularly in his editing and sound design.

I'd argue that every new "wave" of filmmaking refers back the documentary tradition, if not in content then in style. And budget. In fact, everything that the French New Wave was praised for in terms of stylistic innovations (on limited budgets) is taken for granted in documentary film. Same goes for the German New Wave, the Czech New Wave, the Latvian New Wave, whatever.

Let's take a closer look at documentaries. More often than not, producers go into a project with a subject and a point of view, but no real idea on how it will turn out. There is no script, just an investigation and the uncertainty in what might be unearthed that lends an excitement to the form.

Once all the information has been collected, well that's only the beginning. Then things get really tough. Dozens—sometimes hundreds of hours of footage needs to be cut down into 90 minutes or less. Editing becomes all-important.

In a sense, documentary is a cinema of compression, packing as much information as possible into a little bit of time. The goal is to put forward ideas in a logical and efficient way. This is accomplished with jump cuts and multiple narrators, stylistic elements taken for granted in documentaries but hailed as revolutionary whenever they reemerge in fiction films.

Actually, jump cuts do find their way into mainstream features (thanks in part to the acolytes of Oliver Stone), so the biggest stylistic difference between fiction and non-fiction films is how they use narrators. With few exceptions, fiction films use a narrator as a framing device, a way to get into the story. That character's point of view is treated as gospel.

For documentary films, each interview subject becomes a de facto narrator, and conflicting stories call attention to the subjective nature of their testimonies. They may completely believe what they are saying, or they may be putting spin on a story; the interpretation is up to the audience to decide. It's a level of ambiguity, of audience involvement, that most fiction films don't allow.

Not that documentaries never use the omniscient "trustworthy" narrator, because they do. These take the form of voiceovers (sometimes by celebrities) where objective facts are dispensed. Though the content of what the narrator is saying is rarely called into question, particularly in regards to the facts that are quoted, there is still a subjective quality to it. The omniscient narrator works more as the voice or conscience of the producer/director, and if there's a perceived slant or political point to the documentary, this is where it can be found.

If documentary is the cinema of compression and complex (human) characters, then indie film, as it developed out of Sundance in the 90s, is the cinema of padding and simplistic characterizations. Heaven forbid there be an unlikable protagonist, or somebody who says anything the least bit subversive, at least without a wink from the director or some kind of karmic retribution.

The films of this era that achieved the greatest attention were the Hollywood-wannabe films by the likes of Ed Burns and Eric Schaeffer, or the "shocking" content of Kevin Smith or Gregg Araki. Looked at from a distance, what's most shocking about these films is how formally conservative they are. Instead of using the limitations of a small budget as an excuse to experiment, they played it safe in order to make calling card films that would prove that they can make a "Hollywood" picture no matter what the budget.

Now we've got digital video and other technological advances changing the way both fiction and non-fiction films are made. So far, the relative cheapness of digital videotape has benefited documentaries more than narrative features. Documentary filmmakers are able to go out and collect even more information, which will eventually need to be compressed into their finished work. Meanwhile, the fiction films have been using DV to shoot take after take, which benefits the actors but doesn't really do much for the rest of the film.

Perhaps someday the fiction filmmakers will explore the post-production side of things. Maybe they'll drop their reliance on sync-sound, explore multiple protagonists, utilize unreliable narrators-in short, do what documentaries have been doing for years-and then maybe, just maybe, a new "new wave" will emerge.

I predict that the authors of this new movement will not be film critics, as it has in years past, but documentary filmmakers. The recent boom in non-fiction films, not to mention Robert Redford's announcement that he's going to start a Sundance Documentary Channel, is certainly fertile ground for a group of people to shake things up. And working documentary filmmakers are just the people to do it.

So when you sit down to watch the documentaries at this year's SIFF (which I encourage you to do, because it's a stunning line-up), look beyond the gripping subject matter and examine the form. Then imagine an indie film scene with the same energy, excitement, and innovation. Oooooh, it gives me goose bumps.

Andy Spletzer's experimental short film, “Apoplexy”, has four narrators and will play as part of Exploding Cinema on June 15 at the Rendezvous Jewelbox. He was a film critic at The Stranger for years and now curates film at Consolidated Works.

Programs Fund