held on May 3 - 9, 1997 in Jurmala, Latvia
European Documentary Film Symposiums Riga, 1999
Niels Bohr and the Theory of Documentary Film
Leonid Kozlov
I should like to start by something that I had already written on. All of us know such events registered on film as the assassination of the Yugoslavian king Alexander in Marseilles in 1934, or the assassination of president Kennedy in Dallas filmed by an amateur, Abraham Zapruder. I had noted already that these are doubly sensational, in two senses of the word. In both the events registered and the extraordinariness and incredibility of the very meeting of the camera and a particular fact of life in a particular unique moment. The same is true not only of such tragic sensations, but also of happy minutes and moments.
In all these cases something that we call the moment of truth, the moment of revelation, the moment of revealing in a human face that we see the innermost is brought out. Everything begins when the camera and the object, the camera and the fact of life meet.
It is exactly in this connection that the discussion of some of Niels Bohr’s theories and of their relation to the theory of documentaries emerges. We have already attempted this in the journal "Notes on Film Studies" when we discussed something Niels Bohr said as a cinema viewer. This comment of his may be familiar to many of you, but I shall quote it again.
In 1931 Niels Bohr and three of his young companions went to the cinema to see a western with Tom Nicks and Niels Bohr said the following to his companions: "I did not like this spectacle, it was too improbable. The rogue’s elopement with the young girl was logical. This is how it always happens. That the bridge collapsed under their carriage is improbable, but I readily accept it. The heroine hanging over an abyss between the skies and the earth is even less probable, but I accept even that. I even accept as true that at this very moment Tom Nicks, her savior, rides past on his horse. But it is beyond me that at the same time somebody with a camera happens to be on the spot and films all this idiocy".
This has something to do with the theory and practice of documentaries, hasn’t it? I should like to remind you that professor Bohr’s reaction to the western was by no means a chance one, and it can surely be linked to his well-known ideas on the interaction between an object and a researcher’s tool. As we know, Bohr and Heisenberg jointly developed the idea that when the behavior of an atomic micro-object is measured, the very presence of a research tool influences the behavior of the object investigated. Is it possible at all to draw parallels between the events in the world of micro-particles and the macro-world in which we all live, work and operate our cameras? Nevertheless, the parallels are astonishing.
In the 60-ies Jean Rouche was interviewed on his work and reporters asked him the question: "Don’t you feel some deficiency when investigating life using the tools which, as you know in advance, deform life?" Rouche answered: "You either treat people as objects, or else, you require from them active participation in the process."
This is almost a literal parallel to what N Bohr had once said: "We face the choice: whether to trace the route of a micro-particle, or to observe the impact of interference into the movement of this particle. We face the impossibility of drawing a clear borderline between the independent behavior of atomic objects and their interaction with the measuring device."
Going back to N Bohr’s reaction to the western he saw and to his sacramental question about how the camera happened to be there, it is the same question which cropped up after the movie "Leshka’s Meadow": how did the camera happen to turn up in this very place at the very moment when the telephone rang with the message about the heart attack of the main character; it is the same question which cropped up after the movie of Olga Budashevskaya and Kevin Sim: how did the camera happen to turn up at the moment of Mr Dzhafarov’s and the lawyer’s conspiracy or at some other, third, fourth moment. I.e., the very fact of the camera and the object coinciding in time and space is a problem situation and the one very significant theoretically.
This is followed by the question of the camera – object interaction and of the camera’s possibly deforming impact on the object of depiction, be it a human being or an event, and vice versa, of the impact of the event on the camera-man and camera work. I should like to remind you of the words of one of the prominent. masters of documentary photography, one of those who paid for the success of his work by his whole life, Robert Capa. He said: "If a picture is quite sharp (not in the sense of shocking, but focused, clear), if the movie turned out to be quite sharp, then you were far from the event." It is quite clear, I presume, what this means when making documentaries.
The point is that N Bohr’s ideas on the interaction of the object and the measuring device, on the system "device-object" are just part, just one of the manifestations of his general theory of complementarity as one of the principles of the existence of the world and the necessary principle of investigation of reality. Not only in physics, but, he insisted, also in psychology, philosophy and the study of art. How the principle of complementarity is to be applied and what results it can yield when applied to the subject of our discussion can be presented in the following way: some time ago film critics and historians struck on two coordinates of the evolution of the cinema, named surprisingly aptly: the so called Lumiere’s principle and Melyes’ principle. We can view newsreels and documentaries as a full development, full realisation of Lumiere’s principle, while Melyes’ principle implies a certain system of other possibilities, fully manifested in cartoons, manifested in contemporary cinema which employs various multi-media means.
In a way one can say that so far they tried to develop the general theory of the cinema proceeding primarily from Lumiere’s principle and its implications, while Melyes’ principle, representing the other coordinate, another starting point of counting, using other, contrary means, was paid less attention to. Possibly, one of the peculiarities, one of the features of contemporary situation, the situation of the end of the century in the cinema, of screen culture at large is that since a particular moment and for some time Melyes’ principle has become the dominant one in terms of significance and influence.
I can remind you, for instance, of the creative work of Zbignev Rybchinsky’s called, not by chance, the Melyes of the 21-st century. Whatever the attitude to him, he is a highly modern figure and, in my view, a highly topical one. I think that the fate of modern documentary cinema should be theoretically viewed, first of all, in the context of the whole system of modern screen culture, and, on the other hand, within the realm of documentary cinema as such, whether yesterday’s or today’s; the subtle systems
of interaction between Lumiere’s principle and the specifically transformed Melyes’ principle should be considered. Or, to put it otherwise, the interaction between purely non-fiction cinema and its purely fictional elements inevitably present, I believe, in any case, should be considered. Sometimes they are be noticeable and create a certain dissonance in the structure of a documentary, or else these fictional elements become an organic part of the whole.
I am discussing this very briefly and summarily and, therefore, probably leave out a lot. I just wanted to outline some theoretical possibilities connected with the principle of complementarity and with its importance and productiveness for the understanding of the theory of the cinema at large and the theory of documentary film.
Anyway, it is noteworthy that N. Bohr’s ideas have a direct implication for our theory. This seems to be obvious. I should like to quote N. Bohr once more, this time the quote concerns art: "Literary, visual and musical art forms a sequence of means of expression and in this sequence of means – an increasingly complete rejection of exact definitions characteristic of scientific messages, which makes a free play of imagination possible. In particular, in poetry this aim is achieved by a confrontation of words reflecting the observer’s changing perception, which binds emotionally diverse aspects of human cognition."
Bohr maintained that there is a difference between truths and profound truths. This is what he said: " One kind of truths, simple truths, are simple and clear statements, the opposites of which are obviously untrue. Another kind, so-called profound truths, are statements, the opposites of which also contain profound truths."
I think that dealing with profound truths is the most serious and crucial matter. The last illustration will be the comparison of B. Brecht’s two statements, both made in the 50-ies. In his article "Can Theatre Reflect Contemporary World?" Brecht wrote: "…contemporary people will accept the depiction of contemporary world only if this world will be presented as a changeable one."
Also in the 50-ies, in the cycle "Elegies" Brecht wrote a short poem which also belongs to profound truths:

Tonight in a dream
I saw a strong storm.
It shattered buildings,
Destroyed iron beams,
Took away an iron roof,
But everything made of wood
Bent and remained intact.

I should like, using again one of Brecht’s phrases, to wish you unbending pliancy.

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