RECORDS of DOCUMENTARY FILM SYMPOSIUM
held on May 3 - 9, 1997 in Jurmala, Latvia
European Documentary Film Symposiums Riga, 1999
DOCUMENTARY FILM. THE AGE GONE. AN AGE TO COME?
ROUND TABLE
Valentina Ilkova

You would probably like to hear something about the situation in Bulgarian cinema, but I think we can do without this, for our situation is largely similar to that in any other former socialist country. That is why I shall touch upon it very briefly.
After 1989 Bulgarian cinema, naturally, started what I call the process of rehabilitation: it rehabilitated names, situations, events etc., in other words it attempted to somehow make up for something that was simply impossible in totalitarian cinema - the same kind of films as in Russia and other countries: about labour camps, the people repressed and so on. Then they went deeper into history. I believe, this is obvious enough in the programme of our films, they were selected with the view to show how far we have moved in this direction. Not too far, as you could see.
I should not like to generalise too much, but some tendencies do exist, and they are too obvious not to be mentioned. I shall use a metaphor: we had been once in a closed house with a very small window, and wanted to get a complete view, looking out of this window. The window was documentary cinema, and we viewed everything through this window. Later, when one of the walls of this house collapsed, and the huge panorama of` life was in front of us, far and wide, it turned out that we were simply unable to see everything, i.e. we are looking and we seem to see, but we cannot make it out.
It seems to me that we, i.e. documentary cinema, and cinema at large, were unable to cope with the freedom obtained, we did not manage to find our place among the other mass media. Do we think about our audience at all: are they interested in what we show them? Are they moved by it at all, and to what extent? They read newspapers avidly, they watch the TV, a lot of information is offered there, and it is always presented in a nerve-tickling way so as to sell the news at the cost of our excitement.
It seems to me that it is of greater interest for a normal philistine to read about a grandson who had killed his granny and then packed parts of her body into plastic bags than about the past of this grandson or his granny. The smack of scandal seems to have killed all normal human feelings and all normal human interest for another human being. I think that documentalists have not yet started looking for their own domain among mass media, have not settled in this domain and said: this is our area, only we can do it.
As a professional, I was watching with pleasure here films containing some observations or some play with expressive means. But I could not visualise their audience. Since the time when I started viewing myself as a film critic I tried to say that we had to teach our audience to perceive more serious, more complicated matters. But I am sure that in the course of these 25 years I have not managed to teach the audience anything of the kind. Those who did not watch complicated films, still do not, those who did, do it without my assistance.
But there were several films at this symposium the authors of which did, consciously or not, want to establish a contact with the viewer. We had a discussion here after Budashevskaya’s film on whether it was possible to use set-ups or not, and to what extent. Several films made it quite obvious that it is possible and sometimes even advisable, precisely with the aim to involve the viewer into the events. Surely, a certain level of truth and authenticity should be there. Indeed, the very presence of the camera has an impact on what is happening on the screen. You interfere in some way, so this is already not quite, not 100% documentary cinema. What matters, after all, is authenticity.
During the first evening already two angles of our programme became obvious to me, as if two legs of the chair we were sitting on so firmly. The first one was Pepe Dankwart’s film about Mostar. By the way, don’t confuse Mostar and Bosnia, these are entirely different matters. And this is why the two films are so different, they just cannot be compared. The second one was Yanina’s film "Venus With a Cat". And then two more appeared: the film of our Polish colleague Tadeusz Palka and "The Wolf’s Crime" by Olga Budashevskaya. In all these four films I saw our colleagues aiming at a contact with contemporary audience. For this reason only they are not the films of the day past, even though they deal with different topics, they are made with a different temper, both human and artistic.
These were the four legs of the chair, while the seat of the chair was definitely formed by the film of Victor Kossakovsky "Wednesday". In my view, it embraced the isolated directions of the search in the other films. It seems to have totalled up everything. By the means of documentary cinema Victor has created a work of art. I was amazed at his ability to seize me by the collar, to make me watch the first frames where a man was shaving in front of the mirror. Then I realised that the hand on my neck would not let me go, and just accepted the necessity to go on watching. He was leading me like a good novelist. This had nothing to do with some blurred cinematographic observation which might, hopefully, get somewhere. I do realise that, like the authors of the wonderful Danish film about the underground, he had probably talked to ten times as many people, that he had shot a lot of stuff, but his selection and the way he did it are wonderful.

Abram Kletzkin

The problem is even wider. Who told you that the person in front of the mirror is not this person? It is one of his/her manifestations. It is therefore very important to understand that no film will ever present a person in his/her entirety, but only in one or several of his aspects.

Sergey Muratov

Talking about fundamental tendencies, the films most interesting to me were those realising Flaherty’s principle: the method of long-term observation. The first film of this kind was "The Nika, which". About a girl grabbed hold of by mass media, surely spoilt by them, turned into a little star. And when Nika grew older, these mass media abandoned her and immediately forgot all about her. Fortunately, the director Borsyuk had the courage to return to the character he had filmed and to try to tell us what became of her later. Nothing good became of her. One should say that he, too, is to blame to some extent, for he was among the people who had exalted her. On the one hand, it is wonderful that he came back, on the other - one has the strange feeling that Salyeri is voicing his compassion to Mozart, saying: "Mozart, you don’t look well, do you have a headache?" Nevertheless the very principle of picking up the characters again seems to be a very important one in documentary cinema, and it is very seldom that we do it.
At this point the question of the interrelations with characters crops up. "Venus With a Cat" was really made by Lapinskaite in direct contact with her heroine. They were making it in an interaction and, at the same time, in inner struggle. I think that this direction will be developed further on.
Incidentally, Kossakovsky’s highly interesting film has drawn particular attention precisely due to the way the director had been shaping his relations with his characters, even though I do not always agree with him.
One more version of long-term observation is the case when characters create a movie about themselves. The Danish movie "Farewell to Paradise" is of great interest in this respect. It poses the problem which, hopefully, we shall sometime consider seriously. The problem "people and the camera" is an enigma and a mystery. One of its aspects was demonstrated in "Nika", where the camera practically kills a human being. It uses a human being to generate some kind of meaning, and the girl later falls a victim to this symbol. She could no longer live without fame, and even though at the end of the film she says that she is looking for a person who would love her, even if she finds one, he will not suit her at all. In fact, she wants to be loved by the whole of mankind. She was brought up in this way.
The second aspect involves the point discussed by Kozlov: the impact of the observer on the object of observation, something that exists in science as well. The presence of the camera, unless it is concealed, influences our characters inevitably. This is absolutely unavoidable, the rare exception being shooting on the scene of the event etc. The problem is: how is documentary cinema to remain documentary. It is a professional, psychological and creative problem, and we shall not get round it even if we want to.
The extreme version of this situation is a person filming himself/herself. At this point we face the paradox that almost nobody has ever seen himself/herself. For the only opportunity to see ourselves available is to look into the mirror. But as soon as we approach a mirror we change. If the mirror is somewhere in a theatre or a cinema hall, it suffices to sit down next to it and to observe how on seeing a mirror people {unaware of your watching them) change everything immediately: their gait, their deportment, their facial expression, so by the time they come up to the mirror they are already different. Therefore only those people saw themselves, in principle, who had been filmed by a hidden camera and were later shown this.
The question may be understood in a broader sense. E.g., all Soviet newsreels were also the mirror in which the state wanted to see itself, and we know what these newsreels were worth. It wanted to see itself the way it wanted to see itself, not the way it was like in reality. I mean that this problem is not a narrow but a fundamental one, it concerns directly the nature of documentary cinema. Some believe that it is documentary for the reason that the camera registers reality. The camera does not do anything, but we wish or do not wish to see life as it is, i.e. by Lumiere. One hundred years have passed, and we go back to Lumiere. I hope that we shall return to this problem during our meeting some time in the future.

Leonid Gurevitch

I should add: it is largely the aspect which the person shooting the film wants to reveal. For this is the basis of the subjectivity of documentary cinema. I realise, thank God, that the subjectivity of documentary cinema does not need to be proclaimed today. It seems to have become axiomatic. But what is the nature of this subjectivity? Some say, it is just what you choose to leave in the frame. I agree. But as far as the person filmed as a character is concerned, this depends primarily on which features of his you want to reveal, whether you view them as positive or negative ones. As a student I studied theoretical physics. Bohr’s postulate described by Leonid Kozlov involves one more point: the fact that the observer and observation change the behaviour of the object of observation is no proof that it makes it impossible for us to pass judgements upon the object. One should judge also taking into account what sort of changes this observation results in.
Take "Leshka’s Meadow", for example. Some people thought it incredible that cinematographers happened to be next to the telephone when they called from the prison to say that the character was ill. God is my witness, it was not a set-up. We hardly had time to connect to the line in another room, to be able to film this. It is much more essential, though, that Orlovsky the elder, having realised that he was an object of observation, changed his behaviour. It is absolutely obvious that he realised that the camera was of help to him. To him, his family and the situation. And the fact that he made use of this certainly characterises him in a certain way. Bohr’s complementarity effect appears, casting a different light on his nature, providing new opportunities of its interpretation.
So much as far as Bohr’s postulate is concerned. I registered this fact, for it does not rule out the necessity of filming people, on the contrary, it asserts the necessity to investigate people in non-fiction cinema, instead of shouting that we cannot get a document in this way. What is really of interest to me is the degree of deviation from reality. This deviation often occurs on the subconscious level: I ask particular questions which are of interest to me, another person would ask other questions. I choose for shooting the moment which another person would not have chosen. Finally, I provoke the situation enabling me to reveal what I want to be revealed. Subjectivity and once again - subjectivity.

Abram Kletzkin:

One more thing should probably be reminded of: we always deal with a double portrait. We somehow tend to forget that two people are involved, in fact: not only the person in front of the camera, but also the one operating the camera. They are both brought to the light and revealed.

Rainer Wagner:
I should come back to the relationship between camera, the audience and the actors. But first, I would like to recur to the remark of Madame Ilkova. She spoke about the legs of the chair. She told that the chair with five legs would be a safety chair. It was interesting and it brings me to another question or decision between safety and trust. I could roughly divide the films in those that trust in pictures, the extreme examples are the Lithuanian films, and those that trust in verbal expression, the extreme example for me is Virginia Grütter.
Somebody has told about literalization and belletrization and so on. Maybe, the blame of belletristic sources is that it leads us to soap opera. Of course, there is the utter division on black and white in such soap operas: the good guys will win, the bad guys will be punished - this is a very simple pattern of explaining the world. Anyway, we have to deal with that just in the moment of competition with other mass media. At the same time it was a bit astonishing for me to listen to the wish that the mankind should divide itself just in black and white, in either culture or civilization. In this moment I would like to remind you that without civilization there would be no camera, no film.
The main problem, and to my mind we should think about it very intense, is the point of identification. Here I come back to the relationship between the objects in front of the camera and the people behind the camera. I think we cannot avoid thinking that we, filmmakers (either television or independent filmmakers) have to see any strategy to bind the potential audience to our work. It means to take them into the circle of common consciousness of filmmakers, objects and the third part - the audience. This is the consideration for the future. If we don't succeed in it, we will not succeed at all.
Victor Kossakovsky

I should like to say that the person operating the camera is, in fact, of more importance than the director, for life happens once only, it is happening at this particular moment, and it is the person with the camera who decides how to employ it. If he has a particular attitude to what he is seeing at the moment, and if he is able to find the size required and the suitable distance between the characters and the camera, to react to the changes in the frame, if he is able to react professionally to what is happening in these particular moments in life, if he knows what and how the camera should do, then the sequence shot by him becomes a frame, becomes cinema.
A.F. Losev once told me: there are clever people of two different kinds; some say what they know, while the others think at the moment of speaking and try to say something they do not know as yet, something generated at the moment in their head. A person with the camera is the person thinking at the moment the camera zooms, and if he is thinking, then a real frame will emerge.
The movie "Look at the Face" was mentioned many times, but the most important thing about it was forgotten, I think. This movie, as any one which stays in the history of documentary cinema, is based on certain principles. Its aesthetic principle is defined by its title: "Look at the Face". Everything is done for this sake.
Movies have different origins. Some start with the contents, still others presume that the cinema is the opportunity to let people feel something they would not be able to feel otherwise. That only while sitting in a dark hall and looking at the screen can they experience emotional impressions impossible to experience in any other situation, either in an intelligent conversation, or when reading novels, or even when watching a feature film. This is the origin of a film: if the person who intends to make it has a certain aesthetic position and if he knows what sort of feelings and emotions documentary cinema can provide. Documentary cinema only, not any other kind of art or of human activity, i.e. in my view, it is not enough to be a clever or a decent person in order to make documentary films.
Surely, we can indulge in recalling time and again how good it was when everything was so bad, how gifted we were when we were not allowed to speak, but we still found a way to do it so that people would understand what we had in mind. It’s high time we stopped toying with it, we stopped harping on the same string. Nobody cares. The world seems not to have been in the know. I think that life goes on and we should stick to our work. Thank God, there is the TV and the video now, they have deprived us of what we should not deal with, and we should now do something that nobody else can.
What is, actually, essential for a documentary film director? What should he be able to do? A person with the camera has his own cast of mind, unknown to anyone, and he pays attention the things that other people just do not notice. Not because he is better or worse, it’s just that his nose or his nature is different.
So, if it is only you who can film what you want to film, it’s worth it. There are many themes which can be dealt with by five or a hundred of directors, but in this case it’s not worth doing, for they will do it without you. But you are able to see something that would seem insignificant and vague to someone else. Then it’s yours. Only something that will never occur to others to do is worth doing.
I also think that when they publish, say, in a magazine the frame with "Madonna Litta" by Leonardo from "Look at the Face", it’s not only its colour that is lost, but also the main thing about it: the only format possible. When the artist was painting it, he did not assume that two versions were possible, but only one. Life itself cannot have two versions, it cannot happen twice. You can film twice on the video, and that’s why it’s of no interest. You can do it once only on a film, and life, too, takes place once only, so at this very moment you have to hit on the only possible format of each frame. You get a bit closer - and life is presented in a false way, you have overdone it. The person behaves unnaturally. You go a bit further - the most essential thing is lost: the relation between the camera and that person. If while shooting you always feel this borderline, the frame will transform in time and it will remain a frame.
At the beginning of the workshop I was cross, because I thought: well, here I am again, and they are going to tell me something I studied at college. 15 or 20 year have passed since, and it’s high time we discussed something else. Times have changed. But now I am grateful to all of you, for I realised suddenly that I had not discussed cinema with anyone in this way for quite a time. Usually we discuss the lack of financing, how cinema should be financed, listen to wonderful presentations on how this is done in other countries. We just don’t discuss the conception of a new movie or what film is worth sparing on, so, frankly, I’m glad that I’ve come here.

Martin Skyba

My father taught me that silence is gold. I hold to this maxim as a professional, too. Like Victor, I am grateful to you, the honourable theorists and critics, I shall come back to Czechia enriched. I’ll say one thing: silence is gold, and when I am making a movie, I am making it for myself. I don’t want to teach the audience anything, let the audience think for themselves. Thank you.

Bernd-Günther Nahm:

I would like to follow just a little what Victor said, about a man with the camera and a hero in front of the camera. And I would like to point out both directions, because if the hero in front of the camera is strong, there might come out something very good, even if the cameraman is not so experienced, but he might be touched by the person and it might move him to the right position. On the other hand only this moment won't make a film as for making a film we need a lot of them. But this moment could appear in television and it could work there. But to become a piece of art a film needs a lot of such moments, and it draws me to another step in filmmaking that is editing. I like very much the editing in Victor's film Wednesday because in this film there is the fine moment - the cutting from one scene to the next one. It was a very smooth and gentle movement and in this precise moment there was another story, the story that just flashed, then it was gone and we followed the general story. I really like this way of editing films; for me it was something very easy to follow, very straight and powerful. Thank you.

Abram Kletzkin

As soon as one symposium is over, you naturally start thinking about the next one, which does not necessarily mean that it will really take place, though I hope it will. Two years is a big span in our life, but I believe that we are already ripe for the really fundamental question: "What is documentary cinema?" While discussing different versions of the answer and raising very important questions we must, in fact, comprehend anew the place of documentary cinema in the world, our own place in documentary cinema, and, for that matter, the role of this symposium. If this is not realised, there will be no progress, and the impression will be the same as with Victor at the beginning of this symposium: how long can you harp on the same string. Even though this is not true, it is largely just an impression, there is a grain of truth in it. The reason is not only that we are all from the 60-ies, the reason is also that we have not yet conceptualised the cardinally new situation in documentary cinema. In all respects, and first of all in the self-awareness of documentary cinema. This symposium had been initiated with one aim in mind: to try to understand what happens to us, what happens to the cinema. And we have to stick to it.
I should like to thank everybody, very sincerely. Not only for your participation and the discussion, but also for the spirit. We had a warm feeling not only here, but also in that cold hall, and I hope that these meetings will contribute to more long-term relationships, human relationships. I also hope that this helps not only in making films, but also in life.
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