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DOCUMENTARIES ON THE BRINK OF MILLENNIUM
proceedings of the International Documentary Film Symposium held on September 11 - 16, 1999 in Riga, Latvia
The Digital and the Documentary.
Consequences of the digitalization on aesthetics, technique and economy of the documentary.

Bernd-Günther Nahm
Kulturelle Filmförderung Schleswig-Holstein e.V. Filmwerkstatt
Let me start with a personal story. I grew up after the war in the middle Germany, in a poor farming area north of Frankfurt, where we used to watch films by Robert Flaherty and the Italian neorealism in our living room. These films were dedicated to a distribution tour through towns and villages in that area. Every month my father, one of the organizers of the mobile cinema, had to watch the new 16mm films to make a reasonable program. I remember very well how impressed and touched I was at that time and still am by Man of Aran and Nanook of the North. About ten years ago I met Richard Leacock, one of my heroes of prevideo cinema and talked with him about the development in documentary filmmaking. At that time he was using a Hi8 Camcorder and was happy that for the first time in his life he owned the production devices and could make his "independent" films. All this after working with 35mm cameras, later on developing and promoting the 16mm camera as professional film equipment and then discovering his new chance with the consumer video format. I have not met him for some time but I am quite sure he is filming on digital video today. What he said years ago and also his recent work convinced me of his way. Evidently he is using this format as a trained and very conscious director.
The opposite example is the young filmmaker who has a good and interesting idea but no money, little film education and ends up with a lot of digital material and no film, nothing worth to tell.
Herr Zwilling und Frau Zuckermann by Volker Koepp is one of my favourite documentaries of the last years. I wonder if the film was made in digital video, would the main characters reach us as intensive on screen as they do now? Whether the quality of Herr Zwilling und Frau Zuckermann is a result of the production format, or of the extraordinary work of Koepp and Plenert? Or it is the charisma of Zuckermann and Zwilling, or even the attitude of the four persons towards life and human dignity.
Bread Day, the film I really enjoy on screen, as well as New Times at Crossroad Street by Ivars Seleckis, might be treated in the same way.
Examples of strong cinema films done on video and transferred to film are Salzmanner in Tibet, a Swiss film, Broken Silence, a fiction film with documentary elements, and Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club which is done on digital video and then transferred into a film. Problems with shooting permission, limited financial resources and general economic reasons made it necessary to produce Salzmanner and Broken Silence this way. I am glad they did it, otherwise they would never reach cinema.
To make it short, the choice of material film, video or digital video does not lead to a good or bad film. For sure the material affects the aesthetic. However, the decision is often, especially for productions ordered by TV-broadcasters, not up to the director. The exploitation of a film - cinema, TV or non-commercial cinemas - determines the format and the choice of material as well.
Production costs of long term shooting, personal independence of the filmmaker with his theme or project dependent on footage material and mainly on TV distribution of a film are some of the reasons to work with video in all its variety.
Also new TV formats like the docusoaps produced in England by BBC and Channel 4 or TV events we could watch some time ago (I don't know whether it has been watched here)- 30 hours live documentation of four mountain climbers going up the Eigernordwand which is quite famous and dangerous mountains in the Alps. They went up with video cameras in their helmets and they broadcast 30 hours approaching the mountain. The ascent could not be shown on TV without digital techniques. The mountain climbing could also be watched on Internet as Quicktime video.
Another example, I am talking about a new video format, what we have seen here, a video diary - Anisa - Between Hope and Despair by Swedish director Dick Idestam-Almquist. I think at that time it was done with a Hi8 camera. Nowadays it would be a digital camera.
The availability of pictures, images and stills is increasing and the quality of the final product is more or less the story and the editing.
I know quite well that I am stretching all the time the meaning of documentary filmmaking, but the fast developing or changing media - in terms of technics and storytelling - the availability of reasonable production equipment to almost everybody and the advantages of new ways of producing are calling for a discussion without limits.

I can see a few aspects, which have strong influence on the quality of films but they are mostly not a question of digital or analog video/film.
First, and for me the strongest, aspect is the personal education of the director and the team together with craftsmanship and attitude. The second skill is to find a solution for all the technical aspects concerning film or video, which will provide the result we are looking for. The third invention and nothing to neglect is the concept of the production company, the TV station or others who order the film. These concepts are unfortunately quite often dominated by economical reasons, by ratings and rarely by knowledge of filmmaking.
So how can an author deliver a fascinating product when previously all his creative power is strongly limited and has to transfer given orders?
We should not forget the new and demanding possibilities given by the digital technics. New ways of producing, storytelling and distribution will be explored by younger filmmaker - I intentionally do not use the classical term “director” - and will change our view, our image of the world.
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