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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 Praise of Film Chronicles
Agris Redovic Riga
To begin with, I consider the coming of the new Millennium to be a kind of kid's game that conveys man's naive desire to play with round numbers. For that reason I will permit myself to use some naive theses in my presentation.
As much as I remember (I have participated in these symposia from the very beginning) the questions like what is documentary, where does it go and where should it go, were raised practically during each symposium, no matter under what slogan it was held. And practically at all the symposia the problem of documentaries had been reduced (I am simplifying it in a sense) to two contradictions: the contradiction between art and journalism, and, on the other hand, the contradiction between subjectivity and relation to the objective reality. Perhaps these contradictions is the part of documentaries indeed. Actually, documentary film cannot be defined, and each symposium supports the idea, as it gathers under the umbrella of documentary the samples of films of various sort, quality, scale, Weltanschaung and so on.
However, one of the basic problems of documentaries is that the language of the documentary film is a language without alphabet, this is a language based merely on the syntax. The alphabet of documentary film, in my view, is indefinable.
Why have I called my report “The Praise of Film Chronicles”? I borrowed the title from Sergey Eizenstein's sketch, which he wrote in 1947. According to Eisenstein, newsreel is a stage of the cave paintings and ornament in a film. He meant feature films but actually these cave paintings and ornament create the whole cinematography (this is also supported by the initial attempts at the beginning of the century).
Abram Kletskin started with Renaissance to show today's problems of documentary. I would like to allow myself to go even further - I have to move back my vision to the epoch of the primeval man. It seems to me that the very act when a wild man got fascinated by the beauty of clouds scudding upon him and by their reflection in a forest lake, holds in itself one of the basic principles of cinematography. And I feel, almost physically, his pain and anger when a monkey cast a stone into the lake and destroyed the picture. He was grieving as he knew that the picture would never be repeated. I am sure that the desire to retain the moving reality was encoded into the consciousness of primeval man.
Henceforth all the history of visual arts is essentially expressing the desire of human being to imagine things how they looked. The invention of cinema finally made it possible to fixate passing away times and images. It seemed that man assumed the power over reality.
Certainly authorities always tried to make use of man's inner necessity to register the reality. It can be illustrated by the example of the ancient Rome. In every town, in every village there had to be a sculptural representation of the Emperor for everyone to know how the godlike Emperor looked like.
With the invention of film the chronicler obtained quite a different function; new possibilities opened for the person who registered this reality. This is not by chance that the czar Nicholas the Second was one of the first leaders who in fact opened the position of royal cinematographer in his court. For that reason today we have the huge archives of footage about the life of Nicholas the Second. All this was shot for him but today when we watch the films we understand that the great effort was made for these chronicles.
Time passed and the chroniclers (when I say the chroniclers I mean those who made documentaries) came to believe in their historical mission. Documentary film separated itself from feature film, then from newsreel. Documentary film became as if an imaginary entity among images of visual culture. That means that documentary film always tried to estrange itself from the external phenomena. Yet with the time this separate structure of documentary started losing very much as any self-contained structure.
Mr. Schlegel said about the danger of globalization. This is natural, globalization has always been present in the times when the culture obtained a certain possibility to be multiplied. We do not forget that globalization also helped to disseminate cultures. This is an ambivalent phenomenon. However, there is a totally different danger which is directly concerned the documentary film. This is the loss of respect to visuality, the loss of the sense of uniqueness of a shot. With the emergence of new technologies the shot, its structure, its internal secrets seem irrelevant. Every shot can be substituted by a different shot. In fact the vanishing of the shot's uniqueness is one of the evidences of the internal crisis of documentary.
I do not want to conclude that this form of culture is doomed to extinction. What we saw at this Symposium, and what we can possibly see at other forums, demonstrated that the recurrent synthesis comes back. The borderlines between documentaries and feature films are being eliminated. We perceive this as the emergence of general cultural instruments. Documentary film not only goes closer to feature film, it also absorbs in itself the other means of narrative. For that reason the beginning of the new Millennium, once we talk about such a thing, will bring a new renaissance of documentaries. Maybe it will not be called "documentary film", and perhaps the films similar to the works of Sergey Dvortsevoy with long waiting, long shots, - they will fall out of the general trend. But what will never be lost from the main trend of documentary is the depth of conveying the reality.
At the end of my report I would like to recall the words of R.Canudo, the person who can be considered the founder of the theory of film in general. He wrote in his Manifesto of Seven Arts that cinematography was generated from the six arts: architecture, music, painting, sculpture, poetry and dance. Combining the science with arts the seventh art unites all the other arts.
Finishing my presentation I still would like to express hope that if the next millennium comes, the sultan who lives in every of us will not forget to ask Shahrezada: "Tell me another story!" That is the basis of the eternity of the film.
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