proceedings of the International Documentary Film Symposium held on September 11 - 16, 1999 in Riga, Latvia

Estonian Documentaries Today

Lauri KärkTartu
Two years ago here at the similar Symposium we could speak about certain stabilization and at the same time about the danger of certain stagnation in the documentary film after the times of political changes and their reflection on the screen in the beginning of the 90s. After dealing with new fields of our life, for instance, prostitution (in the real fact, only superficial dealing with those issues) in the first half of the 90s our documentary film again turned to more traditional themes and at the same time also to more commonly well-known language possibilities. Instances of such films could be found two years ago and now you can find such examples as well. The best example is Nelly and Elmar, the film about two retired people who live in the countryside. The film itself is set in the beautiful autumn landscape, and the main characters are talking about the problems of the countryside life. Last autumn the film received the price at Chicago Festival. It is really a good film, nothing bad could be said about it. That address to something more traditional in some sense is a logical thing to do in the period when society is stabilizing. Certainly, the critic always wants more; critics are never satisfied. The same can be said about me.
Now I am worried not so much that some areas of life are not being registered, I am worried more about financing. On the one hand, the things are not too bad: we have Film Foundation and also the Cultural Capital. They finance concrete projects. Those changes in the system of financing have taken place yet. However, in March 1999 we had screenings of the previous year films. It was interesting for me to find out what actually was going on, what was happening in Estonian documentary film because we have a lot of small studios, consequently, it is very difficult to obtain the general view of the situation. During this week a couple of feature films and animation films were shown as well, but basically we were watching documentaries. For that reason that relates directly to what we are talking here. After those screenings I jumped to the conclusion that the problem of financing is not an economical problem. This is not the problem that there is no money at all - money is always in short. This is quite understandable. But the fact is that the system of financing, I see this also on the screen, is an aesthetic problem. It is manifested in the sense that the reality is such that you can get financing from those two sources and there are practically no other possibilities. There are no specific contacts with TV channels, there are no specific reasons why should anybody become a sponsor of a film. To see the name of the company in the credits it seems to be a bit too little. Correspondingly, the people who make the films, they do it for themselves. They receive some money (not much but enough to make a documentary film) and it seems that they are free in their further actions. But what we saw on the screen, was amateur home video. Not in the sense that it was made on VHS, it was all made on the professional technical equipment. But the problem is that there is no inner direction towards actual solution, either it would be television or whatever. Which means that the people are making the films for themselves, for internal use.
I do not create for myself illusions that somebody who commissions films would not have certain demands or requirements of the film they might commission. Undoubtedly, preliminary selling and that kind of stuff is not helping very much the situation with documentary film. But from the experience of that week I do not see any other possibility. What I managed to see on the screen was even more horrifying than socialism. There are no ideal solutions, there are optimal solutions. For us it means that there has to be someone who commissions film, there has to be the real outer solution. But now our television is not particularly interested in the problems of artistically documentary films.
That was so much about the mercantile prospects. Now about the mental prospects of documentaries.
When I was given the theme of this Symposium I offered one of the students' films August is Looking for a Woman. I do not know if it is a documentary or not. Its authors themselves call it a documentary. At the moment we have a course who are specializing in documentary filmmaking. Undoubtedly, the people who entered it have also ambitions of feature filmmaking (that year we had no course in feature films).
Why did I offer this film? From the program of our documentary films this one is much more interesting than anything else, much more disputable and so on. There were also certain tendencies seen in this film of the contemporary documentaries. First of all, there is no such a distinct borderline between documentary film and feature film. That can be partly explained by new digital technology. When we watch a television we do not know what we see: is it the real war or is it a staged war by Hollywood. Secondly (it seems to be not so close to films), the virtual reality has become, indeed, a reality. Now the first source is the screen and not reality.
The above-said has a relation to a newsreel and the newsreelization of reality. If in the 60s they spoke about the aesthetics of film, about very long shots and the sequences as an analogue of life meaning by that something in one film. But today such unfinished sequence technically has become a reality. There are simultaneous sequences that you can see in every room - I mean TV-sets. There are so many chronicles filmed now. Undoubtedly, it has an influence upon documentary film and upon those who are being shot. Today you can find cameras everywhere: it the camera of a filmmaker, or a camera up to a cash machine in the street. So the fact that somebody is being filmed is no more an event. On the other hand we can say the same about the spectator. The fact that I am shown a piece of somebody's life is no more an event either. Consequently, documentary filmmakers should look for other ways to reach out for the audience. Mr. Kletskin described the situation very precisely: nowadays we have in the centre not the artist but the consumer.
Now let us come back to the problem of documentaries and feature films. Usually we oppose these things to each other. However, I would like to remind you that for the first time the term "documentary" was used by Grierson speaking about Flaerty's films. Meanwhile, these films have quite a strong narrative structure of feature film. Perhaps, if they had been made 20 - 30 years later, they would have been called films of neorealism. In that sense we should not forget about the possible correlation between feature films and documentaries, or maybe, indeed, might view documentary film as a variety of feature films.
Now I am doing research of history of cinematography. That is why I would like to mention some historical facts. I would like to return to the times of Méliès and to his film chronicles. First of all, it is a wonderful newsreel. For example, the coronation of Edward the Seventh, which had been shot before the actual event took place. So Méliès had the film ready and was no more dependent on actual events. What is it? May we consider it lie or cheat? Yes and no. I am telling all this to show that the sign of equality we place automatically between the photographic representation of reality and a photo as a guarantee of authenticity is a mere cultural convention.
Another point from history. Cinematography as the representation or reflection of movement became possible with the so-called stroboscopic effect, which was discovered in 1832 by Plateau. His disk was a sort of game but it shares its principle with cinematography. Speaking modern language, the principle can be called digitalization of movement: we single out some pieces or fragments from the incessant flow of movement and then restore them on the screen. For that reason it seems to me that the fear that pictures might lose their essence in the era of new technologies is unjustifiable.
Undoubtedly, cinema is changing and we do not know what it will transfer into it the near future. Yet history can teach us. Not in the sense it will teach us specific patterns of behaviour - people never learn from those. Yet owing to history we are able to see the today's situation as a space of time, we can see the relativity of present.
The former ideas of cinematography are changing. Perhaps in documentaries the process is even stronger and more painful. However, the coin always has two sides. Despite all the complexity of the present-day reality, it seems that documentary film is the most interesting part of cinematography, as the changes in documentary can create a certain response in other fields of cinema.
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