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

Good Bye, Cinema Direct!
Tue Steen Müller
European Documentary Network
I think that the film program of the Symposium gave to all of us the variety of documentary cinema, or documentary television programming as it is today. What I am going to talk about very briefly is the strong sides and the weaknesses of documentary cinema as I see it today.
If you consider what we saw at the Symposium and if you are old enough to think twenty years back, I think, you will agree that this genre has never been so popular as it is now. Twenty or ten years ago, at least in the country I am coming from, just the term documentary was not very much used. Now if you open a newspaper with television programme there are documentaries everywhere. And they are shown not only at midnight but they are also, in television terms, a prime time stuff today. And it is wonderful that this genre has a variety, it is wonderful that this genre has also subgenres.
If you think about yesterday we saw the new and not so new any more, now it is accepted, the docusoap. We saw examples of the more current affair documentary like our Finnish friend's film Insha Allah - God Willing about Somalis in Finland. We saw the more experimental thing where you can see that this genre is actually borrowing its ways of expression from fiction like in the docusoap, for instance. We also saw filmmakers who were trying to express themselves in a minimalistic way, for example the film that I brought from one of my friends in Denmark called 2000. You can discuss whether it is a documentary from a classical point of view. What the filmmaker is doing? He brings people into a room, before that he had a talk with them. He has made a scenario but still there is a wide space for improvisation and that is what is happening in the studio. For me this is a documentary because he is trying to catch the dramatical moment between human beings. This is, probably, the noblest cause of the documentary genre.
Although we were asked not to talk too much about the combination of financing and expression I think we cannot talk about documentaries without touching upon financing side. Today you are going to see a film that is called Bread Day, the most award-winning film from the last couple of years. As far as I am informed by the director, Sergey Dvortsevoy, this film was made without any budget, it was a so-called no-budget film. He had some film stuff from the previous film called Paradise and he started shooting. Bread Day, we talked about it during the festival on Bornholm a couple of months ago, is that something for television, something for a broader audience.
You might say immediately "No" but the fact is: the film has been sold to ten different countries. So, don't give up. It is still possible. I heard a couple of weeks ago that the film had been sold to the most difficult country for foreign documentaries to enter, namely to the United Kingdom. It was sold to Channel 4 in England and it is going to be shown there. So, there are still possibilities, even for the most difficult, the most authored documentary directors.
Many documentary filmmakers start working with the new technique for two reasons. They cannot sit and wait for funding to come. The new technique is a possibility because it is cheaper to go out and film. Anyway, it is a good starting point, you cannot start your film without having a big funding from the very beginning. Another thing is that with a small camera and with a small crew you might get closer to people. You have no longer to put up your heavy equipment trying to catch some moment. You can be with people at a longer term and they would be more relaxed, so you can get closer into their souls, I think, with the new equipment.
So, these were the pluses (in Denmark we always count pluses and minuses. I think, it is characteristic of our national character). Now the weaknesses. We could see them from the yesterday program as well. There are still too many documentary films where you get the conclusions from the very beginning. You know after three or four minutes what is going to happen in the rest of the film. There is nothing left for curiosity, for surprise whatever. Maybe, that's the biggest problem about documentaries. Of course, it mostly refers to the films made directly for television, for current affairs. And with all respect to you, Visa, watching the Finnish film about Somalis after three minutes we knew exactly what would happen in the film. This is a very warm documentary about big problems in a welfare society, we all recognize it from all our countries, but there was nothing left for surprise. The conclusion, I am provoking you a little now, was given from the very beginning.
The other weakness is (and probably it related to the existence of the small camera) that many films lack style, lack the concept of expression, to my mind. The storytelling is not clear enough, you cannot see the handwriting of the filmmaker. Even in docusoaps there are specific rules of expression . However, within these rules you might still put (or maybe I am dreaming) your own handmark.
I would like also to raise the question whether it is necessary when you watch a picture and at the same time somebody is telling you what you are watching? Are there any other possibilities? Of course, it comes down to the cinematic expression. To take away all unnecessary things, to get into the precise way of telling the story. Bread Day again is an excellent example of it; the director has found his own way of telling the story that is minimalistic. I don't think it is actually very new but - who cares - nothing is new in the world. He goes back to the fundamental language, cinematic language; he takes away all the unnecessary things and leaves us with the beautiful work.
In a way, I would say, the same goes for New Times at Crossroad Street. Again, I think, Ivars and his crew have found their style from the very beginning. They have found the style that suits the theme. I would characterize it as a comedy with all good elements characteristic of comedy. And again, Ivars dares to use a commentary that is non-journalistic but very personal and warm. By that way he is characterizing his persons. I don't think that this would have been possible ten years ago when all filmmakers said: "Let the pictures talk for themselves; we don't want any commentary". I think these days are over. I think it is a good-bye to direct cinema. I think we should acknowledge the wonderful possibilities as we saw in Crossroad Street where the author is using good commentary but in a new way.
The new technique and the small camera, of course, increase the amount of minutes that people are shooting. You are left with much more material and, I think, you can see many of these documentaries where too many stories are to be told. I think this is danger of small camera that you include too much in a film and you are not very clear from the beginning what is the central subject of the film.
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