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

Documentaries on the Brink of Millennium

Dr. AbramKletzkin
University of Latvia
The theme of my report is documentary cinema, the tendencies of its development in the context of the general cultural situation of our era.
In this century there was a turning point in the European type of culture, which had different reasons - social, historical and so on. However, if we speak of cultural reasons as such the beginning of new era was brought about by the emergence of cinema. Since Renaissance European culture developed in a kind of struggle for the independence of an artist: to emancipate from the church, power, money, the crowd and to create a free artistic personality. In no other culture an artist's personality was so significant and there was a high price to pay for that. We can say that freedom of an artist was the starting point of the European tradition of freedom and democracy. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries the opportunity of a new art appears which proclaims itself to be a heir of old arts. In fact it is what we call a young cuckoo in the nest of another bird. You know what a cuckoo does: when it grows old it throws out the other baby birds.
Cinema undermined the independence of an artist because an artist in cinema is not sovereign in two ways. First of all, when he is creating his film. Even lawyers cannot make it out who is an author in cinema. Because a director is not just an author, not a creator: he authorizes the creation of other authors. Therefore he cannot, as in traditional arts, decide for himself alone what is the result of this process.
More importantly, cinema is not independent in the sense that it is industrial production. Production always means production of goods. The point is not even making a profit, the point is that if you don't sell it, you will not have money to start a new industrial circle. If prior to Renaissance the theme of the art had the religious aspect, in the 14th century attention was focused on the artist. The story of Shakespeare in European conscience is fantastic one. For 200 years people have been arguing about Shakespeare: not about his works but about what he was like, and if he was there at all. Byron is even more interesting in that sense. In the minds of Europeans Byron is much greater than his creations. The main work by Byron is his own biography and not Child Harold.
In the 20th century with the advent of cinema a big change occurs because now in the centre is the Consumer, the Viewer. This is an utterly new situation, a very contradictory one, because it turns out that a free artist (in European arts an artist is a creator just like God) has to take into account how his work is accepted by the audience, by Somebody whom he does not even know. Unlike Mozart's time, when the audience was a very narrow circle of enlightened people, now we deal with a mass audience. It makes things more complicated. There is now elitist art, very far from people in the street and the rest of art becomes very quickly part of show business.
How can you adjust to the consumer not losing your own personality? There are two ways in which we may become important to the consumer. We either please the audience entertaining them (this is what the show business is all about), or we can create such a model of communication with the hypothetical viewer, which would meet some other needs of the consumer, which perhaps he is unaware of but which may be actualized.
The first way is impossible for documentary cinema - it has very few opportunities to keep pace with the rest of successful show business - all this enormous area of entertainment which involves sport, music and whatever else that may become entertaining. I think in this area documentaries have a slim chance. We did see at the Symposium a film which can raise mass interest, I mean Megacities. But still this art cannot be based on scandal. It sometimes is present there but it is quite obvious that documentary cinema cannot retain its uniqueness in this way. This is just one very narrow path.
Here the question crops up: how do we find the opportunity of a dialogue? A few years ago I viewed the future of documentary in a very sad way. I thought that documentaries have no future in the era of television. On the face of it, this is confirmed by the reality of TV shows: there are very few documentaries on very few channels. When they do show documentaries it is usually late at night when there are almost no viewers.
Nevertheless, the thing that kills us in the long run saves us. The point is that with the development of one huge audience electronic media viewers are split into small audiences. Nowadays to have 10 per cent is an enormous achievement, 20 per cent is already something unbelievable. We now witness the development of new channels, which are intended not for the spectators as such but for a particular section of the audience with certain interests - base interests or elevated ones. Thus to find an audience with the help of TV is quite possible. We had an example of this. We saw one of the 40 volumes of the series Kuchuguri. When 40 episodes from the life of certain people run in the course of three years, this does create an audience.
Still the problem of dialogue as an aesthetic and professional problem becomes one of the issues of the theory of documentary cinema. We cannot use the experience of Soviet documentaries not only because we were ousted from cinema halls and TV studios but also because in Soviet documentary cinema there was no dialogue with the viewer. We taught them how to live, we tried to help them, we tried to make them understand what is good and what is bad. Of course, this is a simplistic picture but even the best Soviet journalists when they wanted to help people they still reproduced the totalitarian model of communicating with the audience. What is the totalitarian model? There are omniscient people like gods, there are people who know less, and so on, downwards. There are people who do not know anything at all and they are not supposed to.
The difference between people was in the amount of information they had access to. There was a very detailed grading in the Soviet Union. As the people who are more in the know we tried to help good people but as a result we made them think that they were nothing, that they should be helped, should be explained things.
Now we see the results of all this. Some people are quite prepared to go back to the old times just in order not to be responsible for their own lives. Now the talk is about how we should think together with the audience instead of teaching the audience. I would like to emphasize that the problem is not to find the right ways - this will always be a unique and individual solution. The talk is about our stands, our attitude to life. We are not the cleverest ones, we do not intend to be deities; we just communicate our thoughts, our own doubts, our quest, and thus we are together with our audience.
That is why the problem, which has always been crucial in documentaries - the problem of ethics - becomes the ethics of mutual consideration. Therefore, from my viewpoint, it is impossible to talk to people as if from outside like in Megacities (for that reason I do not like this film). For me it is just looking at somebody else's life, when this life is not your own, when you cannot experience this together with those people. That is why the films of most interest to the audience here were the films containing the personal stands like Ivar's film. Only when the author is together with the characters, we take the film as something personal.
It does not mean that you should not search for new devices, new forms. Once again, I am discussing not devices now but the attitude. What turned out to be the most difficult thing to understand in the 20th century? What do all these political attempts to solve the problems go to show? What can West offer to Yugoslavia? Just their own model of life, which in their view is correct: you should have democracy, you should have the free market, and everything will be OK.
No, it won't be OK. Even in the highest level of development we did not manage to realize that we live in the world where the truth does not belong to anyone.
One American Latvian (now she lives in Latvia), who spent eight years in Indian reservations, told me a striking myth. According to the myth, once upon a time there was one Truth. It was a huge sphere. Then it fell and crashed. Each took one fragment of the sphere and thought that the whole of the Truth belonged to him.
Meanwhile the Truth is not the fragments, but the sum of them.
I am quite sure that it is very interesting for a human being to meet another human being either in life or on the screen. If we manage to make films in such a way this meeting really takes place. It is our problem and also our hope.
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