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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


Documentaries in the Age of Globalization
Hans-Joachim Schlegel
To begin with, I would like to express my gratitude to all the organizers of the Symposium for this wonderful and magical island of a disappearing object - the documentary cinema, the island on which we can meet and communicate. Nowadays we rarely see documentary films on TV. Wherever we switch on the TV - in Riga, in Berlin, in New York, or in Calcutta - what we see are the same prefabricated images with no real individuality. Let me put it in the following way: the ghost of globalization wanders round the world. In my view, this is the most serious problem of documentary cinema on the brink of Millennium.
In the final episode of the film by Audrius Stonys an old man regrets his not seeing on the TV his own Lithuanian reality. What's that about? Maybe he has a stand, which is irrelevant in the modern world? For everywhere we witness the development of multicultural societies. In this respect the Austrian-Swiss picture Megacities is very interesting. The film emphasizes the new cultural-ethnic conflicts connected with the process of multi-ethnic co-existence. In reality, in the Balkans, in the former Soviet Union, in Africa, today, when Europe unites and the world globalizes, we get the tragic and bloody events as the result of these conflicts. This stands back to the national, ethnic and religious identities.
Given all the limitation of documentary film's possibilities it still may become a tool of maintaining ethnic and cultural identities. I remembered of the function of Latvian documentaries during Soviet times when ethnic and individual values were leveled out. Documentary cinema in Latvia always goes to show the enormous role of documentaries not only for cinematography as such but also for society at large. In my view, we can consider the history of documentary cinema in the Baltic countries to be a prelude to what happens in 1989-1990. Today's situation in documentary cinema in these countries is all the more tragic.
It is worth remembering the documentaries made by our Yugoslavian colleagues during Tito's government. Actually they foresaw today's events. They tried to focus the attention of the audience on something that officially as if did not exist. Friendship of nations was proclaimed officially but in fact the situation was different. It's very interesting that this kind of films was usually shot by dissidents, who today are no less critical to the contemporary system. I think they touched upon the key problem of today's state of affairs, namely the situation on the brink of the Millennium.
In the United States they are discussing now the danger of the forthcoming cultural wars. It is not only the danger of the clash between Islamic and non-Islamic cultures. In fact a war is already here - the war between visual cultures and not only on TV. Globalization is not only unification of financial markets, it is also the struggle for power, for monopoly of one culture of images. The war is on prefabricated standard images in the interest of the global monopolization of commercial interests against individual and ethnically specific creative work. I had to mention this for we discuss the key question of survival, also the survival of documentary cinema. We discuss the future images of the unique and non-standardized view on reality. Here we touched upon the function of documentary as such that concerns mental and social aspects of life.
The decisive factor is surely the development of new technologies. One should not be afraid of new technologies. We know that technology as such is just a tool, which can be used in different ways including very positive and creative purposes. The problem here is the structure of those who produce and those who own the production.
This is not a new problem. I would like to remind you of the utopias of documentary cinema in the beginning of its history. The very root of documentary film was linked once with the utopia of internationalism. I actually mean the conception of Dziga Vertov who wanted to develop an international language of the camera. The technical aspect was decisive in Vertov's conception. Technical precision of the work of the camera was thought of to help people to comprehend the visual chaos of space, to teach the spectator to make out the elements of reality, which are registered by the camera unawares.
A similar idea was expressed by Prest in 1931. He dreamt that each viewer in his epic theatre would have access to camera, so that he could shoot his own image of what he sees on the stage from his own angle. By the way, it was the second time the idea of democratization of equipment had been expressed.
Certainly, in 1931 equipment was too heavy, too noisy and too expensive to fulfil such a project. However, this was a kind of forecast of another reality - the invention of light sound camera in the beginning of the 60s and consequently a wide range of new possibilities. The talk is not only about the new tendencies in France and New Wave in Germany. Similar things could be observed in Brazil, Algeria, and, which is important, also in the former socialist countries, in Czechoslovakia in particular. There with the help of new technology and the old utopia they managed to show the contradictions between the official ideals and reality.
Thus cinematography became indeed a motor of new social processes. It is even more interesting that documentary cinema became the innovator of feature film. It was a small step but still a step to video and electronic technology. Once again we see the utopia of democratization of equipment.
But there is also the other side of the coin - the flood of images having no conception behind them. They make you blind rather than make you understand something. This is a flood of new chaotic images, which by the way can be easily instrumentalized. It is impossible to ignore this new technology. We have to learn to live with it, we have to learn to use it for our own creative goals. I remember very well that Alexander Sokurov was very much against video technology. But we all know that it was exactly Alexander Sokurov who became one of the most consistent users of video. Maybe he decided to deal with it for trivial economic reasons, but he did it in a very creative way. He discovered that this technology may help you to reveal totally new devices, new ways, which no one associated with this technology before. Using these new perspectives Sokurov was able to focus the attention of the audience on something they were unable to see in the flood of visual mainstream. In his film The Eastern Elegy Sokurov revealed not only the new opportunities of editing, but also the new meditative drama which as if opens the window into the inner reality. If we look at our authentic reality in a meditative way, we will discover something important, which we no longer see in today's chaos.
Sokurov's method is, of course, highly specific - one cannot just imitate it. Yet it inspires a great hope, a hope that a person who is absolutely unprepared to enter this mainstream, who has his own brains, will be able to find a creative way out of this situation with the help of new technology.
Here at the Symposium we saw many films that raise hopes. We can feel the great potential in the films of our colleagues from Eastern and Central Europe in particular. Perhaps I sound a little bit pathetical, but I am sure that the sun of documentary cinema may rise here, in the East. I think that your biography and your history are so turbulent that you cannot adjust so easily. This is a big chance not only for you but also for us.
Surely, the interaction between East and West can be of different kinds. We all know that very often (particularly in feature film) directors have to sell their individualities. Kira Muratova a Russian film director, formulated this very clearly: she said that Western producers are even more merciless than the Soviet censorship. But there are also other examples. Sokurov, for instance, now works with a very independent German producer who is interested in his creative personality. There is Viola Stephan who co-operates with Victor Kossakovsky, a very difficult director to deal with.
And I think that our Symposium is another evidence to this thanks to the co-operation with Haus des Dokumentarfilms (Stuttgart). We should not forget that there are people who want to support documentary cinema.

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