Documentary Film. Riddles of Globalisation
14th INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FILM SYMPOSIUM REPORT 2001
proceedings of the International Documentary Film Symposium held on September 8 - 13, 2001 in Riga, Latvia



How to Be a Documentarist in Germany
Rainer C.M.Wagner
Stuttgart

Around Christmas 1999 Thomas Scharf, one of our curators, a well-known documentarist in Germany, Professor at the Film Academy of Baden-Würtemberg in Ludwigsburg, proposed to start an inquiry about the status of documentarists in Germany, especially as concerns to their self-assessment. He distributed about 300 questionnaires among filmmakers. The questionnaires started with the statement that the borders of demarcation of the genre are vanishing. He says: ‘The last taboos are broken, fictional elements are being used to turn the reality upside down.’If the feature film still clearly sticks to its definition
‘fiction’, the documentary starts to lose its definition ‘reality’.
Between journalistic forms like ‘reportage’, on the one hand, and ‘semifiction’ like docudramas, docusoaps or some transitory forms into the field of feature films or, say, animation, on the other hand, the genre of documentary is endangered to die from the perfect incapability and growing mistrust of the public in documented reality. Consequently, two central questions were formulated: a general one and a personal one. The first question is the old one: does documentary need demarcation at all, and if so, then how much reality does the documentary need? Then Scharf proceeds with the request to give definitions to such concepts as ‘reality’, ‘truth’, ‘authenticity’ and ‘credibility’.
The second question, the personal one, was: ‘How do you estimate your professional situation Can you earn your living from making documentaries? Where do you see the distribution sectors?
Do you see the market possibilities for the documentary in general?’
Some filmmakers answered very emphatically, some were rather distant or provocative. They represent different opinions in German documentaries. We published the responses in a brochure. I would like to give you some excerpts of the answers of two representatives of different generations in German documentary cinema. They stand at the opposite ends of the spectrum.


The first is Klauss Widmann, a classic of documentary, one could call him even a purist. ‘I think the essential art of the documentarist shows that he can respect his raw material, that he can make it valid by montage. The documentarist accepts deliberately what a TV producer tries to avoid - a certain unevenness in style and message. The unevenness is not proposed but comes from the method itself; the documentarist depends on his surrounding, he can’t model it according to his conceptions, therefore a certain smoothness gets lost. Actions are not to determine beforehand, filmmakers do not arrange the material, they run after the material that sometimes makes them breathless. This tension influences the shape. It is important to avoid the artificial attempt to smoothen, you show a collection of fragments you have caught. And if you have the endurance and some luck (which are interdependent), you succeed to bind the spectator. The more different the programs and different styles are produced, the better it is for the public.
The second representative is Andreas Feil, some can remember his film The Survivors at the Symposium 1997 in Jurmala. He says: ‘The phases of purity remind of the competition in the brewing industry: the fear of fictionalization for me has always been a relief to play with forms. An adequate form depends only and exclusively on the subject and the protagonists. I want to be touched by films that leave something open, that do not give up in the complex reality. For me this is the supposition of a success with a spectator, even in cinema. The transition to written actment in my films has always been floating. Fictionalization endangers documentaries only when it is made badly. On the other hand insisting in creative film is not at all a proof of quality. It is no longer sufficient to rely on the rule of copying the reality. I think we have to learn from fictional categories how to work and play with suspence to reach the spectators; the goal is to develop the emotional quality of narration and sometimes to transmit complex and contradictory content. At the same time the design in structuring the material the accident should be eliminated as far as possible. I find it important to be open to new tendencies, to test them, sometimes to risk in error.
The second question about the possibility to earn living by documentary filmmaking was mainly answered in negative. Eighty per cent said they could not earn living only by making documentaries. Most have additional camera jobs, some make ads or assist in feature films.
Then we had another inquiry about the slots of documentaries in German TV program. It turned out that there are 120 slots in all 26 channels for non-fictional forms. And in those 120 slots for non-fictional categories only four are determined for documentary films. That is the situation in German documentary.


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