16th International European Documentary Film Symposium
Is the New Documentary. That New?

Vitaly Troyanovsky
Film Theorist


We are taking part in a remarkable and unique enterprise: it seems to me that this sort of combination – a very strong and interesting programme alogside with an extremely serious discussion about the documentary film we will not find anywhere else. I feel it righteous that it happens in Riga because the Latvian programme we have seen is so interesting, so divers that each film deserves as much time to be discussed as actualy we may dedicate to the whole programme. Besides, the tradition of those Riga symposiums itself is exeptional. Throughout many years Ivar and his team has succeeded to maintain the high cinematographic and intellectual prestige of these meetings. Thanks to those people the symposium is still alive while the social and state structures that gave birth to it have disappeared or perpetuate some sort of a phantasmal existence and the tradition of serious professional deliberations is more and more supplanted by numerous festivals and other shows where prizes are bestowed.

The time when documentary filmmakers experienced difficulties putting together an interesting programme, when the most interesting things happened on television has come to an end. Our type of cinema was incapable to compete with the direct reportages from the numerous rallies raging all over our enormous state and afterwards – over the independent break-off countries. Now the situation is totaly different. Now the simple registering of facts and events does not suit, reflection is needed.  One has to comprehend what befalls us.  In order to cope with this task a considerable intellectual effort must be deployed. In this respect, documentary cinema is compelled to be in opposition to television that with all its might weans the audience from thinking. But how to argue against television who actually is our sole distributor?   


Soviet fiction film, the best works of which notwithstandig the total control of the Communist Party still resisted the ruling ideology, migt give a prompt how to resolve this contradiction.  Quite another matter was that to argue against “yellowness” and “glamour” proved to be a much more tangled task as to oppose the  “socialistic realism”.  And heros capables of accomplishing it like, for example, the filmmakers of sixties, somehow are not numerless. Devotion to art has lost its halo as a supreme vocation, as a mission.

         Having not the force to resist at least one has to admit that a true documentary cinema is contrary to big tv channels. And let us not flatter ouurselves with lots of the so called “television documentaries” in their programmes. In fact they need nothing but a cheap tv product to insert between the slots of advertising. Often it is a set of illustrations to a previously written journalistic text. It may be interesting and perspicatious, sufficiently faire and considerate towards its characters but nevertheless it is very faraway from a real cinematic documentation; it also may be a downright profiteering produced without the slightest esthetic or even ethic restraints. So emerges something one might call the “yellow documentary film” going along with a journalism of the same colour. Unfortunately the audiences today are allready habituated to simplistic interpretations thrusted on it from TV screens. There is no room for the  “co-creativity” of the spectator without which no poetic, creative documentary filmmaking, as devised by our precursors, is possible.

         Other dangers are those linked with the essense of making documentaries. The core of it primordially was the striving to a total and unlimited vision. The previous technical limitations are actually removed, the legal ones are still existing but they are easy to get round.  Often people agree to put themselves under a total observation, like the characters in the Latvian film “The Worm”, that was screened yesterday, but as a rule they are absolutely unaware of the consequences of their move. Many of them who in XX century have described their experience in concentration camps affirmed that the most awful punishment was the hour by hour, second by second torture by exposure. Presently, by means of film and television, people who are poor and defenseless (like in “Worm”) or young  and unexperienced (like in Russian TV project “Behind the Window-Glass” and alike) go through it voluntarily. In “The Worm”, camera not only penetrates the dwelling of the personages, it creeps into their souls.  Seemingly an old dream has come true, Wasn’t exactly this the documentary cinema was craving for trough long decennia. At first sight it fascinates,  then it is getting frightful , especially after the accident with the child. You want to leave or close your eyes. Impossible to be present there, impossible to cast an idle, in essence, a warder’s  glance at it. Once more referring to the experience of concentration camp inmates, let us recall Shalamov, who said that not every experience is worth to be revealed to those who themselves have not undergone it; there are the things it is better not to know about.

If the “Worm” was a fiction film, I consider that the directors deserve all the highest cinematographic rewards. But still one oughts not to treat living people this way even if they consent to it. There should be not a legal but an internal, purely ethical ban on similar experiments “in vivo”. It is easy to prove using the ancient maxim: treat everybody so as you want to be treated yourself, The whole point is whether  the authors themselves are ready to expose to the public view their own lives so openly and under the same ambiguous name? If they are ready, then all and everything that has been shown can take place because there must be a certain symmetry relative to the camera: those before the camera, and those behind the camera - must be equal.

If before the camera and the director stays a fictional character they are wittingly unequal, since they are situated in absolutely different dymensions. Documentary film-maker cannot take liberties to forget, that he himself is exactly the same human being as the one  before the camera. This is the eternal drama of documentary cinema. You cannot escape from it but hide. Those whom we film do not realise that the worse their lives before the camera will be the better it is for the film. But if everything is fine the film most likely will not succeed.

It is possible to mask this contradiction by the dissemblingly directed forms of production, that actually are prevailing in the documentary cinema. This is a rescue compromise we most frequently are satisfied with. Pure observation, cannot arrange a character if he or she is free to make his/her choises and does not suffer from narcissism. Admittedly it cannot arrange also the director because it deprives him of his right to intevene in the reality.

Riga born Sergey Eisenstein has this formula: “seems like a newsreel – works like a drama”. It relates to the “Battleship “Potemkin”, but transfered to the documentary film it possibly means: looks like a newsreel, works like art. Moreover like a highly developed, in many respects avantgarde art, the strongest driving force of which is the concurrent tendency towards two mutually exclusive purposes:  the photographic authenticity and the formal perfection. And the best result (estimate your own reaction) is reached, when these extremes are maximally separated.

In actual fact it is impossible to avoid interference. One has to accept it as physicists have accepted the influence of measurement tools on the object. (Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle”). Always there is an agreement, always it is a game we are playing with the character. It is possible to take something at random, but to make a film, to penetrate one’s apartment, one’s soul, and so forth, is possible only as a result of playing concertedly. One cannot live and play-act simultaneously, one can either play or live.

Everything that has been said before certainly is not a theory, but only a couple of issues that it will have to resolve. However our symposium is correctly enounced as “theoretical” - the simple talking over the screened films at present is not more sufficient. Now more than ever before there is an ever growing need  for self-comprehension and self-description of all the aspects of documentary filmmaking in most different let it be even non-theoretical ways. And it is nice that some of the presentations sound like manifestos. The more of them it will be the better. Only they have not to be regarded concepts. A theory must be true but manifestos absolutely are not meant to be so. If the postulates of “real cinema” Vitaly Mansky has declared here do help him to make excellent original films, then the truth or falsity of these postulates does not make big difference. In their “Declaration” which appeared at the moment of transition from the silent film to talkies, Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Aleksandrov stated, that the sound must be exclusively nonsynchronous, which was soon disproved by their  own directing practice. Nevertheless, the “Declaration” played an essential role in the development of film language. Manifestos must provoke, generate creative energy, while a theory on the contrary must cool hot heads and see clearly what we really have worked out.


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