16th International European Documentary Film Symposium
Is the New Documentary. That New?
Dig & Doc = Digital and Documentary
Dr.Bojidar Manov
Film Theorist

The short encrypted title is clearly indicative of the topic of this article - the relationships of the digital technologies and the documentary cinema.

In the last few years of the last century (oh, how historic this look directed at the literally yesterday sounds!) the new digital technologies were introduced in the old audiovisual media on a mass scale and in this way broadened to a great extent their thematic perimeter, screen language, production and economic structure and communicative possibilities. A new situation was created in the world audio vision which is still gathering and developing its own practical experience but at the same time permits and even requires to be summarized in an appropriate way as a process developing right before our eyes.

The whole evolution of contemporary audio-visual imagery - from the Cinematograph of to Lumiere Brothers to the heralds of the virtual image is accompanied by constant technical, esthetic "revolutions." The technological solutions open new doors to the unleashed imagination of the artists; in their turn their dreamlike visions provoke the technical minds to satisfy their whims with diverse concrete solutions. These frequent leaps in the development of the technology and the screen product always lead to the inevitable company of theoretical arguments or at least in essay form - spontaneous reasoning and declarations of the authors' manifestoes and claims, dogmas and conjuration.

Since the birth of cinematic image at the end of the 19th century the still photographs called to life take a new order of quality leap, compared to the preceding photo-experiments, to give life to drawings and other discrete images. That happened later, too, with the introduction of sound and later of color. Later on the electronic image (TV and video) add to the accessories of the screen image a large specter of artificially generated images plus the vast possibilities of electronic and computer editing.

This kind of technical-esthetic situation created the next step - the digital recording. Introduced at first in the audio industry and soon after that in the video recording production it not only facilitated and refined the quality of the result on the screen but it resolutely unbinds the hands of the authors to develop their ideas in a more free and unlimited way, at least in two directions: The technical freedom of the creative process and the greater economic independence from the producer. Because a digital video camera, for instance, weighs only 2 - 300 grams and could be bought for about US$ 2 - 3000! And the further development of the materials is facilitated in more than one ways, costs much less and at the same time is enriched with enormous picture and sound possibilities. On the other hand the real possibility for distribution of the product through the Internet overcomes the last yoke of the authors - the distribution of their artistic product. At the beginning of 1998 the first 5-minute documentary film was created with the aim to be specially distributed by Internet. It seems that only one last, and for the moment only one (un)real dream remains unfulfilled - an Internet cinema theatre not for the lone viewer in his seclusion in front of his PC at home, but thousands of people in a big hall in front of a large digital screen watching the signal or downloading it from the Net.


In 1995 exactly 100 years after the French Lumier Brothers, the Danes Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg published their author's manifesto "Dogma 95" which caused some stir among film makers. As any extreme manifesto it had no chance to survive in the practice in its initial form and that is why it is not strange that the first to break its concept were its authors. And what can we say about its ironic variations which accompanied it all the way and the fact that professionals -directors and producers of contemporary audio vision like Lynn Herschman-Leeson, Matthew Harrison, Scott King and Jay Anania published a parody called "Dogma 99" and full of ironic conjuration. If we look back 70 or 80 years to the Russian cinema of the 20s, boiling with enthusiasm and innovative ideas, we will notice at once the similarity of the energetic and categorical declarations of the famous Dziga Vertov with the declarative postulates of the "Dogma". "We. Version of the Manifesto" (1922), "Kinoki. A coup" (1923), "The Birth of Kinoglaz" /Movieye/ (1924) are also as sincere, but extreme creative declarations which inevitably accumulated much more pathos than real practical and creative programming. The experiments of Vertov with documentary cinema are linked to a great extent with the unleashing the movement of the camera and its optic capabilities in creating the image (without forgetting his experiments with the process of editing, of course)= Years later the French Cinema Verite relies on similar parameters in technology and the imagery aptly summarized by Alexander Astruk in one phrase: "The whole history of cinema technology could be understood as the history of the liberation of the camera."

With the advent of sound three other Russian directors - Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov, published their famous declaration "The Future of the Sound Film" (1928) which is their "Dogma 28" with categorical postulates like: "Sound - yes. But only as a counterpoint. No meaning of color in cinema; the first deadlock are the titles, the second deadlock are the long shots, etc. This sincere manifesto as well as many other theoretical articles by Eisenstein which are quite extreme in their ordinance ("Editing of attractions") do not diminish the significance of these real and indisputable contributions in the film making practice as well as in the theoretical field..

The examples could be piled on but these are enough to convince us that today's dogmas and delight, which inevitably accompany any technical or esthetic revolution in the constant improvement of the technology and the media, are not surprising or unfamiliar. In the 106-year-old history of cinema and the audio-visual media born along its development, many similar author" reactions of élan or negation, of acceptance or stigmatizing - always cathegoric and extreme, never indisputable and universally accepted. But obviously this is the destiny of the avant-garde technologies and film maker who run into them.

* * *

The reason for the active introduction and development of the digital technologies
in audio vision and more concretely into documentary cinema in the last decade lies
in their vastly important communicative and creative possibilities, attracting
authors and film makers for the new means of expression in image and sound, but
also for the important production and purely financial reasons, giving the
documentary film makes an exceptional freedom and considerably greater freedom
from producers and distributors. Even in separate cases the production and
economic factors proved to be more important, taking a leading role, and becoming
indicative of the preferences to work with digital technology.
The economic aspects of the digital technolpgy are proved in both basic phases of
the process:           

- film production;

- film distribution. From the point of view of economics the production advantages of digital technology are as follows:

•     comparatively cheap (and growing cheaper by the day) shooting and sound recording equipment, which at the same time is very light, compact and easy to use;

•     minimum efforts in preparation and the shooting itself (almost always natural light, no additional lighting; almost no additional works for the camera, etc.);

•     inexpensive and warranted high quality of the digital stock (DV cassettes and DVD);

•     a small and agile film crew;

•     compact and comparatively cheap (and growing cheaper) editing equipment;

•     practically unlimited possibilities for further digital processing of the material after shooting (element adding, supplementary inlays, titles, mixing, etc.);

•     making of an unlimited number of prints - "doubles" of the original without any loss of quality in production;

•     high quality and comparatively cheap transfer from the digital to other material stock (usually video cassette or optical film stock).

The American documentary director of Russian descent Julia Loktev dedicated her film "Moment of Impact" (1998. 117 min.) to her father - an eminent Russian physicist - US émigré who is stranded as a live corpse in a wheel-chair after an automobile accident. A very sincere, painfully sensitive and very much a filial confession, the film would not be what it is without the long observation sequences made in the family house and made possible only by because of the lavish but inexpensive shooting with a DV camera. The director works at her ease without the restrictive control of length and production dead-lines, and she knows from the very beginning that whatever the length of the final cut, it will be transferred onto m optical 35 mm stock and will be screened in normal theatres. "During shooting I was constantly imagining how the film will look on a large screen in a dark theatre, what the texture will be like, what details will be seen and what esthetic impact would the grain of the optic material produce. Because the frame after transfer is really more rich in texture than on the video-monitor. And when some colleagues saw the final version they asked if the stock was 16 mm simply because of the characteristic texture of the image, without ever suspecting it was a DV camera. For some time I kept it a secret, but this is not so important. The main thing is to understand and get accustomed to the new expectation of the final result", the director shares.

Many other directors also work with digital technology taking into consideration its qualities not only in the field of creative expression, but also as a kind of a director's monologue in the relationship "object - author - film". The legend of the French "New Wave" Agnes Varda, who has the adamant tenacity not to leave the shooting location for 46 years now, made entirely her last documentary "The Cleaners and I" (2000) with digital camera and shares enthusiastically how the freedom of using this technology gave her the opportunity to achieve real sincerity in her contacts with the rag people and in this way to find the key to her film as a closed confession: " Me with my films as one of the cleaners". The American Bennett Miller mad his documentary "The Cruise" with a digital camera as early as 1998 from the upper deck of a big city tourist coach in order to take his viewers as close to his documentary character - an eccentric, but charming New York tour guide. The director knows that his character is the target of attention not only of the dozen of tourists on the bus but also for millions of viewers in the world, because apart from being released as a transfer 35 mm in theatres, it could be released through the Internet. And then the possibilities to share the contact with this colorful person are infinite in a unimaginable progression. Because the probable "virtual theatre" is boundless and limitless. This is the second essential temptation of the digital technology because the communicative nature of the documentary cinema is supposed to offer and look for a maximum exposure. It is not by chance that some of the avant-guard festivals like Sundance and Rotterdam include a special category "on-line cinema" in their official programmes.

Extreme apologetics on a topic like "DIG & DOC" are not acceptable for the simple reason that the digital technology is not a panacea or an only path for documentary cinema. But as the curious monk of the famous medieval engraving poked his head through the firmament to peek "beyond the stars", so the lens of the documentary camera, charged with the pioneering spirit of quest will always be directed and with an aperture to the maximum towards the technological possibilities of the 21st century. - Home
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