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

The Possible Reality in Documentary Cinema
Ieva Birmbauma

People have always been preoccupied with the question of what is real and what is fake. Apprehension of reality, rendered by the ability of expounding occurrences rationally, gives us trust and belief in the existence of the only objective reality surrounding us. Reality, it is capture of the ongoing life. It is the world that engages our entity as a whole, not only bodily, but also mentally. Comprehension of reality is by no means an invariable notion, though. One has to admit that, in the course of 20th century, the growing advancement of technology has had a mightily impact on our perception and comprehension of reality. The recently occurred artificial interference in reality is a kind of distortion that has caused broadening of the notion of reality as such. Therefore nowadays it is increasingly harder to draw a border between the veritable and artificial reality. Yet, possibly, it is not always of great importance, which part of reality is being discussed. Actually, in the beginning of the century, the surrealists were those to state that knowing if the occurrence was a dream or reality was not as important as the effect it had on the audiences. Ever since the study of human subconsciousness, reflection of the invisible part of reality has gained its importance and has, at times, become more relevant than that of the outwardly appearing. Visualization of human thoughts, feelings and dreams can result in a plausible and more documental portrayal of personality than exposition of a mere outer shell.

As a phenomenon of the 20th century, cinema has given an opportunity of preserving and perceiving the past in a shape that, in its visual sense, is the most complete; as a looker-on, one can see both himself and the life. Nowadays, it is becoming increasingly harder to create a genuine feeling of reality on the screen. The odds are that no footage is ever going to outweigh the presence of reality that was experienced during the screenings of the Lumi?re Brothers’ film “Train arrival in the station of La Ciotat” in Paris (1885), when people rushed out of the cinema, thinking that the steam engine tearing down the rails was real. Those people were experiencing a direct presence of reality, it was their first encounter with cinema and they could not separate it from life. In a word, it was at the very moment of its birth, when cinema reached the acme of reality for the first and supposedly the only time. Today cinema has become a fairly usual thing; we know that it is just a photocopied excerpt of life and not the life itself. Therefore it becomes harder and harder to bring about the feeling of reality on the screen; and directors are looking for new and more “tinted” modes of expression for luring in the credibility.


Subjectivity as a means of creating reality

How exactly is the feeling of reality attained in the documentary cinema? One might say that, on one hand, it is being brought about by impassive capturing of reality. Consequently, it possesses an objective view on things. However, this will not be a quite correct statement, while talking of absolutely objective cinema is not possible, since even the most objective film features the moment of subjectivity. Each and every human being sees the world fragmentary, and this fragmentarity differs, therefore it is subjective. Therefore also the angle of capturing reality is one of the proofs for subjectivity (and director’s individuality) in the documentary cinema. Here I have to assent to the thought, expressed at the Christoph Huebner and Gabriele Voss lecture entitled „German Documentaries”. In the lecture, a documentary film was stated as an attitude towards reality, people and material, where following the one side of reality – whereas it is emotions or story – is what matters. I believe that the most objective reality in the documentary cinema is formed by the newsreel genre. Of course, there have been cases of rather subjective, ideological newsreels. However, the newsreel genre seems to draw nearer to the TV stylistics – dry, informational message, sharply differing from the presence of creative mind and artistic values of the documentary cinema. Creative documentary cinema, considered in the lecture by Jan Gogola, merges both the artistic vision (metaphoric editing) and objective capture of reality. Objectivity is by no means a proof for reality; and neither does subjectivity deny the possibility of documental disclosures. Documentary cinema can be subjective to a greater (or lesser) extent. It all depends on director’s personality; the richer is his inner world (reality), the more subjectivity penetrates in the cinema, the more distorted the outer reality appears.

Still, can an unequivocal definition of reality be found? In common with the impossibility of proving whether it is Rembrandt or Kandinsky paintings to reflect reality in a more complete way, there is no unequivocal truth about reality in the documentary cinema. Documentary cinema is a tangle of life and art. Saying that “Documentary cinema is in the observation of life, where evidence has to cover fact and reflect on feelings”, Latvian director Herz Frank has described that, what I would call the essence of documentary cinema. Hence stating a filmmaker’s task as that of shooting reality and editing the thought, he has admitted that outer events can never contribute to the artistic value of documentary cinema to a greater extent than human feelings do.


A real life human. An actor?

First thing that comes to my mind, when thinking of the main differences between the documentary and feature films, is the actor. Unlike feature films, where life and emotions are performed, documentaries reflect them. At first, reflection of the visible might seem an easy task to perform. Although in fact, in order to reflect reality, one must possess a developed sense of it. When working with humans, director must be skilled psychologist and interviewer, he has to reach the point of mutual trust, for it is only then when the real entity reveals free from disguise. The importance of making a proper acquaintance with the main characters in order to achieve trust and a true emotionality on the screen was already mentioned at the Christoph Huebner and Gabriele Voss lecture apropos of film “Champions”. Process of shooting a film can already be considered as intervention in life, as something artificial, therefore every human being, talking of himself in front of a camera, is doomed to acting and disguise. Thus, the truth is being done wrong because of human’s natural desire to look better in other people’s eyes. For a director, revelation of a human being’s real face (and not his desirable mask) must be one of the most complicated tasks. Dziga Vertov has emphasized the implementation of sensitive cameras, which also enabled shooting under obscure conditions, as an essential turnabout in shaping credibility of documentary cinema. According to his viewpoint, special lighting conditions required for shooting, added to the human’s disguise and craving for better looks.

As to my opinion, the early documentary film director Robert Flaherty is one of those masters of world cinema who have perfectly succeeded in showing a genuine human being. Within his film “Nanook of the North” (1922), he has documented Eskimos’ battle of life in tempests and starvation. Extreme conditions usually make humans forget their outer appearance, therefore, if anybody is acting, it turns out to be only his own part. Robert Flaherty is considered to be among the first ones to stand for the artistic values of the documentary cinema. Russian cinema – documentary as well as feature – is known to have gained a lot from Flaherty’s experience. Creative works of Sergey Eisenstein are telling examples of this assertion; people acting in his film “The General Line” (1929) have been taken from life – they are all nonprofessional, characteristic types who, by acting themselves, have contributed to a fairly credible, documental image of a feature film. Both Flaherty and Eisenstein are outstanding masters of realistic types.

When talking of Latvian documentary cinema, I find that Juris Podnieks (“Is it Easy to be Young?”, 1986) and Herz Frank (“Ten Minutes Older”, 1978 and “The Last Judgement”, 1987) are to be named as the most distinguished masters of psychology, who have, more than once, proved their knack of showing a human being “from the inside”. In the documentary cinema, I believe, a human portrait and its close-up is the strongest means for expressing reality, an explicit reflector of inner life and psychology.


Creation and distortion of reality

In the documentary cinema, creation of reality has always been linked with distortion. Distortions of reality can be shaped in many different ways that, as far as I am concerned, do not necessarily have to destroy it; I would rather call this process broadening of perceptivity. Reality can be captured quite naturalistically (frankly and frigidly, by long uncut sequences), poetically (by many elements inherent to feature films), as well as in a constructed way (shaping the thought by means of editing). 

An interesting period in Latvian documentary cinema has been the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the Riga School of Poetic Documentary Cinema arose. It seems that, from a present-day spectators’ point of view, films made in this period can not be counted as documentaries while director’s thought and firmly outlined drama (which does not concede presence of coincidences) goes through the whole piece of work. Although the only trait of present reality in the director Ivars Kraulîtis’ and scriptwriter Herz Frank’s documentary “The White Bells” (1961) is the portrayal of Riga urban environment, it should be pointed out as the most characteristic documentary of the Riga School of Poetic Documentary Cinema.

A bright example of constructed reality is montage cinema. Dziga Vertovs’ film “Man with a Movie Camera” can be considered as a kind of montage cinema manifesto, where he has gathered and visualized all of his own theoretical principles. Montage cinema is based upon associative point of view that broadens notion of reality. Combinations of sequences result in a brand new thought. For example, Vertov shows a lady putting on her make-up and, parallel to that, sequences with wet painted facades appear. This film can even be looked upon as a manual for cameramen, introducing the use of different angles for creating a powerful feeling of presence.

In Latvian documentary cinema Ansis Epners (“The Centaur”, 1973) was one of the most visible directors, using the montage techniques of Vertov and Eisenstein.

I believe that documentary montage cinema allows almost countless possibilities for interpretation of reality, as well as different perceptional options. A powerful impression of verity is being created by rows of long, continuous and contemplative sequences that are characteristic to the creative work of Laila Pakalniòa. Her trilogy made in the 1990’s – “The Linen”, “The Ferry”, and “The Mail” – is an ocular proof for that. Although these films have all been constructed and planned till the tiniest detail, it is important that this “plan” can not be seen on the screen.

Expanding borders of documentary cinema, one has to admit that it is not always of importance if the events shown in a film are veritable, yet the strong impression of reality evoked by them is what really matters.


Borders between documentary cinema and TV journalism


As far as I am concerned, one of the main problems of the contemporary documentary cinema is its withdrawal from the principles of cinematic language. There are more and more works bearing the name of “film” though rather qualifying for the status of TV program, not piece of art. First of all, this is because of technique, borrowed from TV. Those films can be characterized by superficiality; in most cases almost no attention has been paid to composition of frames, light and atmosphere has fallen in despair either. Cinema, while trying to solve topical problems, has assumed a kind of social role that, actually, should be done by TV (and not art). Creating and not solving – that is the assignment of cinema! Of course, problematic characters have been prior to art in several periods of our history. For us disclosure of the tragic reality, historical events and social atmosphere, for example, was a necessity in the early 1990’s. When talking of the footage that we have from that time, one should never underestimate the merits of Juris Podnieks and his creative team, who, by standing at the right time and place, not only have preserved information and memories, but also captured the feelings that come from deep inside.



Perception of reality is fairly subjective and individual. Sometimes a thing that touches one person, leaves others indifferent. Usually we feel for the situations that we have experienced ourselves. As to my opinion, the question on possibility of reflecting reality in documentary cinema is boundless. I believe that everything depends on both director’s ability to notice and viewer’s ability to perceive.

Technological developments, small handycams including, gives us the chance of seeing reality through lens, thus approaching reality artificially and fulfilling the desire of seeing it as entity – endlessly recording and breaking in. On one hand, it seems fascinating. However, seeing sepals and petals of a tiny little flower in a super close-up makes me shudder because of being too close. One probably should not see that. It seems scaring. - Home
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