The Documentary from Flaherty to Verité and Beyond
What is a documentary? Dull? Educational? Boring? Perhaps you think of Cops, America’s Most Wanted and reality television? What about 60 Minutes and the evening news?
The world of documentary filmmaking is much broader and much more compelling. Documentary filmmaking can capture vanishing ways of life (Nanook of the North), poetically transform our vision (Koyaanisqatsi) and expose injustice (Harlan County, USA). Documentary filmmaking combines the power and grace of fictional filmmaking with the boldness and authenticity of stories taken directly from life.
Today some of the most challenging, stimulating, provocative filmmaking in the world is nonfiction. Perhaps you’ve heard of a few of the more recent films —- Crumb and Hoop Dreams or maybe you remember Roger and Me and the Thin Blue Line. But in today’s theatrical marketplace —a world of blockbusters and action films– there is all too little opportunity to see and appreciate the art of the documentary. The ability to access a video archive makes the study of documentaries possible.
In this course you will have a unique and all too rare opportunity to survey the history of documentary filmmaking. Our discussion begins with the first filmed images of the Lumiere brothers more than a hundred years and goes on to examine the techniques of documentary expression as they’ve developed throughout the past century. We’ll challenge ourselves to develop a critical eye. In the process, we will also deepen our appreciation of the documentary and its uncanny ability to capture and (re)present the world around us.
INTRO TO COURSE
First let me introduce myself. You can better understand the point-of-view I’m presenting in these classes if you know a little about me. I’m both a college instructor and a documentary filmmaker. In fact it’s my own creative work, which informs my take on both the history and process of documentary film production.
As a filmmaker the struggle is to identify an idea worth expressing and to discover/invent the most appropriate form of expression. To this extent I’m interested in films that were created by the passion of their makers. For this reason I have generally not selected commissioned films or examples from television documentaries, which tend to be more conventional in their form, even if sometimes risk taking in their content.
This course will be challenging because it surveys work over a nearly hundred-year period. (It’s in some ways equivalent to trying to present a history of fictional narrative filmmaking with only 7 films to show.) In order to understand and appreciate the art of the documentary, we’ll need to place the documentary —-as an art form—- within an historical context. We need to understand what it is exactly that makes a film a documentary. How do we define and refine our notion of documentary or nonfiction filmmaking? We’ll want to become familiar with the growth and development of the documentary over the 100-year history of film. And because film is a dynamic medium we’ll want to trace how changes in technology —-changes in our physical ability to capture life on film — have affected the ways in which filmmakers tell their documentary stories.
Studying documentary practice is an opportunity to consider larger philosophical questions too. We’ll have a chance to examine our basic notions of “reality” and “truth” and “fairness.” We’ll consider the role of politics and economics in documentary production. We’ll pay close attention to form and technique. It’s futile to attempt to discuss moving images without understanding the techniques employed. There is a grammar of film. There is a healthy dynamic between what is technically possible and what can be imagined. Both working within technical limits and pushing beyond them are vital to the process of creativity and imagination.
We’ll come to develop our own ideas about what makes a documentary important and vital. And finally we’ll know more about both how and why the most successful documentaries move us emotionally, enlarge our view of the world and challenge our beliefs and preconceptions. We’ll view an outstanding example of documentary art every week for seven weeks. We’ll consider different aspects of documentary practice. I’ve chosen to use each week’s lectures to talk about the problems and challenges of documentary filmmaking, and to closely consider the historic context of the films we’ll view. I think the films are best understood as examples of a particular approach to the documentary. For each film we see there are many, many more equally important films for you to discover on your own. (And I will make suggestions for additional viewing as we go along.)
Each class will contain a “Before You Watch’ and “After You Watch’ lecture. Let me sketch out the approach we’ll take.
- Documentary Traditions —- 1895 to 1945
Nanook of the North Robert Flaherty 1922
The Plow that Broke the Plains Pare Lorentz 1934This first week will create the foundation for our work together. It may be a truism, but it is too important to ignore: “You can’t know where you’re going, unless you know where you’ve been.” While it may not be strictly true that history “progresses,” I would argue that the practices and assumptions of the present cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of film history.In this case we need to understand how the idea of “documentary” developed. Who were the earliest nonfiction filmmakers? What were they trying to accomplish? How was this work different from or similar to fictional filmmaking? How did they fashion their films? And how did their style and approach set the agenda for future filmmakers? We will look at the first ever documentary —Nanook of the North, as well as an example of sponsored filmmaking (The Plow that Broke the Plains), which owes a great deal to the early British documentary movement.
- Avant Garde Influences
Koyaanisqatsi Godfrey Reggio 1983This week we’ll see what documentary filmmaking has in common with experimental film. Is there room for the poetic? For nonlinear storytelling? What happens if a documentary filmmaker privileges visual expression over narrative exposition?Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning “world out of balance.” This film relies only on visuals and music (by Phillip Glass) to create an emotionally powerful portrait of life in the late 20th century.
- Compilation and Historical Documentaries
Atomic Cafe Kevin Raferty, Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty 1982These are found films—-films created from the pieces and fragments of other films. This week will give us an opportunity to consider the impact of editing in documentary film. How can new meanings be shaped and created by the juxtaposition of sounds and images from disparate sources? These films reconstruct the past to tell us
something relevant to the present.Atomic Cafe is a controversial look at government sponsored “educational” films, which were designed to have us all “duck and cover” our way through a thermonuclear war.
- Direct Cinema or Cinema Verité
The War Room Chris Hegedus and D.A. Penennebaker 1993In the 60’s new technologies —-portable equipment—-made it possible for filmmakers to capture life with an apparent spontaneity never before seen. The excitement generated by these new techniques seemed revolutionary—-guaranteed to show us life with an immediacy that that was unprecedented.The War Room made by D.A Pennebaker, one of the pioneers of Direct Cinema gives us an inside view of Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. You’ll decide if it beats the impact of “Primary Colors”
- Committed Films
Harlan County USA Barbara Kopple 1976The political upheavals of the 60s and 70s —-the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, the Women’s Movement—-enlisted the talents of a new generation of documentary filmmakers. They were young people who grew up consuming the powerful images of film and television. And they were determined to harness the “means of
expression” to their strong sense of social justice and their political concerns.Harlan County is testimony from filmmaker Barbara Kopple. Her immersion in the struggles of Kentucky coal minors creates a passionate portrait of that community.
Sherman’s March— An Improbable Search for Love Ross McElwee 1991While many documentaries are about “important issues” and/or views of “other people,” there is also a place for more narrowly defined portraits. Filmmakers are increasingly turning their cameras on themselves. This raises more questions than usual about what’s revealed and what’s hidden by documentary practice.Ross McElwee takes us on a tour through his love life as he retraces General Sherman’s march to the sea.
- Blurred Boundaries
David Holzman’s Diary Jim McBride 1967We’ve reached a stage in our culture —some call it post-modernism—- where it’s often difficult to separate fact from fiction. Today fictional filmmakers like Oliver Stone (JFK) appropriate documentary techniques and nonfiction filmmakers like Errol Morris (Thin Blue Line) use re-enactments and other trademarks of fiction.David Holzman’s Diary is one of the earliest films to explore this contested edge. It’s an unusual work, which plays with viewer expectations with unpredictable results.
I strongly recommend that you view the films in the suggested order. The course is designed to build systematically. Ideas we’ve covered in one section will be reconsidered in another. Give yourself some uninterrupted time to view these films. Unplug the phone. Put the kids to bed. Whatever is necessary.
What makes these films worth viewing is that they tend to be unusual—-less predictable than your average sitcom. Be patient. Allow the films to unfold at their own pace. Some may by more slow or lyrical. Others may deal with issues or situations with which you are unfamiliar. Try and watch each film completely at a single sitting. Then view it again after you’ve read the “After You Watch Lecture.” This time take advantage of the features of your remote control. Pause. Take notes. Develop your own questions. Closely examine intriguing sequences. Consider the structure and editing. Does slow motion reveal anything to you? Be bold. Ask questions and become involved in your on-line discussion group. Actively engage these films and you will be rewarded with a fresh view of the world.
A Note about Film Grammar
Documentary filmmaking shares in all of the technical devices available to fiction film. Most audiences traditionally have remained unaware of the process and technique that all filmmaking requires. I think you will find it useful to critically consider these elements in each film that we view:
Consider FRAMING—-what is included and equally important what is excluded. COMPOSITION —the angle of view, which lenses are used, the visual “distortions” which are chosen. COLOR— The effect of color in filmmaking is paradoxical. Color mimics our normal vision, and ought to give a heightened sense of realism to motion pictures. But the historical primacy of black and white, and the absence of color in early newsreels has often tended to make
black and white footage seems more credible than color.
Sound includes DIALOG (and NARRATION), EFFECTS, MUSIC and SILENCE. All of which are selected, mixed and placed to heighten the impact of a given scene.
Mise en Scene
What is the setting, dress, decor, style of lighting, the movement and placement of the human figures? How does it affect the interactions depicted?
In documentaries we often speak of real life participants as “characters” who are pre-selected for inclusion in the film. This is a casting process. Narrators can also be considered a kind of actor.
The extraordinary power of editing allows creative freedom outside the boundaries of normal time and space; instantly a viewer can be transported to any time or location.—not to mention control of sequence and context…. omissions and ellipses.
There are two classics of documentary history.
Documentary: A History of the Nonfiction Film by Erik Barnouw is organized thematically. It’s somewhat anecdotal. It gives a good sense of the major personalities and trends of documentary filmmaking.
Nonfiction Film: A Critical History by Richard Barsam is very comprehensive. It includes a vast amount of information and includes a good deal of work made outside of the US and Britain.
I find that the two books complement each other and can be profitably consulted in tandem.
Documentary Traditions —- 1895 to 1945
Nanook of the North Robert Flaherty 1922
The Plow that Broke the Plains Pare Lorentz 1934
Before You Watch
Let’s see if we can establish some basics that will serve as the basis of our discussions throughout the course. Just what do we mean by “documentary?” Usually when I’m teaching this course in person, this is the first question I ask students to consider.
I suggest you take a minute of two and jot down your own answers. How do we know that a film is a documentary?
Student definitions of documentary often describe these films by their intention. They suggest that documentaries are fact-based films designed to be:
This is a good beginning. But it tends to emphasize the didactic potential of documentaries at the expenses of other values. Documentaries can be highly emotional, extremely personal, technically adventuresome and not infrequently actually entertaining.
However, it is true that we tend to take documentaries seriously. We treat documentaries as if they are more significant, more important than mere fiction. Documentaries are traditionally given a place among the “discourse of sobriety” which includes philosophy, politics and science. This may have something to do with the western idea that capturing nature is equivalent to understanding, controlling and ultimately taming the world. Emile Zola–the French realist novelist wrote “You cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it.”
The invention of the motion picture was in many ways a part of the scientific obsession with observing nature, analyzing the phenomenal world and replicating experimental results. Cinema with its apparent mastery of time and motion was considered an objective observer —-a transparent window on the world.
Let me suggest a definition of documentary as it has traditionally been practiced. A documentary is work, which derives its contents from actual (rather than imagined) events, persons and places. The subjects of documentary practice are social actors— human beings and human society— and historical events. Documentarians shape their raw materials into an organized, coherent artistic structure. This structure is a balance among information, argument, human interest (entertainment value), and formal filmic elements like composition, lighting, sound, rhythm etc.
I believe that among the primary concerns of documentary is a search for truth. We can debate the nature of truth—but I think it fair o posit a search for truth as a shared goal of the best and most successful of documentary work.
Why do audiences tend to believe in the truth of the documentary? The power of the documentary comes from an agreement between filmmaker and audience regarding the authenticity of the events portrayed. The viewer is asked to trust the image before his eyes. Ultimately this trust is based upon our willingness to believe in the integrity and honesty of the filmmaker. As critical viewers we need to understand the strategies that filmmakers employ to gain and retain our confidence. This is one of the most important threads in our discussion and we will examine this issue in the context of each of the films we view.
Traditionally, audiences have expected congruence between the filmed record and events, which have actually occurred in the real world. From the earliest days of filmmaking, audiences have acted from the notion that “seeing is believing.”
On Dec. 28, 1895 the Lumiere brothers projected 10 short films in the basement of the Grand Cafe in Paris to a paying audience of thirty-five. This event marked the birth of commercial cinema. Among the first films ever shown was “Train Arriving at the Station.” The power of filmed images was such that spectators reportedly ran out of the theater when confronted with the image of a (silent) steam locomotive bearing down on them.
The Lumieres set out to create a record of life at the end of the 19th century. By 1897 they had created a catalog of over 750 films, and until about 1907 nonfiction films out numbered fiction films. These films were called “actualities.” , For the most part they are artless filmed records of continuous events. They are shot in a single location from a stationary camera. They are short and unedited. While they are important artifacts of a time gone by, they lack an intentional artistic structure. These early films represent the first tentative steps —-pioneering but primitive— toward the development of the documentary as a distinct category of filmmaking.
Nanook of the North
Robert Flaherty is generally credited for creating the first documentary —Nanook of the North (1922). As late as 1964 filmmakers still considered Nanook the “greatest documentary ever made.” Flaherty was the prototype of the brave, adventuring filmmaker who travels to difficult and exotic locations. Overcoming a series of difficult obstacles, he returns and delivers “never before seen” views to astonished audiences. By all accounts the reality of Flaherty’s life and work was extraordinary.
Robert Flaherty began his career as a prospector and explorer. In 1914 and 1915 he made prospecting expeditions to northern Canada for railroad baron William MacKenzie. At the urging of his sponsor, he packed a camera. With only a three-week cinematography course as a guide, he was basically a self-taught filmmaker. Filmmaking became his obsession and he returned to his home with 30,000 feet of negative. Early films were shot on a highly flammable nitrate base. And Flaherty’s cigarette ignited the film. It exploded and burned
him badly. His entire film was destroyed.
Flaherty returned again to the Hudson Bay area of extreme northern Canada in 1920 and began a collaboration with Nanook a renowned hunter of the Itivimuit (Eskimos or Inuit). The film is remarkable for many achievements. Not the least of which was overcoming the sheer logistical barriers to working in remote, frozen landscapes. These included blizzards and unsuccessful hunting trips, hauling tons of water by dog sled for film processing and repairing a camera dropped in the sea. Flaherty convinced Nanook and his companions that the “aggie” —the film– came first. And they offered Flaherty their total cooperation.
Watch the film with as few preconceptions as possible. Allow yourself to imagine seeing it in a theater with an audience totally unexposed to few or any images of life in the far north. The restored version of the film created by David Sheppard (distributed by Home Vision Cinema) looks great. Projected at the correct speed the photography is compelling. I found the score by Stanley Silverman pleasant. But for me it seems to undercut the inherent drama of the film. If you find the music distracting you can always turn it off. Or try choosing your own music. (Even today few of us own cd’s of traditional northern native songs. The world of Nanook remains in the realm of the strange and exotic even in this era of the global village.)
Nanook is not for the squeamish. The shots of bloody butchering and close-ups of eating raw walrus ground the film in its basic structure as a primeval tale of the struggle for survival.
After You Watch the Film
What did you make of the film? How do you think audiences would have reacted to it in 1922? In what ways does it still seem fresh. (I think the easy affection among Nanook’s family is appealing in a timeless way.) How did you evaluate the “truth” of the images you were presented with?
Flaherty had come north seeking a vision. But often his vision corresponded to a different reality than that currently lived by his “subjects.” Flaherty said, “Sometimes you have to lie. Often one has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit.” In fact Flaherty very much constructed a view of the Inuit living in a world, which even by 1920 no longer existed.
Flaherty was a romantic — a very persuasive romantic– who convinced his subjects to recreate the world of their forefathers, often at considerable risk to themselves. Look at the scene of the walrus hunt again. The wounded beast nearly drags Nanook into the sea. If you look closely you can see Nanook looking over his shoulder back at the camera. What we don’t hear is Nanook asking Flaherty to stop filming and shoot the walrus with his rifle. Flaherty pretended not to hear his request. He wanted to capture his image of Nanook. Flaherty writes in his diary that he wanted Nanook to know he was hunting film, not walruses.
Because Nanook is silent —-without dialog or natural sound, its impact comes only from the power and structure of the images. Flaherty establishes a dramatic structure —- “Man against Nature.” And then he directed his “characters” to perform for the camera. He was the first of reality-based filmmakers to master the grammar of film as it had developed in fictional features. More than a simple recording of a single action, in Nanook Flaherty builds sequences, showing us action from different angles and distances. (Examples include the ice fishing sequence, racing in kayaks for the walrus hunt, capturing the white fox, building the igloo etc.) Flaherty sustains viewer interest by letting us make discoveries for ourselves. (After Nanook hacks his ways out of the completed igloo, it needs just one more thing. We’re surprised and perhaps delighted as he creates and clear ice window and solar reflector.)
Audiences of the day were enthralled by the “naturalism” Flaherty created. Every cut offered a fresh view of a “lost world.” Yet to make the pieces flow together Flaherty has to move the camera and re-stage the action. This is how a single camera is able to cover an event from multiple angles. While we take these conventions for granted today, this way of visually creating a story was one that had to be discovered and developed. (The master of visual story creation though editing, D.W. Griffith had established the predominate narrative conventions in the previous decade. See for example his Way Down East or Broken Blossoms or his epics Birth of a Nation or Intolerance.) Editing gives Flaherty total control over time. It can be condensed (ice fishing) or expanded (Nanook falls down again and again before his companions arrive to help him drag the harpooned seal from the ice hole.) Flaherty even includes simple cross cutting (“Meanwhile” reads the intertitle.) While Nanook builds the igloo, his kids tumble down the icy slopes. Flaherty repeatedly cuts between the hunting bands and their dogs to heighten the emotional impact of hunger, cold and wildness.
Flaherty used his skills as a photographer to imply objectivity. This includes long takes from a single perspective. (Thee camera looks down as the hunters are sledding over the “ice dunes.”) Often his images (the floating ice floes for example) have great depth of field They are in focus in both foreground and background. At other times he uses telephoto lenses, bringing the action to us unobtrusively (Nanook kayaking). These techniques suggest that the camera is an unobtrusive observer, revealing reality directly to us.
The appearance of naturalism, as pioneered by Flaherty, became one of the on-going issues of documentary practice. Many of us instinctively most value those documentaries that seem the most spontaneous, the most lifelike and realistic. But as we will see, audience’s tastes, judgments and expectations have changed over the years. For example, audiences in 1922 saw the few moments when Nanook clowns or looks directly at the camera, as distracting.
(See Nanook biting the phonograph record.) They would be reminded of earlier travelogues presenting smiling natives waving for the camera. Yet today (as we will discuss when we view Sherman’s March) nothing seems more contemporary than documentary techniques, which acknowledge the presence of the camera—- allowing audiences to
share the “dirty secret” of all documentaries— “It’s only a movie. It’s never real life.”
Flaherty went on to document the people of Polynesia (Moana), the Celts of the Aran Islands (Man of Aran) and the Louisiana Bayou country (Louisiana Story). He remained ever fascinated with the story of “man against nature” and times gone by.
Could you see any evidence of the reconstructions Flaherty employed? ( Look at the sequence of building the igloo. Flaherty had Nanook and his family sleep in a half dome igloo, so that there would be enough light to film “inside” when they awoke in the morning.)
What is the filmmaker’s responsibility to his subjects? Can people of a vastly different culture truly give their informed consent to participate in a documentary? Can they imagine the possible consequences of their participation? Should they share in the financial return of the project? (Nanook was ill and coughing up blood during the filmmaking. He died in hunting trip in 1924.)
How do you read the ambiguous ending? In a way the film seems to come to almost an abrupt halt. Nanook and his family are caught in the cold vastness of the icy desert. It’s not at all certain what may happen next. Is this a bleak view, undercutting Flaherty’s romantic vision? Or is Nanook’s perseverance and resourcefulness so well established that we have no doubts about his ability to survive on his own terms in his own environment?
Before Watching The Plow that Broke the Plains
For the audiences who watched the early-filmed records created by the Lumiere brothers, the sheer novelty of moving images was enough to hold their attention. The first-generation film viewers were prepared to accept the “reality” of nonfiction films without question. The commercial and critical success of Flaherty’s Nanook attracted worldwide attention to the potential of the documentary. John Grierson a Scottish social scientist came to the U.S. where he met Flaherty and proclaimed him the “father of the documentary.” It was Grierson who coined the classic definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality.” And it was Grierson who created (with Paul Rotha and others) the British documentary film movement of the 30s. This was a unique partnership between documentary filmmakers and government agencies. Among Grierson’s first undertakings was hiring Flaherty to direct Industrial Britain in 1933.
Grierson had strong, clearly defined ideas about the proper role of the documentary. He maintained that a serious social analysis was essential to distinguishing the documentary from the “merely descriptive” pictures of everyday life in travelogues, nature films etc. This preference followed from the school of “Socialist Realism” a Marxist analysis, which required art to reflect “objective conditions.” Grierson was very much influenced by the great Russian filmmaker and theoretician Sergei Eisenstein. Grierson was responsible for helping to create the first American and British version of Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin. Like Eisenstein, Grierson considered himself a propagandist who believed that “art is a hammer, not a mirror.”
How amazing that Grierson was able to convince government agencies like the General Post Office, the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board and the Empire Marketing Board to create a body of socially concerned filmmaking. The classics they produced (e.g. Drifters, Night Mail—include on the tape distributed by Video Yesteryear with Plow that Broke the Plains—and Song of Ceylon ) defined the techniques of nonfiction filmmaking through out the 30’s and into the 40’s when filmmakers were mobilized for total war.
In retrospect the techniques of these documentaries seems formulaic. They often are structured in terms of “the problem” and “the solution.” But in fact the style and approach embraced by Grierson met his political and social goals within the limitations imposed by the technology of the time. He was committed to producing films that photographed the living scene and the living story. (He rejected historical themes and the exotic romanticism of typical of Flaherty.) Grierson and his filmmakers worked with cumbersome 35mm equipment. Given the technical difficulties of shooting anywhere other than a sound stage, Grierson had no compunction about staging, re-staging or rearranging reality. Films were shot in black and white because color film stock was not yet available. The films were tightly scripted and were invariably accompanied by a “voice-of-god” all knowing narration and with specially composed music. (The long inter-titles in Nanook served a similar function for a silent film.) During the 30s and 40s, audiences were neither skeptics nor cynics. They welcomed the confident, reassuring, and (always) male voice declaiming: “Trust me. I’ll tell you how things are.”
Government support for documentary filmmaking was much less forthcoming in the United States than in Britain. But the crisis of the depression and the election of Franklin Roosevelt created an opportunity for American documentarians.
The 1930’s were a time of economic collapse, bank failures, mortgage foreclosures, massive unemployment—the apparent end of the American Dream. By 1934 farm property in the Great Plains was being destroyed at the rate of $1 million per day. 500,000 cattle were too weakened to be sold or eaten. Up to 50,000 people per month left their homes on the plains and headed for California. (See John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the 1943 John Ford film.) It was a time when there seemed little left to lose, and many people were ready to try radical measures.
Aware of the success of government-sponsored films in Britain, the Roosevelt administration through the US Resettlement Administration hired Pare Lorentz to produce the Plow that Broke the Plains (1936). The film was intended to show the extent and causes of the crisis in rural America, and to mobilize public support for government action.
This was Lorentz’s first film. And he turned to radical filmmakers Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz of Frontier Films for assistance. These were filmmakers who wanted to make a Marxist critique of capitalism. Lorentz saw the problem of unemployment in the countryside as an environmental one amenable to government planning. He soon had strong disagreements with his more politicized colleagues. He complained that “they wanted it to be all about human greed and how lousy our social system was.” He couldn’t see what that had to do with dust storms.
Hollywood’s response to the crisis of the depression was escapist offerings and pleas for “neighborliness.” Musicals, romantic comedies, and costume dramas shared the screens with mystery, horror and gangster films. Hollywood resisted “government sponsored” film production and was uncooperative in making stock footage available for Plow. (It was the director King Vidor who was finally instrumental in obtaining the library footage.) The Hollywood industry did in fact prevented Plow from receiving widespread commercial distribution in industry-controlled theaters. Advertised as “The Picture They Dared Us to Show”, the film was eventually exhibited in some 3,000 independent theaters out of a universe of 14,000 theaters in the country.
Plow has formal similarities with the techniques made popular in Britain. It is of course shot in black and white, which seems especially appropriate to the images of dust bowl suffering. A strong narration guides your perceptions throughout the production. Like Nanook the film opens with a simple animated map. Pay particular attention to voice of the narrator Thomas Chalmers. This is the articulated voice of the filmmaker. The original music composed by Virgil Thompson draws its inspiration from American folk tunes.
Visually the film uses a number of techniques to re-enforce its message. This is a very formal film with a strong emphasis on visual parallelisms. Notice that new destructive forces (e.g. mechanized farm machinery) first enter the scene on a diagonal from upper right to lower left. Forces that are defeated tend be on the opposite diagonal—quite small in the upper left—cattle and the children on the truck piled up with family belongings for example.
Pay attention to how the stock market crash is presented. (Note the falling ticker tape machine.) Does the film suggest that the stock failures caused the suffering in the plains or is it merely asserting a sequential relationship: “The stock market crashed and next there was a drought.”
After You Watch The Plow that Broke the Plains
Shortly after its release Plan was proclaimed to be propaganda and was banned from viewing for 20 years as “propaganda.” In U.S. usage propaganda is a pejorative term, which implies government-sponsored brainwashing. In other countries the idea of the government using the mass media in pursuit of public policy goals is well accepted. But for the most part in America the mass media is nearly exclusively market driven. Advertising is the only approved mechanism for shaping public opinion.
In deciding whether you believe that Plow was propaganda that deserved to be banned we need to establish a working definition of propaganda. First of all I think it’s important to recognize that a distinct and well-argued point of view does not in itself make a film propaganda. Let me propose the following definition. Propaganda is a film, which purports to be nonfiction. It is usually created by the government or by a political party or organization. It is designed to persuade and inflame viewers–to force them to a specific commitment. It relies on lies, distortions, omissions and half-truths. Propaganda is addressed to the emotions. In these films good and evil are so clear-cut that the viewer had little emotional choice but to react with the violent emotions called for. Propaganda is the anti-thesis of critical analysis, distancing and rationality. Its basis is a psychological need to see the world in morally simplistic terms either/or, good/bad black/white. Examples of films that are clearly propaganda include wartime movies Like Why We Fight (Frank Capra) or Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl).
The case for Plow being propaganda is not so clear. It’s important to note that in the original version of the film there was a 3-minute epilogue, which in part focused on the construction of “planned rural communities.” Roosevelt’s response to the massive unemployment in America had included some experimentation with the notion of rural resettlement of the urban poor. In 1933 the National Industrial Recovery Act provided for Subsistence Homesteads Divisions with rural resettlement a major goal. About 100 experimental communities were established under New Deal auspices. Reaction was swift. The Republican National Committee accused Roosevelt of being the sponsor of farm communities, which are “communistic in conception—communal farms in which each member of the community will work on cooperative projects and share the proceeds.” In 1933 the in a response to an effort to run cooperative gardens in Muncie, Indiana the press declared it “the first attempt to apply socialistic principles to a relief program sphere. “
But by 1935 a reorganization of federal agriculture projects had aborted most of these experiments. “Most Americans” wrote Arthur Schlesinger Jr.,”were children of an individualistic and competitive culture, lacking any faith in the community ideal.”
Perhaps it was the film’s controversial ending as much as the content of the film as a whole, which led to the film’s banning. Even in it’s currently available form the film exist without the original epilogue.
Lorentz went on to make The River. This portrait of the Mississippi River was considered his best work. And it lead for a brief time to the creation of the U.S. Film Office. This office produced Joris Iven’s The Power and the Land and a Flaherty film, The Land. Eventually Congress prohibited use of relief funds to finance such films and that was pretty much the end of Lorentz’s career. The government turned its filmmaking energies to military targets. The armed forces made extensive use of nonfiction films for both training and civilian morale building during World War II. (For a banned army sponsored film see John Huston’s Let There Be Light.)
What is uniquely cinematic in these films (Nanook and Plow)? What forms of expression are used that are unavailable to other art forms? What do these films say about (your notion of) reality?
What is the period and setting of these films? How is this signaled? What do you make of the covered wagon scenes in Plow? Do you think the land rush filmed specifically for Plow? Re-enacting for Plow? Or are they outtakes from a Hollywood western? Does is matter? Why or why not? What about the handbills advertising land? Are they actual documents?
For Plow describe the use of sound effects and music. How is language used? Consider tone, volume, delivery, pacing etc. Is it realistic or not? How would you describe it? What’s the dramatic effect of the way language is used here?
Is Plow persuasive? Why or why not? How does it make its strongest points? Is it propaganda? Should it have been made? Censored? Is there a role for government sponsorship of documentaries?
Avant Garde Influences
Koyaanisqatsi Godfrey Reggio 1983
BEFORE YOU WATCH
Last week’s films were important to the development of the documentary, but by any account they were also distinctly “old-fashioned.” The predominate influence on early documentaries was a reliance on the kind of filmed actualities pioneered by the Lumiere brothers. These early documentaries had added story and structure to the Lumires’s simple capturing of lifelike images. They told their stories in a direct, if somewhat plodding way. They tended to be information heavy; designed as message films. They were straightforward and meant to be easily accessible to a broad general audience.
This week we turn to something completely different. Nonfiction films — films taken from life— have also drawn on a tradition of experimentation. Cinema may have been invented by the Lumiere brothers, but it was their contemporary George Melies who led the way in discovering film’s potential for magic. (See The Trip to the Moon). It wasn’t long before painters and poets began to look to film as the most powerful means of artistic expression. (For nonfiction examples see Luis Bunuel’s Land Without Bread and Walther Ruttmann’s Berlin: The Symphony of a Great City.)
The ferment of revolutionary Russia was particularly fertile ground for the development of films like Eisenstein’s Strike, Pudovkin’s Mother and Dovzhenko’s Earth, fictional films about workers and peasants. But more importantly, in terms of our discussion, there was also room in Russia for radical experimentation in documentary production.
I want to spend some time introducing you to the work of Dziga Vertov (in Russian —Spinning Top). Vertov is important historically and I believe it’s worth our while to closely consider his most experimental work, The Man With the Movie Camera (1928). We’ll see some very interesting parallels between this film and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1983)
It’s difficult to summarize this essentially plotless, non-narrative work. More than anything Man is about the process of filmmaking itself. It is a documentary poem to the power of cinema. It is dizzying in the scale of its inventiveness. Vertov asks us to bear witness as he re-invents and re-envisions the glories of everyman’s everyday life. The film’s subject is the mundane world —sleeping, waking, working, and playing. But Vertov is attempting nothing less than a deconstruction of our ordinary perceptions of reality. And he uses and invents countless cinematic tricks and techniques to make us really see the world afresh.
Vertov (1896-1954) is a seminal figure. His manifestos and experimental filmmaking are the roots of many contemporary trends in documentary. (Yet surprisingly Vertov’s films were not readily available in the States until the ’70s.) For our purposes his most interesting work coincided with the experimental opening in the first years of the successful Russian revolution 1917-1929.
Vertov was influenced by the experiments of avant-garde painters and sculptors especially “futurists” and constructivists’ like Vladamir Mayakovsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold. These artists were fascinated by the potential of modern technology. They believed that the role of the artist was to construct useful objects, which would play an active role in the building of the new revolutionary society.
The Man with the Movie Camera is a worker among other workers. He is using his tools —the film–to build a new society. Vertov was incredibly inventive. He used hand tinting and subliminal cuts of one or two frames —- 1/16 or 1/8th of a second. Other effects include stop action, pixilation (animation of photos rather than drawings), microphotography, multiple exposure (superimpositions), freeze frames and split screens, as well as, fast and slow motion. Remarkable sequences include a camera setting itself up and then walking off on its tripod; a frozen scene becomes a series of stills. The stills are frames of a 35mm film being cut by the editor of the film we’re watching.
Vertov was a prolific writer of manifestos. He coined the expressions Kino-Pravda (Film Truth — a precursor of the notion of cinema verité) and Kino-Eye (the Film Eye). He believed that the vision of the camera is superior to that of the human eye. Vertov had no use for fiction film and he declared that Kino-Eye must replace “leprous old romantic theatrical films.” He saw the cameraman as an auteur taking his direction from life. He believed in a moving rather than static camera, in speed and the value of the quick response and in non-intervention even including concealed
cameras. (This is in stark contrast to Flaherty’s and Grierson’s willingness to stage and manipulate events.) Man with the Movie Camera is particularly notable for its resolute insistence on revealing the process of filmmaking and editing. This follows the constructivist injunction to “bare the device.” To show the process of creation is a very modern aesthetic indeed.
What’s most remarkable about Vertov is his reliance on editing. (For
example he cuts together shots of a wedding, childbirth, death and divorce— the life cycle in an instant.) He believed that Kino Pravda, cinema-truth, must be created from fragments of actuality assembled by filmmakers — craftsman of seeing — the organizers
of visible life. Perhaps this shouldn’t be all that surprising. For Vertov was a contemporary of Pudhovkin and Eisenstein, Russian formalists responsible for critical developments in editing theory and practice.
Koyaanisqatsi Godfrey Reggio 1983
Koyaanisqatsi shares with The Man with the Movie Camera a concern for exploring the formal and technical potential of cinema. Koyaanisqatsi is a challenging film designed to affirm Hopi prophecies concerning our modern life.
Both Vertov and Reggio make the case for the primacy of images in documentary cinema. Both dispense with dialog and conventional narrative. And both recognize the potential of music to add layers of emotion and complexity to the images. (Although Man was originally released as a silent film. Vertov had made extensive notes for the inclusion of “industrial music.'” A recently released laser version of Man does include a very successful score by the Alloy Orchestra. The Philip Glass soundtrack for Koyaanisqatsi is a successful and exciting composition that stands on its own. Try watching the film silently to get a sense of just how powerfully Glass’s score affects your mood and perception.)
Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word having several meanings. These include crazy life, a life in turmoil, a life disintegrating. The title and the film suggest that our contemporary life is “out of balance.” The final meaning of Koyaanisqatsi is a “state of life that calls for another way of being.” The film juxtaposes breathtakingly beautiful photography of the natural world with images of rushing crowds of cars and people and the cacophony of modern urban life.
Koyaanisqatsi is a film about time. And the techniques of time-lapse and slow motion photography are wonderfully suited to visually represent the invisible surge and flow of time. Extreme telephoto lenses are used to especially good effect. (See the crowd scenes and especially the wonderful approach of the shimmering 747’s, which advance inexorably toward us.) Aerial photography is artful used to establish scale. And stock footage from NASA and government archives blends nearly seemly with the original photography by Ron Fricke.
The first section of the film presents images of the primary elements—-fire, earth and water. Then the film turns it’s attention from the natural landscape to the built environment. While most of the photography is in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco the cities are presented generically representing any crowded over-developed urban environment. (No images of golf courses or gated communities.) The editing is built on large cycles of day and night, and more tellingly by association. For example, the film cuts between commuters being spit out of escalators and wieners sliding out of their assembly line slots.
When watching the film try and identify as many kinds of film tricks and special effects as you can. See if you can summarize how Reggio visually presents his arguments and makes his points. Is the film convincing? Why or why not?
After You Watch the Film
Both Vertov and Reggio are obsessed with the visual power of film. But they have radically different attitudes about the benefits of technology. Like Vertov, Reggio uses an array of cinematic tricks especially fast motion (pixilation) and slow motion photography. Both Reggio and Vertov use their technical prowess to deconstruct the ordinary processes of life. Vertov uses the tools of cinema to celebrate filmmaking itself as a symbol of the power and benefits of technology. Reggio, on the other hand, uses the technology of cinema to build a powerful critique of the destructiveness of technology. (“If we dig things from the land, we will invite disaster.” And “A container of ashes (i.e. nuclear weapons) might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.’: Hopi prophecies sung in the film.)
Koyaanisqatsi uses the powerful technology of cinema in a most ironic way. Cinema is capital-intensive form of mass media, which depends upon sophisticated, complex industrial processes. Stop for a moment and consider all the various types of raw materials, the chemicals and machines necessary to manufacture cameras, lenses and film stock. Now add the financial and economic structures—contracts, investments, advertising, promotion and distribution. (Koyaanisqatsi is “Presented by Francis Ford Coppola.”) The film suggests that the very capitalist, industrial technical processes that make cinema possible are in fact threatening the existence of the world.
Koyaanisqatsi is a film that communicates on many levels. But it’s a film that cannot escape from the world it criticizes. It begins with an expansive vision of Monument Valley—- the archetype of the western (U.S.) landscape. It’s true that the awe-inspiring geology of the southwest desert is appropriate for a film framing its discussion from a Hopi point of view. But the choice of Monument Valley to represent the power and strength of untrammeled nature is also ironic. For Monument Valley has achieved its symbolic power—it’s status as an icon—- in no small measure because this is the geography of the western as envisioned in John Ford films. (Stagecoach is an excellent example.) In Ford’s world the desert is a savage, empty wilderness to be conquered. Only the manly virtues of John Wayne are up the challenge.
Koyaanisqatsi also uses the desert and Monument Valley for symbolic and mythical purposes. Reggio’s fast motion cloudscapes emphasize the untouched, unchanging power of the landscape. While the politics of Koyaanisqatsi are a strong statement explicitly condemning the values of a consumerist, industrial society, the film itself—as a product designed for the marketplace– -conspires with us to consume the landscape. No longer conquering the desert with military force as in a Ford film, Koyaanisqatsi presents “desert beauty” as entertainment. In one sense Koyaanisqatsi is a product — a simulated experience offered for sale. We can purchase and consume its wondrous images for the pleasures they offers us— visual, aural, intellectual and emotional. As much as the film may aspire to present Hopi spirituality, a Hopi worldview, there is no escaping that “the medium is the message. ” The spirit of a place is not readily captured by the facile “reality” of film, which owes it existence to its ability to capture a piece of the marketplace. (Perhaps we should date the death of Monument Valley—-in terms of any status as an icon of spirituality—-from the Oscar Meyer weinermoblie’s commercial set there a few years ago.)
Ultimately the origins of Hopi spirituality come from a time when technology was simpler, and human impact on the natural world was significantly less threatening. In some ways Koyaanisqatsi may be just as romantic as Nanook — looking back with nostalgia to a simper world where the interdependent relationship of man and nature was clear and obvious to everyone.
How is the film manipulated technically to make story points? In what way do the techniques used enhance or distort our understanding of the processes of modern life?
Are the techniques of the film effective in grabbing our attention. Or has their power been dulled by time and the development of even more eye-catching graphics and special effects? What is the role of “eye-candy” in a documentary?
Koyaanisqatsi includes a short sequence of manufacturing circuit boards, but it was created before the emergence of pc’s, the web and our information-based economy. Is computer-based technology qualitatively different from the technologies that Reggio is criticizing? What visual techniques could be used to address concerns about these new technologies?
Are the ideas of the film dated? Or do they still represent a fresh point-of-view that is relevant to our current predicaments.
Powaqqatsti Reggio’s 1988 sequel
Baraka 1992 directed by Ron Fricke the Director of Photography for
San Soleil 1983 Chris Marker
3. Compilation and Historical Doc
Atomic Cafe Atomic Cafe Kevin Raferty, Jayne Loader, Pierce
This week we’re going to discuss the film as history. In particular we will consider a special case of the documentary, the compilation film. Compilation films are truly found films made on the editing bench. They are created by assembling bits and pieces from pre-existing films into a totally new film— a film which if successful will be much richer and more meaningful than the sum of its parts. Compilation films use other films as raw material. They are transformed by editing, by creating new scripts, narration, and music. They are much more than summaries giving capsule versions of a number of earlier works. Rather they are like collages, which create entirely new meanings based upon the sometimes startling juxtapositions of elements from quite disparate sources.
Once again we can find one of the earliest examples of this technique from the Russian revolutionary period. Esther Shub created the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927). This is the first part of trilogy, which used non-Russian newsreel footage to chronicle thirty years Russian political history from 1897 to 1927. Sixty years later we can still appreciate her ability to transform her material —– expressing a coherent point-of-view never envisioned by the original filmmakers.
Film functions on two levels as history. The first and perhaps the most obvious is as a form of visual evidence. Newsreels and documentaries have historic value in a way similar to written documents of a particular period. They are part of the surviving record of a particular time. (Obviously film has been able to perform this role only for the last 100 years.) The value of the filmed record is based on our belief and trust that there exists a close correspondence between a given reality that exists in the world independently of the film and the filmed recording of that event.
As time passes the film itself (fiction or nonfiction) becomes an artifact of the time and place it was created. The film’s outlook, subject matter and style all are influenced by the time of its production. A critical examination of any film can result in surprising revelations about the social relationships and realities existing at a particular moment in history.
The passage of time changes the relationship of audiences to a film. When viewed by an audience at the time of production, films tend to model prevailing values and norms of behavior. A retrospective viewing–looking at “old” films” today —-gives us evidence of how society was at the time of production. We can try to understand how the “mood of the times” shaped the filmmakers perceptions of the events recorded in the film. The Atomic Cafe is a compilation film created from government and educational films from the 40s and 50s. It’s a film of found objects, newsreels, propaganda films, and industrial training films. It also includes excerpts from radio and television programs, stills and music and sound effects (in addition to music and effects that may have been included in the original programs.) Identifying titles and dates have also been added to the material.
We can’t really understand Atomic Cafe unless we are familiar with the roots of its historical material. The setting is the stifling conformity of suburban 50s American. The enemy is the threat of domination by a worldwide conspiracy of godless communists. The fear is of nuclear annihilation.
At first, the film appears to be a straightforward capsule history of America’s development and use of atomic weapons. It begins chronologically with the testing of the first bomb in New Mexico followed by the destruction of Hiroshima. Here the historical footage is used to add credibility to the information presented. The dramatic footage of the Trinity test establishes the power of the bomb. An interview with the Paul Tibbets the pilot who attacked Hiroshima is eyewitness testimony. The graphic footage of burn victims documents the impact of the weapon. (Much of this footage was shot by Japanese cameraman. Declassified in 1970 by the U.S. Pentagon, it was released in 1970 as Hiroshima-Nagasaki, August 1945.)
Critical viewing soon demonstrates that Atomic Cafe is not intended to be a careful, objective, factual historical accounting. Rather the film is designed to makes us question the nature of the information presented. Form and function are closely matched in this film. The filmmakers have chosen the compilation film precisely because it allows them to emphasize the absurdity and surrealism that can be created by deliberately jarring juxtapositions. It’s the intention of the filmmakers to challenge and subvert the intended messages of the original footage.
In many ways the success of Atomic Cafe is predicated on an “in-joke.” It is a send up of the attitudes, values and assumptions common to American social, political and popular culture of the 40s and 50s. The ironic view of the filmmakers is neatly summarized at the end of the film. After apparently surviving the blast from an atomic attack, a suburban patriarch turns to his unfrightened and uninjured family and calmly declares “Nothing to do now but wait for orders from the authorities and relax.”
In order to really get the joke you have to either have lived through the period or have more than a passing acquaintance with the history of that time. Without this background it’s possible to ridicule the styles, fashions and pompous arrogance captured in the period footage. But deeper resonance and references may be lost. In fact it seems to me that especially in the first part of the film some of the ant-communist rhetoric, which the film intends to satirize —as paranoid and jingoistic— may actually be taken at face value by some of today’s audiences.
We also need to be aware of the time that the film itself was made. Fifteen years ago is almost a generation. The political climate in 1982 needs to be established. This was a period when the Reagan administration was introducing nuclear-armed cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe. There was a great fear that these weapons —capable of a first strike on the Soviet Union — would be destabilizing and increase the chance of accidental nuclear war.
The Atomic Cafe was made at the height of the Nuclear Freeze Movement. The Nuclear Freeze was an international, grass roots campaign calling for an immediate end to the testing, development and deployment of all nuclear weapons. The Freeze was a nonviolent social movement , which mobilized thousands for massive demonstrations and civil disobedience.
The release of The Atomic Cafe coincided with the availability of a number of more conventional anti-nuclear documentaries. These included The Last Epidemic, If You Love This Planet and Dark Circle among others. In contrast to the earnest and impassioned testimonies of these films, The Atomic Cafe cast a jaundiced eye at the past. It used humor and satire to rally a new generation of anti-nuclear activists to the Freeze Movement.
Today the changed political climate internationally since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the apparent success of a conservative consensus in the U.S. makes it somewhat difficult to appreciate the pleasure anti-establishment demonstrators took in mocking and satirizing the pro-nuclear pieties of a previous generation.
Let’s look at the history, which Atomic Cafe takes such delight in attacking. The Bomb was brought to life in the desert of the American Southwest at Los Alamos and Alamogordo, NM. It was a ceremony of terror. Nuclear physicists working on the development of the first atomic bomb seriously debated the possibility that the test would set off a worldwide atomic chain reaction—- exploding the earth like the surface of the sun. J. Robert Oppenheimer was
the father of the bomb, the leader of the entire weapons design team. At the time of the first test he quoted the Bhagavad-Gita “Now I am become Death, shatterer of words”
This creation of nuclear weapons changed the world forever. The atomic age would come to define America’s role in the world and the social and political values of America in the 50s. To oversimplify just a bit here is the premise (as it’s set-up in The Atomic Cafe).Victorious in World War II and originally the sole possessor of the bomb, the US is fated by God and technology to be the dominant world power. However an evil, cruel and atheistic rival —communism —-threatens the American Way of Life. If Americans are strong–politically, militarily and morally— we will prevail. Our strength is predicated on conformity, respect for authority and a belief in a technological fix for every problem. In a complex technological society we have to trust the experts. And if we do, and if we cooperate, the rewards of consumer society –more and better, faster, cheaper goodies —- shall be ours and our children’s. But if we are weak, preyed-on by subversives, than we shall be slaves.
These “hidden assumptions” about the American way of life are what The Atomic Cafe is holding up for critical examination. The approach here stands out in sharp contrast to the depiction of the 50’s in many popular films. For example movies like American Graffiti paint the period with nostalgia —a simple time when cars had fins, gas was cheap, mom was at home and father knew best. In reality this was a period when House Un-American Activities
Committee and the political inquisitions of Joseph McCarthy cast a long shadow of fear.
But some fictional films did at least symbolically confront our nuclear nightmares. Nuclear Movies by Mike Broderick identifies over 850 films and TV shows about nuclear issues. Generally they are genre films–war, sci-fi, action-adventure or horror. They illustrate threads of both accommodation and resistance.
Anti-communist “atom-spy films” were the first to appear. Examples include The Atomic City 1952 and The Thief in the same year. Atomic physicists were portrayed both as those who worked unquestioningly for the government and as subversives in the employ of foreign powers. No room for moral ambiguity here. Notable science fiction films include Them! 1954 —post atomic monster film with 12-foot tall black ants. Giant Locusts starred in the 1957 Beginning of the End. And we should perhaps include the Japanese Godzilla films. A mutant created by nuclear testing and weapons can be read as a warning —created as it was in the only country to experience nuclear war. Susan Sontag writes that “The accidental awaking of the super-destructive monster, who has slept in the earth since pre-history , is often, an obvious metaphor for the bomb.”
After You Watch the Movie Let’s look in more detail at how The Atomic Cafe selects and juxtaposes its various elements to support its point-of-view. There are hints from the very beginning of the film. The first inter-titles describe the allied victory and the imminent defeat of Japan. (“In the Pacific, Japan was desperately fighting a losing battle against America and her allies.”) Nowhere does the film mention the conventional argument that dropping the bomb would prevent an allied invasion of Japan and the great loss of lives such an invasion would cost.
After the bomb is dropped on Nagasaki the voice of over from an interview with Paul Tibbets, the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, describes how military planners insisted on virgin targets so that they could conduct bomb blast studies. He characterizes it almost a “class room experiment.” Meanwhile the film cuts to the Nagasaki Infectious Hospital (sic) and then to horrifying images of burned children. The obvious conclusion is that the U.S. military conducted cruel experiments, callously and intentionally inflicting suffering on innocents. Not a pretty picture; certainly not the way U.S. motives and intentions are depicted flag-waving histories.
The reverential and lingering attention to the execution of the Rosenbergs for stealing atomic ‘”secrets” also signals the filmmakers sympathies. The addition of funereal music to the detailed description of the executions pushes this scene over the top in my opinion. One of the visual and aural motifs of the film is its constant referencing to radio receivers (and to a lesser extent television sets.) Why do you think the filmmakers chose to do this? One obvious, practical