Revealing creative dialogues in nonfiction films, a playful act between filmmaker and subject as early as 1950, are evidence that documentary filmmaking is the art of collaborative conceit.
Last June Robert Greene’s Actress and Måns Månsson’s Stranded in Canton had their UK premieres at London’s blossoming Open City Documentary Festival. Both films use models of director-subject collaboration to produce narrative, character driven documentaries. Stranded in Canton (2014) portrays an episode in the life of ‘Lebrun’: a brooding, determined, yet flawed businessman from Kinshasa falling into debt in Guangzhou where he tragicomically attempts to make good a mistimed sale of t-shirts. In Actress (2014) Brandy Burre (The Wire) balances a crumbling relationship, family life and the casting toils of trying to relaunch her career.
Månsson, uses real locations and non-professional actors as his fabric for self-informing scenes, collaboratively moulding a narrative as he shoots and interacts. Greene tinkers with a malleable observational mode of filmmaking and more forced cinematic intervention. Recently I’ve seen an increasing interest and willingness from filmmakers to play with forms of subject collaboration: crowdsourced footage, handing over the camera, or facilitating a record of self-fictionalisation. Making documentaries together seems to be in a moment of creative development. However these experiments are perhaps nothing new. Intently subject-collaborative methods of documentary filmmaking have something of a long tradition from ethnofiction and performative works, to citizen journalism.
Jean Rouch was one of the seminal minds in rethinking the filmmaker’s relationship to subject, the subject’s relationship to audience, and the audience’s relationship to the filmmaker. After showing a scene of hippopotamus hunting from Bataille sur le grand fleuve (1950) to locals in Ayoru, they contested that the film was not believable due to the presence of music. A hippopotamus hunt, they remarked, requires absolute silence. Rouch responded to this creative dialogue by removing the soundtrack and correcting further observed errors in the documentary construction. This feedback model was also included within the film of Chronicle of a Summer (1961) allowing subjects to offer comments on the direction of the film, and their reaction to what had so far been recorded and edited. In Cocorico! Monsieur Poulet (1975), a surreal road trip of mishaps for two poultry sellers, he furthered this collaborative direction to develop one of his more narrative and cinematic ethnofictions, improvising scenes with the protagonists and his long-term friends Damouré and Lam. The film co-credits all three as directors using a combined acronym ‘Dalarou’.
If another wave of collaborative documentary cinema is surfacing, the most pertinent question to digest is not necessarily ‘what does this mean as a ‘new’ form of filmmaking?’, but ‘why is it re-emerging now?’ Are shared contemporary technologies of connectivity, recording and feedback influencing the filmmaking processes and self-performance by their subjects? Greene and Månsson and their contemporaries belong to a generation of western filmmakers who evolved with readily accessible means of making and sharing films from VHS camera culture of You’ve been Framed (1990-) to mini-dv Dogme 95 to connected phone cameras and periscopic life after the internet. Perhaps this continued exposure to lens omnipresence and universal everyday use of cameras has waned some of the hierarchical structures of documentary portraiture, making this artform a more shared act. Or have the perpetually increasing means of collaboration out there, producing thousands of unmediated perspectives on the world, become simply bewildering? Does negotiating the multiple voices, ideas, movements and lives of others require the confidence of a master storyteller?
The majority of post-millennial collaborative documentaries, both long-form cinematic and ‘interactive’ web-based works, have assumed this model by creating depository funnels: open calls to submit material to an ultimately singular filtering, curating, editing, directing body. Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day (2011) is a primary example.
More daftly exciting, deftly creative, and dubiously moral works have been emerging from the hot cathodes of the small screen. The immortal movement of reality TV and its incessant demand to spawn new formats readily confuse images of performance, self-representation and documentation. New incarnations take more risks in questioning the limits of subject collaboration and participation than commercially successful documentary cinema. Television has provided a crass test-bed for co-producing an ‘enhanced’ reality with its subjects: Made in Chelsea (2011-), Big Brother (1999-), Geordie Shore (2011-) and Steven Seagal: Lawman (2009-) put forward increasingly layered documentary viewing experiences if not content.
Both Actress and Stranded in Canton initially appear to be shot in a rather standard observational cinéma vérité style. However, the revealing of their making, and some self-evident moments in each film collapses our inherited theory of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking: you the subject must be honest, real and undisturbed by the presence of a creative act. I the filmmaker will extract and edit a story from the material of your reality. The suspended illusion of unobtrusive filmmaking still prevails amongst many filmmakers and, more dangerously, amongst audiences. Joshua Oppenheimer recently, quite succinctly, denounced the myth in his BOATS speech:
“What is really happening is that the director and the film crew and the subjects are collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend the camera is not present… All documentaries are perfomance. They are performance precisely where people are playing themselves.”
All observational documentary is collaborative conceit: the filmmaker and subject compromise imagination and reality to produce a facsimile. Why then not play with the balance and form of collaboration rather than pretend it isn’t occurring?
Perhaps it is time to openly acknowledge this shared creative space: a space of enactment, not distantly documenting or retrospectively commenting on reality but working together to understand the actuality of the moment and the production of its record. As subjects of the connected screen world have increasing exposure to the means of selective selfie-representation and self-mediation the possibility for naive performance disappears, documentary ‘direction’ could become more of an act of initiation, negotiation, and facilitation. The question is then raised: whose story is this and whose film is this? What would a good documentary performance be? A truer character? A more stereotypical self? Someone who is dramatic and engaging on screen? Someone who is more able to articulate the story they are living through in a way that an audience can easily follow? What is a ‘good’ balance between performance and being, documenting and directing? I asked filmmakers Robert Greene and Måns Månsson to try to understand their methods and motivations behind exploring those boundaries.
My impression of Actress was not one of a fluid, singular vision but a performative push and pull between portraiture and self-portraiture. Greene describes this as an attempt “to demonstrate the way we play and can get trapped in social roles.” His methods try to permit creative dialogue between his directorial desire and the progressing actuality:
“I never used a script but I often knew what I was after. I very much believe in ‘directing’ a documentary and that it can still be entirely emotionally truthful and remain tethered to reality…I asked Brandy to do something (go shopping, clean the house, etc.) that she’d already be doing. Other moments I’d be in the room when something really dramatic was actually happening. Still other moments we reenacted things that happened off camera.”
Actress is largely operating in this structured observational mode of occasional composed slow motion interludes with emotional musical accompaniment: such as Brandy swaying in the shower, crying to camera, ‘playing house’ by performing domestic tasks in self identified ‘mum role’. In the film Brandy discusses her balancing of roles in terms of being ‘selfish’ fulfilling her ideal role as an actress, and ‘selfless’ continuing to give herself to a family role. She recognises an unconscious sway in herself between performance and personality, “I’m amazed at how many rules there are, and how we all agree to them, even when we don’t”. Greene appears to revel in this representational friction rather than ignore his subject’s struggle with societal rules and personal volition.
Stranded in Canton pushes the constructs of subject and scenario intervention much further, to a point where the tether of reality is quite minimal. Månsson describes his framework quite honestly as:
“…bringing characters together in certain places and letting the scenes unfold with very basic ideas of a premise and a certain conflict/desire while then trying to capture that with somewhat observational techniques.”
As a director Månsson works on the fly, progressively developing the situational reality with his character and editor:
“…we went about developing that story further day by day while shooting and editing simultaneously. Lebrun and myself would be out shooting and George Cragg would be back at the hotel room next door to Lebrun’s suite editing and by the end of each day we would sit down and look at scenes and discuss what to do tomorrow.”
However, for the viewer, the resulting consistent strength in cinematography and fluid narrative construction become problematic. Their smoothness escapes the common experience of documentary verisimilitude and its aesthetic associations of roughness, gaps in narrative and awkward development of events. Working together with the subject to smooth out the performance, its recording mechanisms and moments of chronological suture may ultimately cause a loss of audience trust in the story portrayed.
The exploratory, improvised techniques of Actress and Stranded in Canton appear more rooted in the tradition of John Cassavetes than classic factual documentary. There are many more recent examples of filmmakers using various levels of subject collaboration to initiate an autogenetic documentary:
Bloody Beans (2013), Tchoutipoulas (2012), Only The Young (2012), Summer of Giacomo (2011), Argentinian Lesson (2011), Stop the Pounding Heart (2013), You All Are Captains (2011) and the forthcoming All These Sleepless Nights by Michal Marczak.
They all portray young characters and loose, temporally contained episodes of life. Perhaps this emergent group of films is a result of the ease of self-fictionalising and suspended belief that youthful characters inspire. With the exception of Bloody Beans, they are also quite safe narrative territories, unlikely to provoke questions of ethics or aestheticization that the collaborative methods of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) or Eliane Rehab’s Sleepless Nights (2013) require. A mix of young subjects working with self styled creative documentarists does prompt the question of how reciprocal the dialogue of collaboration is. Filmmakers can’t assume that efforts to increase dialogue automatically bypass exploitative forays into treating subject as object, and otherness as an image.
In a generous and blurry filmed interview the director of Stop the Pounding Heart, Roberto Minervini, emphasises his relational prerequisite for making a film that suggests a levelling of subject and filmmaker in the creative process. He states that he and his subject must first of all ‘care’ for each other, then the subject can take the baton to lead the story. This is a direct effort to avoid the obstacles of personally imposed ideologies of representation.
Watch Roberto Minervini on Stop the Pounding Heart
A rather analogue, traditional set of values for collaboration is evident. A number of these films partner it with analogue cameras: Summer of Giacomo, Argentinian Lesson, You Are All Captains, Stop The Pounding Heart are all shot on film. The retrospective fetish is also under the influence, no pun intended, of a canon of predominantly male auteur filmmakers, notorious for their experiments with improvisation, performance and reflexivity: John Cassavettes, Jean Rouch, Maurice Pialat, Peter Watkins.
They contrast with assumed techniques and technologies of progressive forms of collaboration: films or web documentaries that embrace new means of connectivity through video conferencing, anonymous uploads and crowdsourced material. Astra Taylor makes a point of the continued need for these analogue values of filmmaker subject relations with reference to Laura Poitras’ The Oath (2010): “The internet might be a wonderful thing but you can’t crowdsource a relationship with a terrorist or a whistleblower.” There is an ongoing necessity for filmmakers to build subject relationships offline and over time in particular with more complicated subjects. The act of making documentary films together with a subject questions the supposed ease of contemporary relationships, connectivity and self-managed social profiles.
I’m hopeful of future collaborations, which will use today’s new personal technologies and aesthetics of intimacy: the lens of a web or phone camera, the broadcast presence of livestream, periscope and skype. The need for filmmakers and subjects to share physical space will erode only with the spread of connected trust and trusted connections, but for now the production of shared narratives seem to require an offline bond. Needless to say there are large parts of the world population still unaffected by the 4G stage.
In Greene and Månsson’s films the push and pull qualities of filmmaker-subject collaboration manifest in both positive and negative results. Actress shows a visible friction between the filmmaker as director, the subject as a confident on-screen performer and the real occurrences neither could have predicted. In moments this makes for a layered, engaging viewing, other scenes feel like forcedly inserted attempts to give the director a voice. Stranded in Canton presents a double filtered, smooth narrative. One in which removal of the reflexive devices such as production apparatus and modus operandi result in a polished film that potentially undermines any belief in the image: it appears too good to be true.
This isn’t solely a problem of creative documentary filmmaking. The most commercially ambitious of documentary cinema presents a different kind of smoothness: constructing seamless story arcs, charismatic heroes or dramatic events stylised with hollywood genre determined soundscapes and camera techniques. What else does the audience lose in terms of affect from this aesthetic shift towards an enhanced reality? Are drifting, stabilised cameras, movements and choreographed scenes smoothing out the possibility of visceral emotion, empathy and engagement? The push and pull between direction, subject participation and the shifting actuality might be exciting if handled masterfully, but it might also result in failure or more clear movements away from that reality towards the safer world of pure fiction. Richard Brody was recently outspoken against removing evidence of the director from the film, advocating for a need to be absolutely transparent:
“Filtering themselves out of the dialogue and off the screen (an editorial trick that might be fun to try at home) would do worse than to thin out the film – it would falsify it.”
Ultimately the loss of reality pointers and didactic context within the frame will require a shift in audience reading of the documentary film, and an increased need for ‘reading about’ the film. Månsson, who also operates in the wall text, critical review and gallery pamphlet justified conceptual art world, already recognises this in his viewers:
“Audiences seem to be very happy to be introduced to narratives where nothing is what it seems but maybe we are moving into an age where audiences are also more and more keen on appreciating that the production process was not what it seemed.”
One level of understanding is the experience of the film work, the second is reading about the work. The exhibition of a documentary film rarely provides an opportunity for supporting texts outside the film frame other than a brief synopsis. Brody’s comment is a common criticism of documentary as an art form due to a weighted expectation of documentary as a form of journalism: discipline and detail over vision and ambiguity. Are binary terms, drama versus documentary, objective versus subjective, art versus journalism or the hybrid between, redundant in discussion of these layered collaborative stories? If from the outset the filmmaker doesn’t have faith in the notion of ‘recording reality’ as a representation of truth, then documentary practice, dialogue with subject and audience, become a quest for truth: sharing the production and understanding of a represented reality.