Notes from Documentary and Collaboration: Placing the Camera in the Community by Elizabeth Coffman
“Contrary to fears that the age of cinema is ending, this new age of digital media offers more, not fewer, opportunities for individuals or groups interested in producing documentary work.” (p62)
This is something I’ve personally felt to be an aesthetic revolution as well as a mobile and participatory one. Digital media means more than mobility and lesser picture quality (or at least, different picture quality). It actually changes the ways in which stories get told. For that matter it actually effects what stories get told. Digital technology has lifted the art of documentary from the feature film and television industries and scrapped the rule book on methods for documentary story telling. Bill Nichols modes can still be applied to documentary works, but these borders and definitions are rapidly becoming blurrier and harder to distinguish. Nichols modes of the reflexive, performative and poetic seem to have been the modes that could encompass those films that sat outside of the mainstream in the pre-90’s period before the mass popularisation of documentary through filmmakers such as Michael Moore. The real binary that becomes apparent when comparing the old world with the new are the notions of subjectivity and objectivity. It seems to me that the trend in the past was for documentary to present itself as an entirely objective viewpoint. A literal window on the world in which the camera is merely the medium. Filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Chris Marker and many more spent their careers challenging and exploring this industry norm, and have subsequently found themselves hailed as the guru’s of contemporary cinema as subjectivity has found its way to the forefront of integrity and honesty. For instance, compare the controversies of Michael Moore’s representations of characters and events in Roger and Me (1989) and Fahrenheit 9 11 (2004) to the completely subjective and almost fictional depiction of images from the first Iraq war in Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992).
“documentary is just another form of fiction. It is arbitrary…made up. It doesn’t follow the natural order. Its major sequences are shorter than they are in real time. They acquire meaning they wouldn’t have in isolation. What’s magical about a good film is magical about a good play or a good novel. If you try to define it, you’re a fool….” (Frederick Wiseman in Coffman)
The article discusses the dynamics of the relationships between filmmaker and subject. It suggests that collaboration entails a giving up a certain amount of authority over the story to the subject. This is absolutely true for the filmmaking process to work, but it does not mean, as the article suggests, that authorship is threatened. The true author of a documentary is the person who oversees the editing process as that is where meaning and all meanings intricacies are formed for the final result. Unless there is a collaborative process with the subject going on in the editing room, the filmmakers voice (assuming he is overseeing the editing) will still be the predominant voice. My personal feeling on this matter is to bite the bullet and opt for total involvement of the filmmaker within the narrative. This way, the subject, the filmmaker and the audience are all on the same page. The filmmaker is not feigning a false sense of objectivity.