I presented at SWPJC a few years ago, and at the time basically faked my beliefs on stage. They were hunches. But in the last year or two of doing more web documentary work, my hunches have turned into convictions. One of them is documentary video is a record of your relationships. It’s a self-recognition that I’m a part of something, a relationship, and that the level of “truth” that my work presents is in direct proportion to the transparency, access and trust that I’ve built with my subjects.
Documentary wasn’t just one thing, it was many kinds. Then for whatever reason it devolved into a certain style of filmmaking. Call it verite, call it the handheld school, the fly-on-the-wall school. People started to take this idea of truth cinema seriously … But it evolved into a kind of cinema journalism. And I never liked that idea. It’s not that I don’t like journalism. I consider myself a kind of journalist. But I never liked this idea that this film journalism had to be practiced in a certain way. Like the documentary film police telling you it has to be shot this way or that way. In Gates of Heaven, I wanted to break every single rule of documentary. Instead of being a fly-on-the-wall, let’s make everyone completely aware of our presence. Let’s have people talking directly to us, perhaps performing for us. Let’s put the camera on a tripod. Let’s not use natural light, let’s light everything. Let’s not get portable gear, let’s get the most obtrusive. So that’s the start of it.
Then there is the voice of Silvain L’Esperance, who says that cinema verite is not objective truth at all, that’s a subjective truth of a relationship that’s eminently personal, and if there’s any truth to yield, it comes from the authenticity of the relationship between creator and creation (filmmaker/subject).
As I listened to their voices, I was head-nodding their statements to my experience. Coming from a photojournalistic background that stresses fly-on-the-wall tactics, but yet in the pool of many photographers who have, in pursuit of ‘multimedia’, moved into video production, the jump in mediums requires an additional realization: compelling documentary will take advantage of cinematic liberties, and non-compelling won’t.
Now why does this matter to me? It allows me to make more confident decisions when selecting whether to use music, whether to record my own voice asking the questions during an interview (I might cut myself into the edit to make it more honest of a feeling, much like Ira Glass does on This American Life shows), whether to recreate scenes and cuts that present many angles (when in fact it was one camera that shot it all), and overall cinematic impressions.
There are many genres of documentary. If I have a nervousness about a particular one, it’s about mixing heavily dramatized or recreated scenes. Errol is known for this, as I saw Standard Operating Procedure earlier last year. The idea of including footage that is completely made from my mind and conception and doesn’t offer any voice from my subject, is hardly a relationship between me and my subject at that point.
In conclusion, I’m discovering that cinema verite, from the point of view of documentary filmmakers who had no journalism background, considered it a point in the evolutional history of documentary film, and saw it as an approach that hardly afforded the creative expression of a relationship. Relationships by nature are fluid and expressive, and how comfortable someone feels talking with me as a camera is rolling is a direct result of the previous off-camera conversations and histories that we’ve shared together. My relationship is what I have to offer to my audience: a condensed record of my experience with others at a certain place and time, and one that is deeply personal, full of mystery, honesty and transparency. That’s probably why I love this form so much. It’s a personal journal in a way. I’m always timid when I show my work to others for the first time. If it was truly cinema verite, I don’t know that I would be … So for us journalist-converted filmmakers, the leap into personally expressed stories might require a big gulp, but is enthralling and pushes me towards my subject even more than I might otherwise be willing to go. Far from the wall.