On documentary filmmaking

by Helga Reidemeister

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 45-46
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

Translated by Marc Silberman. Originally appeared as "Gegen die schöne illusion, das ‘reiner' dokumentarfilm heute noch realisierbar ist …," Frauen und Film No. 13 (October 1977), pp. 12-16.

The concept of "pure" documentary was elaborated by Klaus Wildenhahn, documentary filmmaker, theorist and teacher at the German Academy for Film and Television in Berlin. For the most part, he refers back to Jerzy Bossak, Director of the Documentary Film Studio in Warsaw. What Wildenhahn means is a method of filmmaking whereby the filmmaker waits patiently until something happens "on its own" in front of the camera. The filmmaker records this process without interference or provocation. Presumably (s)he discovers reality without distortion. Camera jolts and unfocused images are consciously included to prove that nothing was manipulated, that reality was filmed as it unfolded. Yet certain fundamental errors in this "method" tend to distort reality rather than to make it transparent. Wildenhahn and Bossak want more than to record events, although even that is questionable with their method.

Just the presence of filmmakers and their tools immediately changes reality. Unavoidably filmmakers cannot record reality "like it is." Also reality does not present itself innocently. Sometimes it is a question of political censorship. Filmmakers do not get access to everyday "realities" (workplace, schools, bureaucracies, etc.). Or if they do — through some sort of undercover investigative method — they then are faced with the TV censors. Therefore it has become more and more necessary to leave out reality or to stage it (and with the increasing pressure from the Right, it is becoming more so).

Class is an issue, too. Depending on which class we film, there are different taboos and sanctions. For example, money and sex are subject to completely different means of disguise in West Germany than in the United States. Here, "reality" is revealed through those who have nothing more to lose — that is, through the working class, in particular through the most vulnerable members of the working class, the unskilled laborers (c.f. my films on the Bruder and Rakowitz families.)

Finally, the filmmakers' presence forces those who are being filmed into a role which responds to the filmmakers' expectations. My film work begins at the point where I am able to undermine this "role." To develop filmed object into filmed subject is a long and painful process, and it is especially risky to undertake during production. There is a creative aspect but also a danger to this situation, as one tends to overestimate the filmmaker(s)' strength and possibilities. These problems multiply when those who are filmed do not belong to an organized group (i.e. unions, grass roots organizations, etc.) and are left to themselves.

Let's assume for a moment that we had U.S. conditions in West Germany, for example, the situation of Frederick Wiseman in his film BASIC TRAINING. He obtained permission from the Army to film anything he wanted — that's unthinkable here. Yet he filmed only the surface because he didn't want to delve into the people he filmed, to search out and to analyze what they think about, dream, hope, and want. Wiseman does not even "record" as he exposes surfaces. His is not "pure" documentary. His personal choice of camera angle, image size and sequence reveals a high degree of subjectivity in his perception of reality, even though he pretends to make an "objective record."

This theoretical discussion here has had disagreeable economic consequences for us. The rude distinction between documentary and fiction film, the negation of the "staged" documentary and all its intermediate forms, has led to public granting agencies and TV networks' considering documentary film a small budget item because the "pure" documentary can be produced cheaply. After all, it seems only a matter of being there and waiting for whatever appears in front of the camera...

As far as I am concerned, any documentary that tries to capture reality analytically cannot be labeled so simplistically. The critique of my films as voyeuristic," manipulative, or staged choked off theoretical and practical discussion before it could begin. Wildenhahn has had a major influence on contemporary West German documentary, but he has squeezed it into a tight corset. The freedoms of the staged documentary — as done by Heinowsky and Scheumann in East Germany, Henry Storck in Belgium, Ivens and Loridan in France, the West German émigré Peter Nestler in Sweden, Peter Bischel in Switzerland, Santiago Alvarez in Cuba, Carlos Alvarez in Bolivia, Solanas in Argentina, Nigisa Oshima in Japan, Richard Leacock in the United States — these freedoms are discriminated against in West Germany. Their various possibilities have not been utilized.

The discussion about “pure documentary has something typically German about it, a fetish for categories which only substantiates the poverty of our documentary film history. After Flaherty such a discussion is no longer possible in the United States. And in France such questions presume the possibility of aggravating reality through staging, through provocation. Manipulation — a clearly pejorative concept in West Germany — has had a creative dimension for Joris Ivens. Anything is possible, everything is allowed in the service of a partisan analysis of reality!