One of the Gods or a Mere Mortal: Fantasy, Fiction and Documentary Filmmakers

First published in August 2019 on Fantasy/Animation blog 

In this article I will explore the conceptual position a director occupies in the world they create or represent as a method for clarifying a film’s status as either fiction or documentary. As an animated documentary practitioner I am particularly interested in finding a balance between the seemingly limitless fantastic potential of animation and the duty of a documentary filmmaker to create authentic and ethical representations of people and the world.

Annabelle Honess Roe qualifies an animated documentary as a film that is animated, a film that is about the world rather than a world and a film that is intended or received as a documentary (2013: 4). Establishing a concise definition of animation seems intuitively simple but increasingly difficult, in part because of the multiplicity of digital techniques that no longer restrict animation to be created frame-by-frame. That said, the criteria that animated documentary should consist of animation does not require scrutiny in this article. Despite the apparent circular logic of Honess Roe’s third criteria, that the film be intended or received as a documentary in order for it to be a documentary, in practice it draws attention to the cultural context of the film as a helpful factor for identification.

Fig. 1 – Map of Middle-earth (1968).

I have found Honess Roe’s second criteria the most useful when explaining animated documentary to others. At one extreme we can see a world exemplified by Middle Earth in the epic high fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels. When considering the opposite pole one might think of Louis Theroux visibly engaging with constituents of the world in his iconic participatory documentaries. However, I’ve spent the last few years considering the disparity between the clear boundary suggested by Honess Roe’s second criteria and the slippery slope between these narrative extremes. I was given further pause for thought when I realized that there was nothing stopping a filmmaker or critic claiming any animated film was a documentary, instantly pushing passed the first and third criteria. This leaves us with whether or not it represents the world or a world. Despite the clear logic of this principle, when applying it to live action film and television, it seems too expansive to isolate the documentary genre. For instance, what kind of world is represented in a historical dramatisation or a biopic of a figure from popular culture?

Fig. 2 – Neighbours (1985-) [2018]).

When contemplating these ambiguous cases of realism I became interested in using the relationship the author/director has to the world that is represented as a method for distinguishing between fiction and documentary. Tolkien’s role in the world of Middle Earth is that of the creator (Fig. 1). He is an interventionist god whose omniscience and omnipresence defines all aspects of that universe, including the fate of his subjects. From the perspective of the other characters each of them seem to act according to their own free will, yet there is a tangible sense of destiny. A destiny, that as readers, we attribute to Tolkien’s intervention each time our suspension of disbelief is disrupted. This interventionist God dynamic isn’t restricted to high fantasy. As a teenager I was a regular viewer of the Australian soap opera Neighbours (1985 – present) (Fig. 2). Despite this world looking very similar to contemporary life, never before had I observed karmic equilibrium be reached so swiftly and with such consistency. As a viewer, I knew that if a character acted immorally, within a few episodes a twist of fate would expose their sins and result in social retribution. The transparent fatalism of soap opera logic has much to do with the pressure put on writers to construct an efficient narrative formula. However, these threads of destiny, serendipity and the role of the author/director as creator/puppet master are present throughout all works of fiction. While the creator can choose to dampen the detectable appearance of fatalism in the narrative in order to emulate realism, audiences can infer the dynamics between creator and content as within their command.

If we are then to think of the dramatisation of historical figures, is this dynamic changed?

Fig. 3 – The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988).

When the creator isn’t choosing how events unfold are they still the god of this film universe? The most enduring definition of documentary, “the creative treatment of actuality” (Grierson 1933: 8) leaves enough room to include the Hollywood biopic. In the case of Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004), why does this not feel like a documentary about Ray Charles? We know that in the logic of the universe of Ray we must have faith that Jamie Foxx is in fact a young Ray Charles. Likewise as viewers, to immerse ourselves in the story we must disengage with our knowledge of staging, performance and the presence of the film crew. This might seem like a simple way to position this world as a fiction, however, in order to represent a historic murder of a police officer, Errol Morris used staged reenactments in The Thin Blue Line (1988) while maintaining the documentary status of the film (Fig. 3). In the feature animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir (2008), animated interviews between the director, Ari Folman, and his colleagues from the 1982 Israeli war with Lebanon are intercut with animated reenactments of Folman’s fractured memories, speckled with elements of fantasy. While not accurate representations of the past these scenes powerfully communicate how the trauma of the war has affected his own psychology and memory (Fig. 4). Like The Thin Blue Line, when these sequences are viewed among the more conventional documentary mechanisms the audience develops an appropriate level of trust that the film is a documentary. This is further justified by the personal and subjective nature of the fantasy content in Waltz with Bashir. Folman is representing his own psychology and is thus positioned as an auto-ethnographic expert with unique access and authority. However, if the film were entirely constructed of these semi-fictionalised fantasy scenes it would be much harder to make a case that this film was a documentary.

Fig. 4 – Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008).

The significant difference between the world of Ray and the world of The Thin Blue Line or Waltz with Bashir, is the totality of the staged realism. The presence of documentary tropes, such as interviews or exposition, embeds the artificiality of reenactments into a world that also includes the filmmaker as a constituent. The Hollywood biopic implicitly requests us not to look behind the curtain, upholding the position of the director as a mythical figure in relation to the narrative universe. In contrast, a documentary director operates with the curtain pulled back, like The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), he still has access to all the same tools for conjuring illusions but their meaning is contextualised by a sense of transparency (Fig. 5).

The exception to documentary’s tendency towards transparent production is the observational mode, where the filmmaker makes every effort to capture events as they unfold while hiding the presence of the crew as if it would be an unnecessary distraction. In these films the footage has such a strong sense of authenticity that the audience can feel directly present. The role of the filmmaker is pushed aside in the audience’s mind much like in fiction film. However, if successful, at no point do audiences sense that these scenes are staged. It’s interesting to note that rarely, if ever, does animation or reenactment appear as a component of this mode. The presence of such deviations from direct indexicality may introduce the necessity to ground the film more clearly as a documentary. We see in The Thin Blue Line and Waltz with Bashir that this is achieved by making use of less passive techniques that inspire trust in the directors documentary intentions.

Documentary techniques have been developed over the past century, a set of methods and modes that position the filmmaker firmly in the world they address, sanctioning their capacity to act as a godlike author. Mark Cousins description of documentary as “co-directing with reality” (2011) gives a sense of a filmmaker grappling with the world and its contents. This version of creative interpretation has more in common with the liberties of free will afforded to all humans, than it does the power of a god.

The kind of world depicted in a historical dramatisation or a celebrity biopic is one in-which director and crew are gods and angels, never visible but ever present, pulling the strings. A documentary director, whether working with live action or animation, must demonstrate to their audience that they are grounded in and engaged with the world they are depicting. If this can’t be felt in some way by audiences then the world the director has captured is theirs alone.

References

Cousin, Mark. The Story of Film: An Odyssey – The Hollywood Dream (Hopscotch Films, Episode 2, 2011).

Grierson, John, “The Documentary Producer,” Cinema Quarterly 2, no.1 (1933): 7-9.

Honess Roe, Annabelle. Animated Documentary (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).

 

Representing the the Voice in Documentary Animation

The recorded voice is often thought of as a pillar of authenticity in animated documentary. First hand testimony is relied upon to counter the artificiality of drawn images on screen. Expository narration in the documentary form is equally important for instilling a sense of authority and structure in story telling. However, in relation to recorded testimony, there is an ethical responsibility to the subject regarding how their words interact with animation. A director has the task of recording, editing and interpreting testimony. They should attempt to understand the wider context but ultimately construct a subjective and creative treatment of the material.

Rather than starting with Winsor McCay’s Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), widely considered as the first documentary animation, I would like to draw attention to London in the 1990’s. At this point the UK animation scene was dominated by one person, Clare Kitson, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for Animation from 1989-1999. She bankrolled a generation of independent animators and fostered a unique editorial and financial freedom which led Channel 4 to gaining a reputation as ‘…the most adventurous and innovative animation broadcaster, not just in Britain but internationally.’ (Brooke). Along side two Oscar winning productions; Creature Comforts (d. Nick Park, 1989) and Bob’s Birthday (d. Alison Snowden/David Fine, 1993), Kitson commissioned at least two films which were directed by current RCA Animation tutors; A is for Autism (d. Tim Webb, 1992) and Silence (co-d. Sylvie Bringas & Orly Yadin, 1998).

In 1995 Kitson commission Abductees, directed by Paul Vester.

The audience hears several interviewer voices; first hand accounts of alien abduction, each story rendered in one or more animation style. It’s fair to presume that most audiences would at least doubt the objective truth of these testimonies, this may be true for the director too. However, it was argued that this film seems to be less of a documentary about aliens, and more of a study of the people who believe they have been abducted. That said, it is important to note that neither the context of these abductions, nor the back-stories of the individual abductees are explored in any depth. Each interviewee is cut together along side the choice moments of their fellow speakers. This montage approach to dialog and animation creates a patchwork quilt type narrative. Each testimony seemingly verifying the other through it’s similarity. Perhaps Vester was interested in conjuring the sensation the of belief in his audience.

There are a few instances where our doubts are appeased slightly. One hypnosis subject questions her experiences: “How am I supposed to know what is coming out in hypnosis, were they dreams or was it real?” Similarly, another speaker states in an academic tone:

“The screen memory in the classical psychological sense means that the person sees a traumatically frightening event and then softens it by then inventing some other story…”

This sentence functions like an access point for skeptical audiences. However this counter point is immediately undermined with a point that seemingly supports the validity of the alien abductions:

“…but this is not that (screen memory). This is not something that the person makes up… This seems to be an image that is externally imposed in that person’s memory by the aliens themselves.”

I feel these fleeting moments of balance help present the narrative to the audience as documentary material, even though they seem gestural. That said, it wasn’t Vester’s mission to present a balanced exploration of weather or not abductions really take place. I can personally empathize with his interest in presenting stories without too much concern for their “truth”.

In 2010, well before I knew how to animate, I became fascinated by story tellers who utterly believed the fantastical tales they shared. I took audio from David Icke’s 1999 interview with Credo Mutwa, a South African shaman.

It is difficult to pick apart Paul Vester’s ethical rigor with regards to Abductees.  Is it exploitative to select interview footage of subject for it’s spectacular properties; at one point a participant was clearly distressed? At another point a participant talks about the aliens moving in a coordinated manor.  Vester cuts to stock footage or a musical act singing and dancing.

abductees1

abductees2

With regards to my film, Credo Mutwa, it’s hard to know if my crudely animated film mocked it’s subject. I certainly intended to represent the story in a dry manor to avoid such accusations. I remember feeling an enormous affection for Mutwa while creating the film. After it’s publication on Youtube I was contacted online by people who had similar experiences. I think it is fair to say my professional ethics were undeveloped 2010; I did not ask David Icke for permission to use his interview, however I think a second year fine art undergraduate can afforded one or two indiscretions.

I Consdier Ryan (d. Chris Landreth, 2004) as an example of what-not-to-do in terms the ethics of representation. Besides the grotesque 3D animation and jarring mixture of muddy and psychedelic colour pallets, I would argue Chris Landreth’s presence in the film is problematic. Landreth was attempting to use what he called ‘psycho-realism’ to represent Ryan Larkin, a fallen star of the National Film Board of Canada. However, Chris places himself center-stage, firstly by explaining the premise of his film and secondly by taking a very active role while conducting the interview.

Chris Landreth doesn’t seem to appreciate just how much power he has over Ryan. Landreth is essentially a representative of the N.F.B., the institution that symbolizes Larkin’s fall from grace. In an early scene Ryan is dazzled when Chris presents a frame from the N.F.B. archive that Ryan had drawn 30 years earlier. Later Chris slips into the role of social worker by bluntly suggesting Ryan starts animating again and pushes him to talk on tape his addiction problems. It feels like these men really don’t know each other.

I personally feel uncomfortable that Landreth demonstrates awareness of the unethical aspects of his interview without correcting it. Instead of omitting such moments he focuses on them. For instance, the intervention with Ryan about his alcoholism is positioned as the climax of the film. Landreth appeals to the viewer by adding self deprecating details to indicate that he knew his words were patronizing and intrusive. As Chris strides towards the confrontation, a florescent bulb in the shape of a halo, assembles above his head, to indicate that the director is aware of his own self-righteousness.

After Ryan explodes in rage, Chris reflects “what ever possessed me to ask such a question”. This doesn’t come across as a convincing contemplation of ethics. Instead I believe he is looking for an opportunity to discuss his own feelings. Following Ryan’s outburst the viewer slides into an abstract tunnel which represents Landreth’s self reflection. Here we see his unresolved feelings towards his mother’s alcoholism mentioned briefly. The film is also dedicated to her memory.

Ryan is a film about Chris Landreth. Alter Ego (d. Laurence Green, 2004), the live-action making-of Ryan, while also created in the bosom of the N.F.B., offers better incite into the ambiguous ethics of Chris Landreth’s Oscar winning animated documentary.

Christoph Stiger’s pencil on paper documentary about funeral directors, Mother (2006), was a graduation film from the RCA animation MA.

This film indicates an intimacy in the relationship between filmmaker and subject. Towards the end of the film the ‘Mother’ character addresses Christoph by name. She was trying to emphasise a specific point, but still the tone of this demonstrated a bond between them. The way in which the cadavers are prepared is sensual and clearly indicates a careful process of observation. One gets a sense that Christoph had spend a long time in that funeral home trying to get a feel for their profession. I would argue that this film as an example of best practice.

Silence (co-d. Sylvie Bringas & Orly Yadin, 1998) is an 11 minute Channel 4 animation commission was based on a spoken word performance by Tana Ross, a Jewish exile displaced during the Second World War. (This film cannot be embedded so please click here to watch the film).

silence-07

The tone of this film differs greatly from the previously mentioned animated documentaries. The voice-over is overtly scripted, however it becomes clear that it is Tana Ross narrating a version of her own script, that was based on personal experiences. There is something authenticating about the presence of Ross’ voice.

While the interview based films, to an extent, focus on the recorded moments of exchange between film maker and subject, Silence, is very much set in the past. The audiences experience are grounded in the narrator’s recollection.

‘[A]nimated documentaries such as… Silence (d. Bringas & Yadin, 1998)… show us how animation can function as an alternative way to recall the past. In fact, I think that animation is a representational strategy that is particularly suited to documentaries that explore fragmented pasts of forgotten, perplexing, yet often formative memories. The use of animation can emphasise that history and, importantly, memory, are ephemeral and can be a means to counter official and written histories.’ (Honess Roe, 2013)

Credits:

Many of the ideas and opinions in this article were originally shared or developed in a seminar, hosted by Sylvie Bringas, at the Royal College of Art on the 29th September 2016.

Bibliography:

Brooke, M., How Britain’s fourth channel became an animation powerhouse, (no date), from: British Film Institute: Screen Oline, Online soruces: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/1282041/

Honess Roe, B. (2013) Animated Memories, Animation Studies 2.0, Weblog, URL: https://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=145

Icke, D., (1999) The Reptilian Agenda, Credo Mutwa interviewed by David Icke, Bridge of Love Productions, online video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsPaxFvrD8c