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).

 

Manifestos in Action: Progression, Deviation and Lived Experience

Introduction:

This article has been developed to support a lecture/workshop hosted on 24th October 2017 at Concordia University, Department of Art History, for the class, Art and Its Changing Contexts: The Manifesto.

Despite the title only some of the examples mentioned in this essay are defined as manifestos. In order to make my argument I wish to also address methodologies and policies. Like a manifesto, they involve rules which are created with the intent of influencing behaviour in the future.

This article is split into three distinct sections. Firstly, the Hegelian Dialect will be unpacked to reveal how movements are connected despite their differences. Secondly, the disparity between the intent of an author and the real world application of a manifesto will be explored. As the poet Robert Burns wrote, ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men often go awry.” Finally, attention shifts towards autoethnography, a useful method for documenting the application of a manifesto. I will mostly be using documentary examples to illustrate my points but this article also touches on politics, economics, fine art and fiction cinema.

PART 1 –  The Hegelian Dialectic

A dialectic describes a discourse between two or more people who hold different points of view about a subject while wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments. The Hegelian Dialect, although associated with the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, was first attributed to Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus.

How it works: The dialectic is composed of stages of development. A thesis is proposed, a conceptual starting position. This gives rise to a reaction which forms into an antithesis. This position will either contradict or negate the thesis. If the tension between the thesis and antithesis resolved to produce a new position this would be a synthesis.

Using Chinese political history to demonstrate the Hegelian Dialectic:

Capitalism emerged in China in a way that was interlinked with the legacy of feudalism. There was a strong class structure which built on both heritage and personal wealth (thesis).  Marxist ideology spread to China leading to the formation of the Communist Party in 1921. They promoted the ideal of a classless society and criticized capitalism as a corrupting force (antithesis). In 1949 Mao Zedong led a successful revolution, establishing China as a communist state taking charge of all property and businesses. However, in the late 20th Century the impracticality of strict communist rule led to some Chinese citizens creating black markets. This led to small pockets of prosperity. In 2003 the leaders of the Communist Party of China amended their constitution to permit a degree of private enterprise. The result was a hybrid form of communist style capitalism (Synthesis).

Tracking the Hegelian Dialect in the methodologies and manifestos of documentary practice

It could be argued that documentary filmmaking developed as an antithesis to fiction film. While Hollywood produced forms of escapism, documentaries addressed “reality”.

John Grierson coined the term documentary, defining it as the ‘creative treatment of actuality’. This definition helps us understand the agency of a director when crafting a documentary. Mark Cousins placed emphasis on the balance between creativity and actuality when he characterized documentary filmmakers as having to ‘co-direct with reality’.

The Dogme 95 manifesto is an example of how the tension between hollywood fiction (thesis) and the realism of documentary (antithesis) was resolved to form a synthesis. In 1995 Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote and co-signed ‘vows of chastity’. Their goal was to purify fiction filmmaking by placing specific and strict limits on directors. Such chastity prompted circumstances that mirrored some of the limitations of documentary production and promoted a form of realism in fiction film. The Dogma group specifically rejected expensive and spectacular special effects, post-production modifications and other technological gimmickry. Instead they wanted emphasis to be placed on story and the performance of actors.

The Dogma 95 Vows of Chastity

  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Only movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut, or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur).
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.

Within documentary practice the pendulum swing from thesis to antithesis is visible. Bill Nichols, the eminent documentary theorist, identified distinct modes of documentary practice, each of which developed as a result of a particular time and context but also in response to previous modes. The majority of these modes developed without the explicit creation of manifestos, however each adear to distinct principles, rules or boundaries.

The table below is an overview of the modes of documentary practice according to Nichols:

The expository mode of documentary making (thesis) was developed in the 20s and remains to this day one of the more dominant modes. Optimised by what Nichols refers to as the ‘voice-of-God’ exposition, these films are structured around an informative and authoritative narrator who delivers a carefully written script over footage.

In the West a climate of liberation was fostered in the 1960s. In the context of social, political and sexual counterculture movements, figures of authority were being questioned. The two documentary modes which emerged in this decade, observational and participatory, represented a loss of faith in the authority of the narrator. In its place an emphasis fell on capturing footage that could speak for itself (antitheses). Another reason this shift happened at this time is because technology permitted it. All of a sudden cameras were portable, more affordable and were quiet enough to record synchronized sound.  

The observational mode, also known as fly-on-the-wall documentary, took influence from ethnography.  This is a qualitative research method used by anthropologists usually involving a process of embedding with a community for extended periods of time. Researchers aim to gain the trust of the community in order to get access and insight into how the community operates. An ethnographer may conduct their research in secret but generally this is not possible when creating a documentary. Ethnographic subjects range from small tribe communities, to psychiatric institutions and criminal gangs. The aspiration of observational documentarians is for the filmmaker to blend into the background and quietly film as the events unfold around them.

Asylum, directed by Peter Robinson (1972) was filmed over a period of 7 weeks while he was living at one of the controversial P.A. community houses in London. Psychiatrists, disillusioned with the medical establishment, lived with liberated patients, many of whom were schizophrenic. Each housemate had a say in the running of the community while sharing responsibility for their own wellbeing and that of their housemates.

In this clip we see a father of one resident visiting the house and struggling to let go of his preconception about what a young man’s priorities should be.

The Participatory Mode, also known as Cinéma Vérité (truth cinema), was characterised by the visible participation of the filmmakers in devised interview scenarios. Like the observational mode, narration was rejected. However, this mode occupied an antithetical position against observational documentary by negating the fly-on-the-wall metaphor. Several crew members and a camera can be quite disruptive and are more likely to capture spectacle rather than natural behaviour. Cinéma Vérité prompts filmmakers to be reflexive and expose the artificiality of a filmed scenario. Interviews were devised carefully before filming, often being planned in partnership with the subject of the interview. Cinéma Vérité nullifies the pretense of observed reality in film, instead capturing  authentic testimony.

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) is an epic Cinéma Vérité documentary series in which survivors of the Holocaust are interviewed. Despite the fact Abraham Bomba had not worked as a barber for years he agreed to cut hair while describing his experience of shaving the heads of holocaust victims before they were gassed. This scenario powerfully links the subject and the audience to the topic being discussed. Bomba’s complicity in planning the interview permitted Lanzmann to press Bomba with difficult questions.

15 years after Shoah, Werner Herzog wrote his own antithetical manifesto, The Minnesota Declaration (1999) which explicitly debunked Cinéma Vérité.

This lyrical 12 point manifesto is at times hard to digest but I believe it’s essence emerges in points 1 and 5.

“1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.”

Here Herzog is arguing that the sort of testimony produce in a Cinéma Vérité style interview is akin to that of a courtroom. No matter how accurate the description, the nature of these interviews are unlikely to evoke in the viewer the sensation of the crime that instigated such a trial.

“5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”

Herzog’s concept of ecstatic truth mirrors the notion that poets provided some of the most authentic documentation of the horrors of the First World War.

The synthesis of this particular Hegelian Dialectic is the emerging practice of animated documentary, my own discipline. For the past two years the Royal College of Art has hosted a symposium on animated documentary entitled Ecstatic Truth. Herzog’s liberal definition of how actuality can be imbued in documentary has helped animators to cover topics which live action footage could not reach, either literally or in terms of evocation.  

PART 2 – The Rule of Unintended Consequences

Returning to the example of communism, I would like to highlight how impossible it would have been for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to predict how the Communist Manifesto would have been put into practice and the contemporary outcome.

After a violent revolution the Soviet Union gained some stability as a functioning communist state under Lenin. However Stalinism seemed far from a Marxist utopia. During the despotic leader’s reign a famine struck Ukraine killing 7 million citizens. Some historians argue this was a deliberate genocide designed by Stalin to crush ethnic uprisings.  After decades of decline, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 leaving a handful of technocrats to pillage the remains of infrastructure resulting in today’s Russian Federation which is controlled by a elite class of fantastically rich oligarchs.

 

The rule of unintended consequence is a common theme in economic theory. Economics isn’t necessarily the study of wealth. It can be the empirical study of behaviour in the world through data sets. Please follow this link and listen to The Cobra Effect, an episode of Freakonomics Radio: (Listen from 00:05:00)

In summary, the cobra effect is named after an instance when the Imperial British government, which was ruling India, created a bounty for cobra heads to incentivise a cull, Local people breed cobras for the bounty. When the government figured out their mistake they canceled the bounty and the farmers released the cobras into the wild. The net result by the time the policy was rescinded was an increase in the cobra population.

Manifestos function in similar ways to well meaning government policies. Whether written by a political party or a practicing artist, a published manifesto intends to shape behaviour in the future. It is impossible to predict how a well meaning manifesto policy may be interpreted or executed.

Adam Curtis’ documentary The Trap: The Lonely Robot, (2007) addresses the unintended consequences of the policies introduced by the New Labour government in Britain in 1997. This party rose to power on a manifesto that stated specific targets as measures of success.

Watch from 00:36:36 to 00:43:00

Curtis argues the rigid target systems introduced by New Labour were reductive and distorting, serving to distract the institutions of state from their general remit. The incentives were high enough to make cheating the system a rational response.

An unintended consequence of the critical acclaim that befell the early Dogma 95 films was the appropriation of the manifesto by cash strapped studios and advertising agencies. As the Danish group came into vogue, producers around the world took notice of how much success was achieved on such small budgets. By the early 2000s the Dogma label was used to describe all mannerr of small budget productions. This could be viewed as a measure of success for the manifesto, however the cynical appropriation of the Dogma ethos and distinctive aesthetic led to proliferation, dilution of its meaning and ultimate decline.

These examples demonstrate that misappropriation and misinterpretation can result in outcomes which may horrify the authors of a manifesto. However, I would argue the rule of unintended consequences can be re-framed to describe these deviations as creative. The farmers in India, managers in the British civil service and low budget film producers are simply innovating in response to circumstances that were defined by a set of rules. The unpredictability of how manifestos will be executed may explain why they have endured as a motif in art and cinema.

Andre Breton, the author of The Surrealist Manifesto, was aware of the potential of unexpected outcomes. The text willfully insights transgressive and impulsive behaviour. Breton is daring readers to do something irresponsible and unpredictable:

“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd with his belly at barrel-level.”

André Breton, (1924) Manifesto of Surrealism

Exquisite corpses is a surrealist drawing exercise designed to utilize the inconsistencies between interpretations. Two or more artists would fold a piece of paper, taking turns to draw on one section. The folded section would reveal nothing more than where to join the lines at the edge. This exercise stitches together a multitude of aesthetic approaches producing a single work that is both coherent and fractured.

Nude  (1927.)- Cadavre Exquis with Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky)

This method has been appropriated by the animation community many times. The most recent example I came across was a online promo for Rick and Morty. Each animator starts their segment using the last frame of the previous artist.

Rick and Morty Exquisite Corpse (2017) multiple directors

 

The musician and producer Brian Eno collaborated with the artist Peter Schmidt to develop a system that would prompt innovation by incorporating unpredictable elements into a creative exercise. Oblique Strategies consists of a deck of cards. Inscribed on each one is a phrase or cryptic remark. When a music he was producing felt stuck or inhibited he would randomly select a card and attempt to put into practice it’s suggestion. They functioned like micro manifestos, prompting the user to change their approach in a way that on their surface seems meaningless, but in practice was liberating in its unpredictability.

Examples of oblique strategies:

  • Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics
  • Take away the important parts
  • Faced with a choice, do both
  • Use an old idea
  • What is the reality of the situation?
  • Pay attention to distractions
  • Ask your body
  • Honour the error as a hidden intention
  • Work at a different speed

This tool functions  like a randomised manifesto, the blind selection of clauses plorifiates the variety of future outcomes and the vagueness of the content broadens its applicability and as well as potential for interpretation. The most famous application of Oblique Strategies was during the creation of David Bowie’s critically acclaimed albums known as the Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes, and Lodger), which Eno produced.

 

PART 3- Documenting a manifesto’s execution

Ethnographers, like the fly-on-the-wall documentarians, were confronted with the dilemma that their presence was most likely distorting the natural order of the communities they wanted to research. Reflexivity, the notion of contextualising observations with critical self-awareness, became an essential consideration when collecting reach. The greater their insight into how they were impacting a community, the better equipped they were to minimise that impact and and see beyond it.

Autoethnography emerged as an extension of the reflexive method of critique. It combined ethnographic research methods with autobiographical subject matter. The researcher attempts to collect and organise qualitative research about their own lived experience, in this way the researcher, and the circumstances they experience, are both primary subjects of the investigation. For instance, an autoethnographic investigation into alcoholism is likely to contain first hand records of struggling with addiction.

Keeping diaries and writing memoirs is nothing new. However by setting key research questions, formulating a method of collecting and processing qualitative data, and prompting self reflexive critical analysis autoethnography brings rigour to this common human instinct.

Susan Young is a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art in London. She had a very successful animation career that was severely disrupted by a hand injury as well as difficulties in her personal life. The Betrayal is a product of auto-ethnographic research into a period of her life where she was abusively controlled by a doctor who was responsible for her becoming addicted to medication. The images in the film include leftover pills, as well as medical and court documentary specific to her case.

The Betrayal – trailer (2015) Susan Young

Autoethnography can be a useful tool to record first hand experience of enacting a manifesto. The following passage is a brief given to students at Concordia as a class exercise:

PART 4 WORKSHOP – One-week manifesto exercise (for field notebooks)

You have 30 minutes to form groups and co-write a manifesto that will influence how you live or work in the following week. For example:

– You could write a manifesto on how to best exploit social media (or to not use social media!)

– Your manifesto may push you to work outside of your comfort zone in a particular way

– You could prompt significant changes in you social life

Your manifesto should involve:

– A theme or focus of intent agreed upon by the group

– Context for this decision

– A praxis or statement of action how to be agents in said context

– A list of undersigned

Breakdown:

This is a group activity so after deciding a theme you must debate and agree on your manifesto points as a group. Consensus may be difficult, and negotiation is part of the process.

Consider your manifesto ideas in context. What ideological, cultural or personal concepts inform your choices? Do they occupy a thesis, antithesis or synthesis dialectic position? If it is hard to reach a consensus on your manifesto points don’t forget each individual is free to interpret the manifesto through their own practices.

After you have agreed on your manifesto’s position and praxis, nominate one member of your group to read them out to the class.

For the next 6 days you must try to put your manifesto into action.

While doing so, use an auto-ethnographic methodology to document the experience. This must involve keeping a record of your experience in you field notebook, but feel free supplement your written notes with experimental, expressive, or innovative ways of recording experiences but you must insure remain reflexive. Documenting how a manifesto affects you (or not!) is part of this workshop.

You will have an opportunity discuss and share parts of your autoethnographic research in class.

The Fallacy of Objectivity and Ethics of Representation

The Fallacy of Objectivity:

Animated documentary has existed as a mode since 1918. Winsor McCay was commissioned by the US government to create an animated reconstruction of the sinking of the Lusitania, a commercial ship carrying American citizens that was sunk by a German U-Boat during the First World War. The film was used to help sway popular opinion regarding America joining the European conflict.

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) d. Windsor McCay (Start watching at 0:08:28)

In the absence of footage Animation seemed like the only appropriate medium to represent the horrific events. Crucially, the persuasive nature of the medium was understood by its commissioners. What McCay made was essentially propaganda.

Documentary as a discipline would not be popularised for another 4 years when Robert J. Flaherty created the first feature documentary, Nanook of the North (1922). It captured the imaginations of the cinema going public and forged a genre.

Nanook of the North (1922) d. Robert J. Flaherty (Start watching at 0:31:21)

The common language of narrative cinema is evident in this film. There is a continuity of storytelling which, to Flaherty, is more important than the accurate recording of events. Many of the scenes were artfully edited or even staged to create a clear story. Years after this film was released it was revealed that the star of the documentary was not called Nanook, nor was that his family portrayed in the film. Nonetheless a genre and a new set of ethical considerations were born.

Mark Cousins characterised the genre of documentary film making as a practice in which one must ‘co-direct with reality’ (The Story of Film: An Odyssey, 2011, Channel 4, Ep. 2 The Hollywood Dream). This shared control is crucial for understanding the paradoxical position of documentary director. They are both afforded the role of ‘agent of truth’ and ‘master manipulator’ attracting similar criticisms as journalists. They are accused of twisting words or taking them out of context, while simultaneously audiences offer little thought about the trust they place in the medium as a record of immutable facts.

Sheila Sofian wrote an extraordinarily concise article on this topic in relation to animated documentary: The Camera and “Structuring Reality” (2013). Forgive me for quoting almost the entire piece, but who am I to paraphrase such eloquence:

…Michael Cieply, [while] discussing documentary filmmaking as compared to traditional journalism… made the following statement: “The camera is a tool to structure reality, not report a reality.”

I remember giving a lecture in which a student in the audience claimed that live action photography presented a “real” depiction of events, and animation could not replicate reality in a convincing manner. I agree that animation cannot replicate the effect of live action photography. What bothers me is this misconception of live action presenting a “truth”, or… a “window to reality.” (Annabelle Honess Roe)

…[D]ocumentary filmmakers shoot hundreds of hours of footage and carefully select the few minutes they choose to include in their film. All documentary filmmakers understand that you can manipulate footage, editing, relationships of picture to audio, and a myriad of other cinematic techniques to match the point of view you hope to present. And yet, audiences often forget how manipulated they are when absorbing the information presented to them in a seamless fashion. There is still a pervasive idea that live action documentary is “real” and therefore animation cannot be an accurate depiction of reality. My argument has always been that live action cinema can be manipulative and often misconstrues what it claims is “reality”, whereas in animation it is actually more clear in that what is presented on the screen is constructed by the filmmaker… Live action documentary can create a false construction of events that the audience assumes is true.

I met the producers of “Spellbound”… The film follows several contestants preparing for a spelling bee competition… I found it interesting that they admitted they did not originally shoot any footage of the spelling bee winner preparing for the competition, so they went back and shot additional material, which ultimately appeared to portray the contestant training for the spelling bee.

This is only one example of how live action documentary can misdirect the audience. Of course, both live action [and] animated documentaries can be misleading. In my Documentary Animation Production class at USC I stress how important it is to present the content in the manner in which the subject intended. We discuss the ethics of documentary filmmaking and how easy it is to manipulate material. It is ultimately up to the integrity of the filmmaker when it comes to honouring the subjects’ intent.

Erik Gandini, director of The Swedish Theory of Love (2015) and Videocracy (2009), said in a lecture that any director who believes they can make an objective documentary is deluded. Every film is subjective so you may as well embrace it. After all, mocumentaries have demonstrated that the fly-on-the-wall, observational mode of documentary making is just another aesthetic.

The Ethics of Representation:

Sheila Sofian’s notion that a director has a responsibility to honour their subject’s intentions is worth considering with regards to the Oscar winning animated documentary Ryan (2004). The short illustrates an interview that took place between the film’s director, Chris Landreth, and Ryan Larkin, a fallen star of the National Film Board of Canada. Landreth adopts an aesthetic methodology which he calls ‘psycho-realism’, a mode of pictorially expressing the psychological state of those represented.

Ryan (2004) d. Chris Landreth

I found Ryan inspiring as an undergraduate. It essentially introduced me to animated documentary as a practice. Moreover I was drawn to the idea of psycho-realism. Since my teenage years I’d been expressing my own mixed feelings through illustrations, which contorted the male nude. I was struck with how Landreth was able to find such a convincing  practical use for this type of imagery. Personally I doubted that my psycho-realistic work was self-indulgent.

art-is-therapy

However, I-did-this-to-myself. Images, such as the one above, were all self-portraits, self-mutilations. Yes they were self-indulgent, but I was contorting my own image and not the face of someone I’d met, certainly not a vulnerable adult.

In contrast to the animated documentary, Ryan, the live action representation of Ryan Larkin and Chris Landreth in Alter Ego (d. Laurence Green, 2004) offers a more equal footing for the pair. Larkin is given a chance to respond to the animated film in this ‘making-of’ documentary.

Alter Ego (2004) d. Laurence Green (Start watching at 0:45:21)

Larking states:

  • “I’m not very fond of my skeleton image”
  • “It’s always easy to represent grotesque versions of reality”
  • “I wish I could change that script”
  • “I’m very nervous about being scrutinised so tightly. I just want out of this picture”

Landreth’s vision, no matter how honourable, failed to produce something that Larkin was comfortable with upon completion.  However, Alter Ego only shows the moments immediately after Larkin first saw the film. I’m not aware if Ryan grew to love the film or if Chris grew to hate it. It’s been 12 years so both outcomes are possible.

What Chris Landreth calls “psycho-realism” is also a useful term to describe Francis Bacon’s search for a raw truth in his portraiture practice. The key difference between Bacon and Landreth is that the painter acknowledges, to a degree, the inherent violence in the process of disfiguring his subject.

Francis Bacon – Fragments of a Portrait (1966) d. Michael Gill (Start watching at 0:02:29)

Participatory Film making:

A significant issue with Ryan, made evident in Alter Egos, is that Landreth and Larkin seem to barely know each other. We get a sense that they’d only met a handful of times. If Ryan Larkin was offered more involvement in the film’s creation would he have felt more comfortable with how he was represented? Would Chris Landreth’s vision for the film been compromised or augmented by allowing Ryan to influence the way he was depicted?

Christoph Steger has an incredible track record for forming trusting and collaborative relationships with the subjects of his animated documentaries. In Jeffery and the Dinosaurs, the negotiation is clear, Jeffery Marzi is offering Steger access for his low budget documentary in order to gain exposure for his screen plays.

Jeffery and the Dinosaurs (2007) d. Christoph Steger

Marzi shares his story in a relaxed and candid manner, occasionally punctuated by Steger’s modest questioning. We are given the impression of a relationship built on sensitivity and mutual respect.

Marzi’s spoken biography reveals a universal story of concern for the future, however the strange inversion of the conventional narrative of frustration and aspiration is revealing. While most of us might dream of Hollywood success, Marzi engages with that goal as part of the daily grind. Meanwhile his limitations led him to covert the reliable blue-collar role of mechanic and postal worker.

I was interested in Steger’s choice to include a scene where Marzi expresses a clear misconception; the idea that J. K. Rowling’s literary success lifted her out of homelessness. Steger did not correct Jeffrey or omit the moment from the film. A director has a moral obligation to represent this subject without turning the documentary into a freak show or social pornography. Although the fear of homelessness is the driving force behind Marzi’s work, and therefore crucial to the narrative, he might have had other footage that captured this anxiety without exposing Marzi’s naïveté.

It is possible that Steger saw the moment as crucial to the film. It feels like an honest expression of anxiety and an important moment to help audiences understand Marzi’s perspective and vulnerability. Steger may have felt it dishonest to shy away from moments like this. Would it have been patronising to omit the scene for fear of embarrassing him?

When Steger discusses the project you get a strong sense of the collaborative relationship: “I like life, and animation is almost the opposite, it’s all about fantasy. So I felt a relief to be able to have Jeffery take care of all that. He does all the imaginary work of the visuals and it’s down to me to bring them to life…. The real film for me and the artistic challenge is in the structure of the poetry, and trying to bring out those poetic moments of a story like Jeffery’s.”

Collaborative Documentary Animation:

Samantha Moore’s PhD research focused on the use of animation to record and communicate neurological phenomena such as phantom limb syndrome or, in the case of Eye Full of Sound (2008), audio-visual synesthesia. She developed a methodology for film that involved close consultation with the subjects of the film. Each participant listened to a audio score, designed by Adam Goddard, and then described in detail the visual sensations it induced. Crucially, Moore provided a process of review after each animation test. The subsequent process of small adjustments improved the accuracy and authority of the film as a representation of extreme experiences of subjectivity.

Eye full of Sound (2008) d. Samantha Moore

Experimental Documentary forms:

There is a strong thematic connection between Eye Full of Sound and Jonathan Hodgson’s incredible experimental documentary Feeling My Way (1997). Hodgson superimposes the conscious activity of his mind’s-eye over point-of-view video footage of his walk to work.

Feeling My Way (1997) d. Jonathan Hodgson

As with an Eye Full of Sound, Feeling My Way is a record of a extreme form of subjectivity. This film demonstrates the value of animation as a tool to express and understand ones own perspective of the world. The audience is struck by both the similarities and differences in the way our brains work compared to Hodgson’s.

The first animated documentary films I made were explicitly about my own traumatic experiences struggling with mental illness. This process was invaluable for me to understand how it felt to be represented and exposed on screen. This week I returned from the Au Contraire Mental Health Film Festival in Montreal, Canada. While there I met Katie Frances Orr, a talented film maker and choreographer, who was screening what she referred to as an ‘experimental documentary’. Her film demonstrates perfectly just how open the borders are in the shifting discourse of documentary.

Coward (2015) Katie Frances Orr

Animation is too time consuming, labor intensive and expensive to justify making a film that could be just as effective using live action. Animation needs to be essential for it to exist. Animated documentary has persisted as a method to fill the gaps in mainstream documentary practice:

  • maintaining a subjects anonymity
  • substituting missing footage
  • creating images which don’t exist outside of the subject’s consciousness

However this is only the starting point. Animation is truly a limitless medium, capable of extraordinary feats of innovation, insightful expression and precise visual communication. A documentary director cannot merely trust that the camera will provide truth, this must be crafted. The authenticity of an animated documentary must come from the integrity and sensitivity of the artist. The increased agency afforded to a documentary animator means they are simultaneously more transparent about how they manipulate an audience and more accountable for their chosen methods of representation. Co-directing animation with reality is a nuanced but rewarding process.

Notes:

This post was developed for a lecture that will be given at the University of Western England in Bristol on the 2nd November 2016.

Links:

Sheila Sofian (2013) The Camera and “Structuring Reality”, Animation Studies 2.0, weblog URL: https://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=159

Christoph Steger discussing Jeffery and the Dinosaurs (2007), Animate Projects, URL website and video link: http://www.animateprojects.org/films/by_date/films_2008/jeff_dino