Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Medium of the Message: Form and Function in Documentary Film

A scene from Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson (2016).

Documentaries are often – aesthetically speaking – very, very boring. Man on Wire (2008), which holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, put me to sleep at the theater (though a lack of sleep the night before surely didn’t help). The problem is that, just as a majority of fiction filmmakers think that plot is key and forget the rest, and just as a good number of filmmakers of a more literary bent make the same mistake with character (consider Blue Valentine, 2010), documentaries are often so focused on the truth of their subject matter, and how important it is for it to be spread far and wide, that they prioritize writing an exposé over making a film. Such motivations are noble and worthy, but they are political rather than aesthetic, and as such they can be equally well served using other media. In other words, this common kind of documentary doesn’t consider itself first and foremost a film. Not all documentaries are like this, of course. The Act of Becoming (2015), about John Williams's sleeper-hit novel Stoner, is a good case in point.

A competent documentary uses the medium of film to make its point more effectively. Some things are more efficiently conveyed visually, so the competent documentary will throw in images, historical and otherwise, like Man on Wire. Sometimes, the fastest route to comprehending a series of events is to re-enact it, and re-enactments done well can be the highlight of a documentary, such as 1971 (2014). The competent documentarian will often feel the need to specify and/or elicit viewer emotion with the use of music. And yet, putting these elements together gives you a merely competent documentary. This is because, like the undergrad (or even professor) who uses PowerPoint simply because it’s there, the competent documentary hasn’t found the emotional core of its subject matter.

A good documentary has located its emotional core and tries to draw it out using a higher level of cinematic manipulation: tinkering with narrative structure. The unreliable narrator, now a staple of narrative fiction, can reveal with devastating effect the truth that the documentarian is driving at: (T)ERROR (2015) presents its subject matter from the point of view of an FBI informant, but its moral framework, which the viewer has had little reason to doubt before this point, slowly starts to crumble as we begin to realize just how unreliable our narrator really is. (It would make for a pretty good double billing with 1971, also about FBI informants.)

Another form of toying with structure is to pit an interviewee against him/herself. This kind of documentary usually involves some kind of moral atrocity, such as Claude Lanzmann's monumental Shoah (1985), or the surreal The Act of Killing (2012). Some critics, such as Nick Fraser, find that film off-putting, even distasteful, because it feels emotionally distant from the mass killings that are its ostensible subject matter; this, as Richard Brody enlightens us, is because the actual subject matter is not the atrocities but the layers of self-denial one perpetrator is forced to see through as the documentary progresses (or, more accurately, as it nears its climax). From this perspective, the film’s meandering route to its final destination illustrates quite well the evasions and equivocations that constitute the ego’s defense mechanisms. But it’s also distasteful precisely because it appropriates a moral outrage of such enormity merely to make one person confront his decades-old actions. The U.S.-supported atrocities in Indonesia are not yet common enough knowledge to be subsumed like this.

Edward Snowden in Citizenfour (2014).

Of course, narrative structure can be used creatively for documentaries about other things, too. Cameraperson (2016), the memoir of documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, composed of clips and outtakes from her work on others’ films, seems at first to be nothing more than that: a quilt woven of past achievements. (And what achievements! Her credits on are jaw-dropping, and she’s still going.) But bit by bit, the film circles back to a few particular documentaries, and it dawns on us that, as the epigraph tells us, these are the images that have stayed with her throughout the years – including footage of her twin children, and of her mother before and after she passed away from Alzheimer’s. In her interweaving of footage of great personal significance with documentary clips on precarious birth and unjust death, Johnson marvels at what this is, this thing called life – a life – her life.

However, notwithstanding the above, an exceptional documentary gets out of its own way. As Nick Fraser notes in his review of The Act of Killing, for a documentarian “anything can be made to work, given a chance. You can mix up fact and fiction, past and present. You can add to cold objectivity a degree of empathy.” But exceptional documentaries are so in tune with their subject matter that they have no need of these bells and whistles. Every documentary film is a work of unavoidable artifice in its framing, editing, and choice of subject matter; for the best documentaries, these are enough. Citizenfour (2014) is incredibly gripping for the simple reason that the events captured on film, unfolding in real time, are incredibly gripping. The filmmakers set up the camera, ask some clarifying questions, edit out the downtime, and deservedly win their Oscar.

But what if the subject matter isn’t so conveniently plotted? – which brings us back to The Act of Becoming. This is a documentary about Stoner, a book hailed as the “perfect novel” that has a story as quiet and subtle as it is powerful. The film isn’t about its composition history, nor is it a literary analysis or primarily a reception history – it’s a celebration. Authors, publishers, translators, and booksellers who played a part in the novel’s revival in popularity forty years after it was first published share how they first discovered the book, read aloud selected passages, and reflect on how it changed their lives, all while looking directly into the lens from the center of the frame. There are no camera movements or interviewer prompts, and even the title cards introducing each person are abandoned halfway through the film. (It has an intermittent musical score, a monotone aiming for wistful but coming across only as annoying, and somewhat loud.) And yet it’s filled with overwhelming swells of emotion: at the miraculous prose that’s read aloud, and even more so when an interviewee is so affected by the prose that he has to take a ten-second pause to regain control. (The women keep it together better, even though one recounts how, upon finishing the book, she cried as if bereft of a loved one.) As a shoestring-budget independent production, it’s not too concerned with being feature-length, either; at around sixty minutes, it’s a masterful wonder on a wondrous masterpiece.

Of course, for some documentaries, getting out of their own way isn't possible, and cinéma vérité becomes sine qua non. The Days 3, by Chinese documentarian Wei Xiaobo, is a documentary that would be not only impossible but inappropriate to make any other way. I had the pleasure of seeing it last month at this year's Taiwan International Documentary Festival.

Wei's documentary series follows him and his partner, Xie Fang, as they navigate daily life. The Days (2010) found them graduating college, cohabiting, and trying to make sense of adulthood in modern China (specifically, the city of Changsha). In The Days 2 (2012), they go through the complicated rituals and negotiations of getting married. This third installment focuses on their decision to have a child, Xie’s ensuing pregnancy, and the successful birth of their daughter. The opening shots center on Xie’s vacillating attitude toward having a child, from feeling socially pressured to accepting the urgency of her biological clock. After the initial ambivalence over whether to have a baby, the film moves on to the tragedy, stoically borne, of failed pregnancy, the anxiety of all the medical tests and procedures to ensure the next one sticks, the marvel of the changing female body, and the annoying miracle of breastfeeding and taking care of a newborn. Thematically, it’s a contrast between the biological wonder of life creation and a medical bureaucracy that, in an effort to preserve life, can sometimes seem to smother that wonder.

A scene from Wei Xiaobo's The Days 3.

Wei is necessarily both behind and in front of the camera, as director-editor-cinematographer and as documentary subject – or rather, husband of the subject. In terms of craft, he uses mostly static shots, minimally edited, and one gets the feeling that he’s shooting all the damn time. Aside from the main throughline, he also shoots his rooftop garden, a lecture he gives to a bored class of vocational media school students, his daily routines in the kitchen (he makes tofu from scratch), and their dog and two parrots – the parrots, unfortunately, add to a sound problem that makes them and sometimes Xie sound screechy at a high pitch. There’s even a scene in which he tries to catch a fly that, in the process, lands on his microphone and camera lens.

As a documentary of nascent motherhood, The Days 3 finds its true subject in Xie, and after the previous two entries, she is comfortable and open in the presence of the camera, to the point where at first we wonder if it’s hidden (in one scene it actually is). We get intimate glimpses of the minutiae of daily life that are often kept hidden for no other reason than that they have nothing to do with anyone else – jokes and allusions that carry a whole relationship on their back. The banter between them is savage, touching on death, poor genes, being “crazy” (perhaps a more general term of abuse in Chinese), beauty and a lack thereof, and other topics you would usually expect only in a bitter fight. But the mutual understanding of the commitment that ties them together takes the bite out of these insults, and the back-and-forth often had the audience in stitches. The final scene, though, breaks the spell, as Xie is paradoxically liberated by her postpartum depression to say what she really thinks of her husband: he’s a boorish bore (and the film agrees). It’s curious that, having gotten such a thoughtful and witty wife to marry him, Wei the prolific intellectual is presented in this way.

From a different perspective, Xie is also noticeably resigned to being married to the man with a movie camera and having everything in her life filmed. On a few occasions, she expresses exasperation that Wei is filming instead of doing something about a situation; at other times, when she asks him to do something, he sets the camera aside. Only twice is she caught off guard. The second time, she doesn’t have any underwear on (he preserves her modesty). The first time, the scene opens with Xie lying on the couch and the camera positioned behind her head where she can’t see it. A jump cut leads to a closeup of her asking Wei, “Were you filming the entire time?” (He doesn’t answer.) But then she follows up with “Is that a film camera?,” revealing that her surprise is less at Wei’s constant filming than at the (unseen) camouflage for his camera. It must look really funny, because she can’t stop laughing.

The experience of watching this 90-minute film is both engrossing and yawn-inducing; scene by scene, it’s utterly uninteresting, but taken in aggregate, it’s fascinating beyond measure. The Chinese title translates as Just Life, and indeed the pacing of the film, though heavily dependent on Wei’s selection of material and cutting of dead weight, closely tracks the mundane pacing of ordinary life, the momentous period of pregnancy becoming just another series of days. As someone once said, having a kid and learning to drive are two things that look scary, until you realize that most people do both just fine.

– CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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