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Random Reflections on a Century of Documentary

By Myron Meisel

A green overlay on a photo of Charlie Chaplin. In Chaplin's first film, 'Kid Auto Race at Venice' (1914) Mack Sennett's crew went to Venice, California, to shoot a real event.

First and above all, the motion picture camera is a recording device. It shows what's in front of it. Even a blue screen. Even computer­ generated images. When Godard said that cinema was truth at 24 frames per second, he meant it literally, not portentously. How we perceive, interpret, and react to those images means nothing to the camera. So every movie is at least in some sense a documentary, to the extent that it shows us what it sees is there.

It's poignant now to watch Chaplin's first film, Kid Auto Race at Venice (1914). Mack Sennett's crew went to Venice, California, to shoot a real event. The running gag: a scruffy Chaplin keeps walking into the frame, trying to attract the camera's attention. The moment he does so, the form of documentary is wrenched into fiction before our eyes. Witnessing an act becomes an act of witness. How apposite that Chaplin reportedly observed, on hearing Godard's dictum, yes, but the soul can be lost between any of the frames.

Conversely, most good documentaries have some narrative component, tell a story, even convey drama. The very best ones also explore ideas, whether political or social or, for that matter, dramatic. There's very little discussion of ideas generally in the United States, let alone evaluation of them. I've always felt a documentary that primarily informs doesn't really rise to the dignity of a work of art, unless it can boast an individual viewpoint, a sense of form, and provocative new ideas.

If a nonfiction movie doesn't meaningfully add to the corpus of knowledge and understanding of a subject, I'm dubious that it represents any kind of real accomplishment. An awful lot of the attitude about documentaries involves an air of unconscious condescension about educating the ignorant and reaching out to the unenlightened. Worthy causes, surely, but also spurious special pleading. It makes documentaries out to be an inferior enterprise, always defined by a lower common denominator than its capability to aspire.

Of course, I'm playing recklessly loose with definitions here. This argument essentially seeks to obliterate distinctions: documentaries are cinema, and they're always "only" a movie. If pressed, I'd probably challenge virtually any definition of cinema as well. Definitions have utility only for the academic­ally tidy; for the rest of us they get in the way. There's nothing more intensely cinematic than the shots of everyday life by the Lumieres or the apparently "filmed theater" of Dreyer's Gertrud.

Cinema isn't a matter of tracking shots or lighting or editing. If anything, it's about the frame and whether something lives in it. That goes for Rossellini's India as much as for Meet Me in St. Louis. In the beginning and to this day, everything comes down to the image. Or to be thorough and modern, the image and sound (or its absence). For an idea in a movie to be most truly compelling, it needs to express itself visually. It has to be shown, not told, and shown besides in a language of beauty and truth, whether it be the poetry of Humphrey Jennings's Listen to Britain or the sturdy prose of Flaherty's The Land (both 1942).

John Grierson's second most notorious coinage, after the term documentary itself, contributed to the destruction of von Sternberg's The Sea Gull; he voiced the canard that "when a director dies, he becomes a photographer."

While such a phrase could be applied with equal injustice to a documentarian, a more telling condemnation would be "when a documentarian dies, (s)he becomes an editor." Ken Burns and his ilk have proven that you can make a good film on any subject. They have also proven that you can make a film on any subject, but shuffling stock footage or animating stills does not a movie make, even with good voice casting.

If these seem like potshots, don't let them distract you from the awareness that the past 15 years or so have been truly a golden age for the documentary. Lisa Leeman's quotation of a British observer in the February issue of ID was very much to the point: there are more and better nonfiction films being made now than ever before. The refinement of the cinematic essay, together with the democratizing impact of video, have combined to make it possible for the blooming of a thousand flowers. Virtually all the important work in the cinema today around in the world takes place in the documentary, an acknowledgment of the decline of the fiction film as much as a celebration of the ascendancy of documentary. But I think that the full potential of documentary in this country is seriously compromised by a limited appreciation of aesthetics and the championing of the mediocre over the inventive, which shows few signs of abating. (One hopeful sign is that a film of the form of Eternity could cop one of last year's IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement Awards. I don't think it would have happened even a year or two before.)

I used to write about movies a lot, but I gradually grew discouraged by the general antipathy to thinking about them. Blue pencils ruthlessly lock on anything in a piece that isn't either facts or sentiment, reducing all work to a common template that excludes individual observation. Producers and bureaucracies do the same. There's a real danger in documentaries in reducing the filmmakers function to reportage leavened by selected shots depicting human feeling: they become "informational," which is far closer to exploitive than the perpetrators realize.

Subjects comprised of facts are no better than the facts themselves, and the organized presentation of facts no more valuable than effective public speaking. There's a hidden rhetoric of "truth" in documentaries that arises out of the accepted pretense of authority. This goes deeper than the voice of the narrator or the text. Viewers presume the expertise of the filmmakers, who virtually all assume that mantle in good faith. Yet every filmmaker knows how m uch of the story perforce remains untold, or how many corners of the truth must be cut to fit the pattern of a particular narrative.

Fact checking by magazines is an insurance-mandated joke, and it's tough to create a context in a documentary for evaluating the reliability of sources. Some sources are very convincing—and very wrong. A favorite example of mine involved a 1942 New York Times story reporting that the lead player in Orson Welles's production of It's All True in Brazil was eaten by sharks while the director was filming a battle between a killer shark and a giant octopus. There was a silly rumor in Rio to that effect, but we filmed an eyewitness who identified that a man's body found in a shark a few days later was much too tall to be that of Jacaré, who drowned while reenacting the triumphant entry of his raft into Guanabara Bay. Nevertheless, the Times story is deemed sufficiently "of record" to be repeated in a number of purported reference works, which in turn add credence to those who think that facts are established by sourcing.

I'm always a little bemused whenever children and even grandchildren of subjects become authorities for a documentarian who has no one else to film. These are not witnesses, and anyone who has a parent or a child can appreciate how inevitably peculiar their perspective is. But any litigator will tell you this is so for eyewitnesses as well. Though I believe with religious fervor that truth exists, like subatomic particles it can often only be inferred, not seen, not demonstrated. And the act of observation always changes the nature of the observed.

That's why documentaries are really far more about memory than fact, and memory is always human . That's why memory matters. That's why documentaries, however comprised of found materials, are really movies just like those contrived of studio artifice. And it's why documentaries, both as an art and as a record of memory, must be preserved with the same zeal and care and alarm that are commanded by the rest of cinema.

Which means that we, all of us, have to do it. The IDA has established an archive of documentary film with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which not only saves films but makes them available for public viewing. Movies that are forgotten, like lives, are as if they had never existed. Don't be like the moguls of old who betrayed- negatives for pieces of silver. Our films are our children: give serious thought to their survival after we're gone. For movies do continue to matter and confer meaning long after their topicality has passed. A&E 100 years, that's one truth that doesn't need to be proved anymore.

Myron Meisel is a director, writer, and producer: Among his documentary credits are It's All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles; I'm a Stranger Here Myself: A Portrait of Nicholas Ray; and The Chaplin Puzzle.