At the Core is Reality

What is a documentary? Part 1

First, don’t click on this short film.

SAMRAKA from acline on Vimeo.

Yes, it’s a joke. I was learning Adobe Premiere. I was learning it the way everyone learns software these days: Launch it and start pushing buttons while keeping an eye on a YouTube tutorial. In this case, I was dragging stock footage into a timeline to check all the basic functions. Then I got the idea to have a little fun with the whole idea of non-verbal, non-narrative documentary along the lines of Samsara and Baraka by director Ron Fricke. A couple of hours later, Samraka was born.

You’ll note that there are “chapters” with themes. I’ll leave it for you to figure out — if you made the mistake ignoring my advice above 🙂

So I was trying to communicate — something, even if just going for a laugh. I was using footage that, for the most part, was connected to reality (yes, some scenes are typical stock set-ups with actors). But the footage is not connected thematically except for the structure that I gave it by placing it in an editing timeline in a certain order while thinking (to some extent) about how each clip might be understood in connection with the two on either side.

What does “connected to reality” mean? (Or what even is reality?)

Let’s start this whole examination (over multiple parts) with this dichotomy: Sometimes what’s in front of the camera being captured by the photographer is a scene that would/could/might be occurring whether or not the documentary crew is there to capture it. Sometimes what’s in front of the camera being captured by the photographer is a scene that would/could/might not be occurring because it was created for the film crew to capture.

Hmmmm… so does that mean press conferences and other government-run photo-ops are fiction?

I’m not offering that dichotomy because I think it clarifies anything. Instead, it’s my first attempt to make some kind of sense out of something I’m calling reality that happens independent of my witnessing it while pointing a camera at it.

There are many, massive problems (and opportunities) here. I’ll mention one opportunity and one problem before closing out this chapter. I tell my documentary and journalism students these:

  1. Humans apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events. In other words, we tell stories to make sense of the world. We make meaning. It’s our superpower.
  2. Introducing a camera always changes what’s happening in front of it.

At the core of what a documentary filmmaker does is something that might be happening independent of their interest in the something (reality?) and their eventual structuring of that something into a story. The subject has a certain agency that the actor does not. The scene has a certain messy connection to the subject that the film set does not.

The intentions of the documentary filmmaker and fiction filmmaker, however, are almost certainly closely related if not the same. See #1 above.

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