May 2, 2022

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.

April 27, 2022

What is, and what qualifies as, documentary film?

Documentary film has been around as long as the technology has existed to make filmed pictures move. Reality was the first thing filmmakers made films of. For example, head over to YouTube and search for the Lumière brothers. Fascinating stuff. Then and now.

For another example, check out the first motion picture ever made — a couple of minutes of a horse galloping. We actually learned much about how horses gallop from this project.

I’m leading up to something I want to examine: What is a documentary and what qualifies as a documentary? Not the same questions, really. The first asks for a definition (even if complex). And the second asks us how we justify placing a particular work within some definition of documentary.

I’m planning to attempt answers to both.

“Attempt” indicates that I’m not going to try to sell you on something so much as to allow to read along as I think about it.

Starting soon…

April 21, 2022

Trinity in Post-production Soon

I haven’t mentioned much about Trinity yet — a documentary I began last fall. The main event — a visit to the Trinity site in New Mexico — occurred earlier this month.

I have a few voice-overs to record that, I hope, are happening on Sunday.

Then I’ll begin editing.

Two things I’m doing differently with this one. First, I’m using the cinema flat aspect ratio of 1.85:1 — because I want to. And I’ll be making it black & white — because I want to (also, there’s a thematic reason for this choice). And one other thing: This is my first film to do all the things by myself 🙂

We’re talking short-short here. Probably 5 to 6 minutes.

Jay Manifold, of Kansas City, is one of the subjects of the film.

Rock shop near Socorro, New Mexico.
April 20, 2022

Back to the Land … Back to Work

I’m doing cinematography (and documentary consulting) for a film about the back-to-the-land movement in Missouri Ozarks. Director Denise Vaughn and I have been working on capturing this history from the original folks who came to the Ozarks looking to create a new way of rural life in America in the mid-1970s. Work started last summer but was halted by the omicron surge.

This weekend I’ll be filming at an Earth Day event near West Plains, Missouri. More details soon.

April 13, 2022

Cow: It’s Not Gunda

I enjoyed Gunda. I found it audacious — pointing cameras at farm animals and, with some skillful editing, letting the visuals tell the story.

(Or, more accurately, giving the audience plenty to work with in the construction of a story in their own minds. We humans apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to make a coherent and causal sense of events.)

Further, Gunda was full of startling and beautiful images. The choice to play some of the scenes for excruciating lengths of time turned out to be an interesting and effective method for inviting the audience to contemplate the lives of the farm animals.

Cow is not audacious, interesting, effective, beautiful, or startling (well, it was startling and brutal at the end). It is simply the result of a second-hand idea captured in mundane, and annoyingly shaky and relentlessly close-up, images.

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