Download Creative Documentary PDF

TitleCreative Documentary
File Size1.4 MB
Total Pages11
Document Text Contents
Page 1

Chapter 2

The creative

Wilma de Jong

“Any creativity which isintended to entertain, provide
pleasure, stimulate pleasure,
stimulate emotion or provoke
thought is art.”

(Owen Kelly, 1996: 10)

M02_JONG4229_01_SE_C02.QXD 8/2/11 1:31 PM Page 18

Page 2


What is a creative documentary?

This chapter addresses how we can translate notions of ‘creativity’ to the art of documentary

We have defined creativity in Chapter 1 as ‘novelty’ in a certain field of cultural production, but
we can distinguish between a ‘novel’ subject and a ‘novel’ approach in documentary production.
The adage of Grierson, founding member of the UK documentary film movement in the 1930s,
that documentary is the ‘creative treatment of actuality’ suggests that creativity has been at the
heart of the documentary tradition. The relationship between creativity and actuality has sparked
off a century-old debate on how much ‘actuality’ is left after ‘the creative treatment’ has taken
place and how the ‘real’ can be presented, if at all.

Early filmmakers, like the Lumière Brothers in 1895, described documentary as ‘life on the run’.
We would now argue that a concept of documentary as an unbiased observation and recording
of the ‘real’ is naïve. Just recording does not really exist: different technologies, like film formats
or digitally created images, present very different filmic representations of the ‘real’. For
instance, a 16 mm picture is distinctly different from a digital image: the grain, the colour, the
edges of the objects and the format provide a different representation. Add to this mix the selec-
tion of framed shots, the effects of the camera and crew on the profilmic events, and editing,
and it becomes clear that recording the real pur sang and presenting it as ‘real’ because it has
happened is an unattainable fantasy. The related aim of documentary to present disembodied
knowledge and an objective reality has been challenged by many authors, but not before
it essentially damaged the reputation of documentary, causing it to be seen as ‘boring’ and

However, it raises the question: if you cannot film the ‘real’, what is the point of documentary?
Before we entered the digital era, it was argued that the indexical warrant of the shot was essen-
tial. The audience knew that what had been shot had ‘really’ happened. Digitisation – in particular,
special effects – has undermined that notion, not to mention the cases of deliberate manipulation
which entered the public domain. The Connection by Marc de Beaufort (UK, 1996), an undercover
documentary on drug trafficking between Britain and Columbia, included a claim to have inter-
viewed an important drug trader, which at the end was revealed to be untrue. More recently, the
documentary The Queen (UK, 2008) entered the debate about fake and untruthful representation
of events. A shot which showed the Queen walking out of a photo shoot was really a shot of the
Queen walking to a photo shoot. The creation of a sequence changed the meaning of the shot. It
is very easy to manipulate shots or sequences or create computer-generated images. In short,
film technologies, the act of filming in a certain situation, and the editing challenge an indexical
warrant of a shot, while the editing can undermine the meaning of a shot.

We, as documentary filmmakers, are being left almost empty-handed. Reality does not seem to
exist outside the perspective of the filmmaker and images can be manipulated. But what do we
tell this hungry child suffering from malaria in the developing world: reality or truth does not
exist; you can develop a different perspective on your situation? What if you want to make a
documentary about this child?

Of course, this question manipulates you as a reader at this moment, but, with all the debates
about relative truths, uncertain knowledges and incomplete knowledges, it is important not to ▲

M02_JONG4229_01_SE_C02.QXD 8/2/11 1:31 PM Page 19

Page 5

Wanting to change the world, to make a difference is, of course, a laudable aim and a dominant
discourse in the documentary filmmaking tradition, but it can also have a paralysing effect on
the process. Filmmakers are part of contemporary cultures and the aim of representing reality
can also result in ‘reinforcing existing stereotypes’. Recently, I saw a documentary about home-
less people, which aimed to illustrate the thin line between homelessness and having a home:
how people could become homeless because they lost their jobs, got divorced or were simply
thrown out of the house by their parents. It was just a shame that all the people featured in the
film were men. Don’t women become homeless? A critical analysis and reflection on what you
are filming and how you are editing your film and showing it to an audience are necessary to be
sure that the film conveys what you want it to do.

We all know films in which the subjects are portrayed as victims. These so-called victim films
have been very popular since the 1980s (Winston, 1995; Chanan, 2007; Basu, 2008), notwith-
standing a discourse of ‘empowering people or ‘giving people a voice’. Filmmakers can’t ‘give
people a voice’. Documentary filmmaking is not the art of passing on people’s experiences
or ideas. The filmmaker selects and creates a narrative which may or may not undermine ‘the
people’s voice’. Although these aspects can be shown in all films, films about the developing
world are notable for it:

Despite the fact that a lot of these filmmakers were very educated people who I still
admire, I think traditionally indigenous societies have been characterised either as the
exotic other . . . the natives are savage, leading an idealised jungle life, or, at the other end
of the spectrum, the passive victims of progress, sitting with arms folded, waiting to cast
off clothes of western society, waiting for bulldozers to consign them to oblivion. And I
thought, there is another way of telling this, the voice that I heard, that I knew. Indigenous
people as protagonists, as humans leading interesting, difficult, complex lives. Trying to
make the best. Adapting from our society those things that suited them, that ensured their
survival. Making mistakes in that process but also trying to hold on to what it was that
they value.

(Interview with Luke Holland, 2008)

Issues of the representation of people are fundamental to documentary filmmaking and film-
makers should be aware of how they represent their subjects. Filming tribes while they are doing
their habitual dancing may be entertaining, but might confirm the stereotype of the ‘wild
savage’, despite the intention of giving them a voice. You may ask yourself as well how defining
the dancing is and how defining it is in English culture to wear paper hats during the annual
Christmas dinner.

For instance, Sisters in Law (Kim Longinotto, UK, 2005) or Divorce Iranian Style (Kim
Longinotto, UK, 1999) are remarkable because the audience is on a journey to experience parts
of lives which are unfamiliar to western audiences. The style might be described as ‘observa-
tional’ but it is very different from the observational style of Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles
brothers, the prolific founders of the observational film from the 1960s. The film is very directly
shot, close to the skin, but it shares with conventional observational documentaries the lack
of context. Some will consider this a strength, as it provides an audience with an active role in


Anand Patwardan: ‘To empower people is to make the unheard voices heard, by recording
things that are actually happening, that are not being represented in the mainstream

(Chapman, 2007:19)

M02_JONG4229_01_SE_C02.QXD 8/2/11 1:31 PM Page 22

Page 6

interpretation of the events. Conversely, it can be argued that the lack of context might confirm
stereotypical interpretation of events as no new narrative is being presented and audiences have
to rely on their existing knowledge.

The documentary filmmaker Daisy Asquith works with small cameras to get very close to her
subjects; she films almost under the skin of her subjects and interacts with them. Often you have
the feeling you are part of a personal conversation – or is it eavesdropping? Clearly, this method
of working has been made possible by small digital cameras which make it easier for her to work
on her own and create a very intimate relation to subjects. This sense of closeness to her main
characters gives audiences insight into their daily lives and the choices they make.

Inspired by the possibilities or impossibilities of technology, circumstances or just an idea,
a novel approach can be found. Taking risks, daring to experiment, are important features of
making ‘creative’ documentaries.

Documentary is considered to be a genre that conveys information, perhaps even one that
should convey information. Many documentaries can and do do this, but quite a few documen-
taries collapse as an artistic product as the film becomes too information-heavy or the structur-
ing devices used do not offer enough emotional engagement. You might be passionate about a
subject, but somehow that passion needs to be translated into a film. Documentaries are not
filmed books, nor are they simply a series of visually attractive shots, edited in quick pace and
supported by a musical score. A documentary takes an audience to an existing or past reality and
is so compelling that they can empathise with mind, emotions and imagination. In that sense,
documentary is an ambitious creative and critical enterprise.

How to make a creative documentary
There is no map with clear directions available for making a creative documentary, but we can
describe some of the fruitful conditions that underpin this ambition.

• You need knowledge and awareness of different traditions in the history of documentary
filmmaking. Creative cultural products generally modify, challenge or are inspired by what
has been produced before.

• You need to develop an ability to locate and understand different approaches to the subject,
and play with different ideas.

• Creative work tends to borrow and mix technologies or forms from different or related
genres or art forms but also from different cultural fields. This process is often described as

• In order to be a creative filmmaker it helps to be an avid consumer (of film/media/multimedia).
(See ways of watching documentaries, page 27.)

• Take time to digest; down time is essential in creative production. (See section on Creative

• Try to collaborate with other disciplines; different skills can contribute to the creative process.
• Be a member of a professional community. Creative communities provide ideas, contacts,

venues and access to broadcasters, funders and festivals. (See the website of the Documentary
Filmmakers Group or the European Documentary Network.)

• Understand the purpose of the film, for whom is it made and why.


M02_JONG4229_01_SE_C02.QXD 8/2/11 1:31 PM Page 23

Page 10


Key points

• Narrative shapes the ‘realities’ you are filming.

• Representation is always mediated.

• Awareness of the potential bias of one’s own social position is essential.

• Working, thinking and imagining in an interdisciplinary context and across media
platforms feeds the contemporary climate on documentary filmmaking.

• Being creative and critical go hand in hand in a documentary context.


Exercise 1

Look at the following documentaries:

Heavy Load (Jerry Rothwell, UK, 2007) How far does this film undermine or confirm existing ideas
about people with learning disabilities?

Lift (Marc Isaacs, UK, 2001) How would you describe the narrative form of this film and how has this
influenced the representation of the inhabitants of the tower block?

Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go (Kim Longinotto, UK, 2007) How would you describe the representation of
the young people in this film?

The Lie of the Land (Molly Dineen, UK, 2007) How would you describe the role of the filmmaker and
her impact on the interviewees in this film?

Exercise 2

Dream about the film you would like to make. Picture yourself with an audience and imagine what you
would tell them about the film. After this guided fantasy, write down who your audience was and why
you wanted to tell them that story.

Exercise 3 Association – what are the issues you are interested in?

Draw a circle and write in it the things that interest you. For each word that comes up, write down
another that is connected. Circle it. See if you can create clusters of interests or affiliations and passions.

M02_JONG4229_01_SE_C02.QXD 8/2/11 1:31 PM Page 27

Page 11


Dogma 2001: Kill the Documentary As We Know It

Jill Godmilow

Jill Godmilow is an American director-producer who continually pushes
the boundaries of both realist and fictional filmmaking. A well-known
film is Far from Poland (USA, 1984) about the role of the Polish Solidarity
movement and its role in the fall of communism. She was denied visas
for herself and her crew to shoot in Poland so she created a form which
did not require access to Poland. At the centre of the film are three
re-enactments of key texts, three imaginary conversations with Fidel
Castro, a letter to a hungry Polish friend, a fantasy tale about the end of
the Polish struggle and her own considerations and deliberations about
both Solidarity and documentary as a realist film text.

The following is a shortened version of her ‘dogma’ about documentary
filmmaking, from an article she wrote called Kill the Documentary As
We Know It:

1. Don’t produce the surface of things: have a real subject and real analysis, or at least an intelligent
proposition that is larger than the subject of your film.

2. Don’t produce freak shows of the oppressed, the different, the primitive, and the criminal. Please
don’t use your compassion as an excuse for social ‘pornography’.

3. Don’t make films that celebrate ‘the old ways’ and mourn loss.

4. Don’t produce awe for the rich, the famous, the powerful, the talented, the highly successful.

5. Keep an eye on your own middle-class bias and your audience’s. Don’t make films that feed it.

6. Find a way to acknowledge your authorship.

7. Leave your parents out of this.

Source: For full version, see Jill Godmilow, 2007, Far from Poland: Documentary without Walls, Facet
Cine-notes, Facets Multi-Media Inc.

Godmilow’s ‘dogmas’ challenge conventional realist documentary filmmaking. What do you think she
means by social ‘pornography’?

Jill Godmilow

M02_JONG4229_01_SE_C02.QXD 8/2/11 1:31 PM Page 28

Similer Documents