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Doc Edge 2010: the changing face of documentary

Dr Peter Zimmerman gave a presentation on Hybrid Forms, detailing the shifting paradigms in documentary film making, the blurring lines between fact and fiction, the purpose of documentary films, the question of “what is a documentary?” and – amidst a largely academic presentation – some unexpected footage of a woman with a finger up her ass.

Citing several examples of documentaries that do not follow the traditional boundaries of the the medium, Dr Peter Zimmerman’s session was highly entertaining, particularly for its happy ending (pun intended), a short clip of documentary film Import Export.

A look back on the life of a Russian ex-webcam girl, the five minute clip portrayed her life in the internet peep show ‘offices’. Recorded in Russian and subtitled in German, our distinguished speaker played translator for explicit scenes depicting sexual acts, with choice lines such as “Put the finger in the arsehole” voiced in his deep German accent.

Due to the session running over, the Q&A was skipped, but one audience member managed to ask the question “was that a pay per view?”.

A transcript of Dr. Peter Zimmerman’s presentation follows.

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Dr Peter Zimmerman
Since the 1920s the documentary film was closely tied to the avant-garde movements. Classics are filmmakers such as the Russian director Dziga Vertov with his film “The Man with the Movie Camera” (1929), the German Walter Ruttman with “Berlin, Symphony of the City” (1927), the Spaniard Luis Bunuel, the Dutchman Joris Ivens and some directors around the British documentary movement brought into being by John Grierson.

After World War II a change of paradigms took place. Filmmakers started to use techniques such as re-enactments, staging, dramatization and others.

The same applies to film movements such as the French Nouvelle Vague/New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard), the “Young German Film” (Alexander Kluge) and the “New British Cinema” of the 1980s (Peter Greenway, Derek Jarman).

All of these cinematic styles, which exerted a decisive influence on film in Western Europe during the second half of the 20th Century, owe their aesthetic and political force not least of all to an alert and critical documentary point of view, with which numerous directors and film crews took a close look at the social developments and problems of their time. They were influenced by strong national and international politic movements, which discussed the social problems from a critical and mostly left wing point of view.

The documentary film should show life as it really is and help to reform social and political conditions of life. This is what many modern documentary films claimed, as they developed under the influence of Direct Cinema.

Cinema Verite and revolutionary cinema during the 60s and 70s especially in the western world. Under the influence of student rebellion and the engagement against capitalism and imperialism many filmmakers took the side of the socially disadvantaged and of minorities as well as of those involved in movements of resistance and liberation.

In the 1990s a change took place, closely connected with the digital ‘revolution’. For with the decline of the protest movements in the 1980s, the self assured political claim of the documentary film in the West entered a state of crisis. The crisis expressed itself also as a far-reaching scepticism towards the self-assessment the genre has had in the 1960s and 1970s.

Had world events not been explained by socially committed documentaries in black-and-white style often enough?

And was the documentary film at all in a position to guarantee the much-avowed authenticity and to reproduce a realistic image of reality?

Or was the impression of authenticity itself merely a cinematic effect created by documentary strategies of depiction?

Did not documentation and fiction merge into one another unnoticeably in all of these stylisations and had not the current distinction between documentary and feature film long since become doubtful?

Was it not necessary rather to emphasise the subjectivity of the depiction, to combine documentary and fictional stylistic devices and in semi-documentary, essayistic or experimental forms to test the possibilities and limits of documentary film work and to make themselves a topic?

And was not the feature film often far more realistic than the documentary film, which in the course of its history has again and again had to serve as a medium of deception, falsification and propaganda?

In Western Europe since the rise of television, documentaries were hardly shown in the cinema and most of the filmmakers remained dependent with regard to production and distribution on the much-reviled medium of television, which adapted the new documentary film style on a huge scale and at the same time tamed its polemic sharpness.

Because of the decline of the European film industry not only documentaries but also feature films were to an increasing degree produced by television from the 1960s on.

The interconnection of film, television and new media and the corresponding techniques of production and distribution led also aesthetically to the development of hybrid forms of these various media. This made the traditional distinction between the aesthetics of cinema, television and video and the corresponding definitions of the genres an anachronism.

Phases of paramount change in the media such as these are frequently described in more recent studies in the social and media sciences as a process of hybridisation: a concept from the field of biology that has been applied to social, cultural and media-related mixtures, combinations and linkups.

The concept, however, points not only to the combination of various media-related organisational forms, production techniques, products and genres, but also to a change in the scientific view of observation that has developed under the influence of post-modern theories and thus has accompanied them.

“The abundance of prefixes used in the discourses to describe current developments, such as multi-, pluri-, inter-, trans- and of course also terms like ‘hybrid’ shed light on a fundamental restructuring in the conventional way of observing and analysing developments… The intention in admitting hybrids is to promote the development of thinking in intermixtures, links and networks… A decisive factor for the developments that have been dominant for nearly two decades is that cultural concepts that start out from homogeneity or clear divisions referring to purity can no longer adequately describe today’s cultural phenomena…”

Irmela Schneider

This is what it says in a more recent publication on “hybrid culture”, whose topic is the function of the media in this process. More recent studies in the media sciences view the audio-visual repertoire of genres, from narrative and documentary films to video clips also as an intermedia network of hybrid forms. Films produced not only for exploitation in the cinema, but also on television, DVD and the internet.

With the increasingly closer interconnection of film, television and new media and the development of video and digitalisation, new changes related to the media took place. Younger filmmakers tried out a large number of hybrid film techniques and forms from the 1980s and 1990s onwards that ignored the traditional rules and boundaries between genres:

Docudramas combines documentary footage with staged scenes and theatrical re-enactments to expose political scandals and reconstructed historical events with the methods used in directing and staging fictional films and television drama.

Role-playing documentaries achieved their most powerful effects with the help of staged scenes and rehearsed role-playing of their protagonists. The implant patterns of action and suspense development found in the dramaturgy of feature films into documentary films.

Autobiographical portrait films and video diaries made use of the new, easy-to-operate video cameras to penetrate into the subjects’ private lives, which up until then had remained inaccessible.

Politically committed films used modern techniques of agitprop, montage, filming and directing in order to present in an effective way, for example, youth protests, campaigns against the destruction of the environment, against nuclear power plants, war and the profiteering of international corporations.

In addition to the various attempts to apply narrative and dramatic methods used in directing fictional films and television dramas in the making of documentary films, a great number of experiments were done with self-reflective, satirical, parodistic and and poetic forms:

Essay films and documentaries critical of the media made the aesthetics and history of the film and television documentary genre a subject of self reflection.

Satirical documentaries cast an ironic look at their subjects or combined satire on societal events with a parody of their own documentary and journalistic conventions in the genre.

Fake documentaries, which only feigned the appearance of a documentary but in reality were fictional and staged, tried to confuse the audience with deception and truth, fictitious and authentic material, in order to call into question the genre’s claim to presenting the truth.

Poetic found-footage films used film material passed on from other sources less as a historical document than as a starting point for artistic processing and interpreting of the transferred images.

The characteristics of experimental films, were combined with documentary film techniques to achieve new provocative and visually striking forms of expression.

Science Fiction Reports dealing with the future made use of fictional stories and the latest digital technology in image editing and animation in order to design for example apocalyptic scenarios of ecological catastrophies which turn documentary landscape scenes into strangely surrealistic images of future environmental destruction.

Many new documentary formats were developed by television in its battle for the highest ratings especially in offering entertainment to the viewers. A trend towards infotainment, a mixture of information and entertainment, which has been observed for some time now in the television industry and which is taking increasingly newer forms:

The so-called reality TV, a kind of sensational journalism practised especially by the commercial television networks, is using the style of filming with a hand-held camera, which appears to be right up close to the subject. Its specials are sex-and-crime reports, “shockumentaries” and similar film reports, which are mostly concerned with superficial drama and thrills.

Docu-soaps, which adapt scenes taken from everyday life to the entertaining form of a series as a basis programme for television commercials, advanced in the 1990s to become the most favoured form of TV entertainment. They employ a combination of staged role play and observation of everyday activities in order to present in an entertaining way the unusual or involuntarily comical happening of day-to-day life.

Another current rage of this trend in TV programmes are the “Big Brother” shows appearing on the commercial television networks. It adapts Orwell’s horror scenario of total observation of everyone’s private life developed in the novel 1984 for the voyeurism of a predominantly young television audience. A group of mostly young participants live together for a number of weeks in a TV studio apartment, which they are not allowed to leave, and let themselves by observed by cameras around the clock. Whoever turns out to be boring is voted out by the viewers and the other participants, and are sometimes replaced by new candidates.

The latest experiments can be found in internet documentaries in which individual authors use webcams to document their private lives online on the internet or produce films to be distributed over the internet.

Politically committed video activists working worldwide in NGOs use the new medium as a forum for information, discussion and organisation of help, protest and resistance. The digitalisation of film production and the use of the internet as a medium of distribution are indications of a development that suggests a further radical change in the documentary method.

Does this development of hybrid documentaries involve a loss of documentary quality, authenticity and realism as many critics are complaining? Or is this only the latest change of paradigms and perspectives which is typical for the history of documentary filmmaking?

Many of these hybrid forms can no longer be put in the established categories of film genres, television formats and video art which the media scholars and critics have ready for them. Many critics separate and preserve a canon of genres, forms and styles which in view of the worldwide monopolization processes within the media industry has long since become an anachronism.

And it has become an anachronism as well to claim the historical truth for a specific documentary film style and for documentary filmmaking at all. For this reason it has become problematic to search for the ‘true’ ontologically founded definition of documentary film. The intentions, functions and styles of documentary filmmaking are changing with the respective historical periods and we can only try to describe the permanent changes of this genre.

Looking back we see hybrid forms from the beginning, when the door of the Lumi?re factory was opened like the curtain in a theatre and the workers left like actors playing themselves in one of the first staged documentaries which nevertheless gave the impression to the audience to be a true representation of ‘real life’. This ambivalence is the burden of this genre throughout its history.

The answer to the question: “What are the characteristics of documentary filmmaking?” nowadays seems to be more complicated and problematic than ever.

Supplementary Information:

During the session, Dr Peter Zimmerman referenced the following examples of each type of documentary.

Docudramas:
Heinrich Breloer, Die Staatskanzlei (1989), Todesspiel (1997)
Cordt Schnibben, J?rgen Flimm, Wer zu sp?t kommt, Das Politb?ro erlebt die deutsche Revolution (1991)
Hans-Christoph Blumenberg, Deutschlandspiel (2000).

Role-playing documentaries:
Ulrich Siedl, Mit Verlust ist zu rechnen (1992), Der Busenfruend (1997), Models (1998).

Autobiographical portrait films and video diaries:
German Kral, Buenos Aries, meine Geschichte (1999)
Jan Peters, Dezember 1 – 31 (1999)
Birgit Hein,Baby I Will Make You Sweat (1994)
Oliver Schwabe, Hand aufs Herz(1999).

Politically committed films:
Peter Krieg, Septemberweizen (1980), Die Seele des Geldes (1986/87)
Peter Heller, Dschungelburger. Hackfleischordnung international (1984)
Claus Strigel, Bertram Verhaag, Spaltprozesse (1987), Blue Eyed (1996)
Werner Herzog, Lektionen in Finsternis (1992).

Essay Films:
Daniel Sponsel, Jan Sebening, Der Ietze Dokumentarfilm (1999)
Harun Farocki, Wie man sieht (1986), Bilderkrieg (1987), Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (1995)
Harmut Bitomsky, Deutschlandbilder (1983), Der VW-Komplex (1
89), Playback(1995).

Satirical Documentaries:
Dominik Wessely, Die Blume der Hausfrau (1998)
Thomas Frickel, Deckname Denis (1998).

Fake Documentaries:
Volker Anding, Der Fall des Elefanten (1986)
Roman Brodmann, Auf den Spuren von Rudolph Beck-D?lmen (1985).

Found-footage films:
Numerous films by Matthias M?ller, Vacancy (1998) et al.

Experimental films:
Nicolas Humbert, Simone F?rbringer, Vagabonding Images (1998)
Nicolas Humbert, Werner Penzel, Step Across the Border (1990), Middle of the Moment (1995).

Science Fiction Reports:
Jochen Faulstich, Crash 2030 (1994).

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