**feature image: photo by Linda Lai at the Open City London Documentary Festival 2011
Linda C.H. LAI
To me, documentary is a total event that cannot be fully considered without taking into account the intention of the maker, relation between the maker and the documented, the use of the work in its life-span of distribution and circulation, the conversations it invokes, and finally other on-going discourses in which it works out its politics.
Textbook discussion on documentary film has often been caught up in issues of evidence of truth rooted in the camera’s being there and the photographic image’s indexical transparency. The shift to clarification of documentary as a genre, thus its visual and narrative practice as conventions, often results in reinforcing the acceptance of documentary works’ narrative constructed-ness and naturalizing discursive persuasion, which is very much the case, without sufficiently addressing the ethical stance and critical urgency of a work’s making.
As I was viewing Position Among the Stars (Leonard Retel Helmrich, 2011 / 115 minutes), Opening Gala at the inaugural edition of Open City London Documentary Festival (June 16-19), I kept hearing the two gentlemen behind me whispering, “This is staged… That is staged…” As for me, I couldn’t help thinking what impact the filmmaking process has had on the members of this 3-generation family in Indonesia, given the breadth of coverage of events and the omnipresence of the camera and the crew in their crammed living space. A pity that Helmrich was only present via pre-recorded greetings on video.
Dr. Michael Stewart, Festival Director and UCL lecturer of anthropology, pointed out in the Opening Ceremony that documentaries are testimonies — testimonies of the maker’s being there, as well as testimonies of his/her subjects’ testimonies of themselves. I feel close to this idea as a visual ethnographer.
Cristi Puiu, Chair of Grand Jury for Open City and award-winning director, describes many documentary makers’ felt struggle, “Personally, I do not have the courage and I sometimes don’t have the patience for making documentaries. For making documentary you need time and you need courage and you need patience to face your subject…”
Affirming that the camera not only records what happens in front of the camera but also draws out the subject’s full presence, Puiu uses the term “documentary look” to describe the subject’s ability to perform, her/his gestures and the entire event of articulation. He says, “The documentary for me is important not just because there is an object, a cultural object, an artistic cultural anthropological object which is the film. It is important because there is a very specific look to the object outside our head.”
Documentary makers, Puiu describes, “respect the fact that outside their heads there is something very concrete, which is this world. Life.” “This implies a humbleness, in order to look at this world not to impose your view but to be in a position to look, to search and to question yourself.”
For documentary to be a total event, documentary method and the maker’s reflexive, ethical practice have yet to be complemented by a generous thoughtfulness on a higher level. As Director Stewart says, it is not enough to just aspire our society as ‘open cities’, but “we need activities that promote open cities” as opposed to activities that encourage closed cities.
(Linda C.H. LAI)