Since Film Quarterly 's earliest days, documentary has been one of the journal's principal interests. Besides reviews of nonfiction films in every phase of the journal's history, there have been numerous interviews and, of course, a large number of articles on the topic. Highlights have included a thirty-three-page special feature on Humphrey Jennings in the Winter 1961–62 issue; editor Helen Van Dongen's article on Robert Flaherty in Summer 1965; and Alan Rosenthal's interviews with the director, cameraman, and editor of the cinema verité film A Married Couple in Summer 1970.
Bill Nichols and ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall have long been among the most thoughtful and influential writers on nonfiction film; MacDougall's "Prospects of the Ethnographic Film" appeared in the Winter 1969–70 issue. Of somewhat more recent vintage, Michael Renov's writings are also included in the list of work that must be read by those interested in nonfiction film, past and present. Linda Williams' extraordinary article on history and memory in a number of contemporary nonfiction films places her on that list as well.
A crucial feature of all four articles in this section is that despite, or through, their diverse topic areas, all are theoretical in orientation. They might easily have been included in the Theory section, as a distinctive subsection. Their placement here underscores the fact that documentary is not a genre but, like experimental film, a realm of cinema parallel to but not a subset of fictional narrative.
In "The Voice of Documentary," Bill Nichols argues that there are at least four major historical styles of documentary, each with distinctive formal and ideological qualities. These include the direct address of the Grierson era, which he calls "the first thoroughly worked-out mode of documentary"; a second mode—cinema verité—which sought to capture, through an allegedly transparent style, "untampered events in the everyday lives of particular people"; a third style that
incorporates direct address (characters or narrator speaking directly to the viewer); and a more recent fourth phase, which seems to have begun
with films moving toward more complex forms where epistemological and aesthetic assumptions become more visible. These new self-reflexive documentaries mix observational passages with interviews, the voice-over of the film-maker with intertitles, making patently clear [that] . . . documentaries always were forms of re-presentation, never clear windows onto "reality"; the film-maker was always a participant-witness and an active fabricator of meaning, a producer of cinematic discourse rather than a neutral or all-knowing reporter of the way things truly are.
Throughout much of the article, Nichols makes trenchant criticisms of the defects of the first three documentary styles. These pages are especially valuable because they treat a substantial number of specific films, including several not widely known. As for the fourth category, he makes clear that the "voice" he has in mind is "something narrower than style." It is that which conveys to us "a sense of a text's social point of view, of how it is speaking to us and organizing the materials it is presenting." It is also not restricted to any one feature such as dialogue or spoken commentary. Nichols considers the best instances of this category to be the documentaries of Emile de Antonio and some of the ethnographic films of David and Judith MacDougall.
Michael Renov's 1987 article, "Newsreel: Old and New," is a retrospective view of the first twenty years of Newsreel, "a radical film-making collective conceived during the last flush of New Left activism." Newsreel once had offices in seven major U.S. cities but at this point survives "in two versions." California Newsreel, San Francisco, makes and distributes films about the workplace and about South Africa and apartheid, with a new focus on teaching its viewers about the media. Third World Newsreel, based in New York, supports the cultural interventions of the disenfranchised.
In constructing his account, Renov consulted interviews with Newsreel members that appeared in Film Quarterly in Winter 1968–69 and himself conducted interviews with a number of other early Newsreel members. The New Left looked not to American radicalism of the thirties but to the utopian socialism of the very early Soviet Union and specifically to filmmaker Dziga Vertov. But unlike Vertov, with his passionate enthusiasm for the machine, the New Left media activists were mainly negative about technology. Newsreel's most successful early films, both made in 1968, were Columbia Revolt and Black Panther —also known as Off the Pig . Renov is excellent on the conflicts that shaped Newsreel
in the early seventies. Decisions about what films would be made often depended upon who could raise money. Those who could call on family resources or were experienced fund-raisers pretty much called the shots until, between 1971 and 1973, a split developed between the haves and the have-nots. At the same time there was a split between Newsreel's growing Third World Caucus and its other operations, and a division occasioned by a radical feminist faction: most of the men left the collective over the next several months. These gender, color, and class rifts left New York Newsreel a three-person collective in 1973. But From Spikes to Spindles , a 1976 film about Chinese Americans in New York, established Third World Newsreel's reputation for "compact, historically situated overviews of ethnic minorities in crisis." Renov's briefer accounts of California Newsreel and of Third World Newsreel in later years are also of great interest.
"When Less Is Less: The Long Take in Documentary" is the title of David MacDougall's very thoughtful article. He pursues two sets of issues, one having to do with the pressures on documentary and ethnographic filmmakers to cut from their rushes anything that does not move the exposition forward. This is based on the terror of television producers of any "dead spots" in any program they sponsor. This fear is based on the supposed desire of viewers to move on to the next shot/point once they have grasped the preceding one and their boredom if this demand is not met. The other set of issues has to do with the values, contexts, perceptions, and uses of the long take considered in a more general cultural context. In his actual exposition, the author often mixes the two topics.
MacDougall understands the problem of rushes as one of "the ideal and the actual, the object within grasp yet somehow lost." He draws a broad analogy between the way in which individual shots are reduced in length and the way in which the entire body of footage shot for a film is reduced to produce a finished film. He also wishes to question some of the assumptions that underlie these practices. He notes that long takes are better defined by their structural qualities than by their length, and yet, he concludes, "absolute duration does finally matter." Even filmmakers "have seemed unwilling to confront perhaps the most deeply seated assumption of all: that films are necessarily superior to the rushes shot for them." A documentary filmmaker told an interviewer that "the real film was in the rushes." People would drop by his editing rooms at the BBC and become interested in all fifty hours, coming back at various times as though they were watching a serial. In a section called "Qualities Sacrificed to the Film," MacDougall lists the loss of excess meaning, the loss of interpretive space, the loss of the sense of encounter, and the loss of internal contextualization. The author concludes: "Throughout the editing process there is a constant tension between maintaining the forward impetus of the film and
providing enough contextual information so that the central narrative or argument continues to make sense."
Linda Williams begins her argument with a remark by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., that a photograph is "a mirror with a memory," that is, an illustration of the visual truth of objects, persons, and events. Such certainty is not possible in the era of electronic and computer-generated images, in which every photo and film is understood as a manipulated construction. Williams quotes Fredric Jameson on "the cultural logic of postmodernism" based on "a whole new culture of the . . . simulacrum." Jameson argues that it no longer seems possible to represent the "real" interests of a people or class against the ultimate ground of social and economic determinations. Citing both the Rodney King tape and the greatly increased popularity of documentary, Williams points out that the lack of faith in images goes hand in hand with a new thirst "to be moved to a new appreciation of previously unknown truth." This is a rich contradiction that she begins to explore with a number of examples that ultimately end up on one side or the other of the way out of the postmodern dilemma: JFK, Roger and Me, Our Hitler, Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, Truth or Dare, Paris Is Burning, Who Killed Vincent Chin? , and others.
Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line is "a prime example of this postmodern documentary approach to the trauma of an inaccessible past." Because of its spectacular success in intervening in the truths known about this past, the film was instrumental in freeing Randall Adams from prison. The film eschews cinema verité completely, exhibiting instead an expressionist style in staging its reenactments of the versions of the murder by suspects Adams and Harris, and by several witnesses. The strategy of Morris's film is to set competing narratives alongside each other by reenacting all of them. Williams turns here to the other film she discusses in detail: Claude Lanzmann's Shoah . Acknowledging that the subjects of the two films are incommensurable, Williams sees a parallelism in method. What motivates both is not the opposition between absolute truth and absolute fiction, but the awareness of the final inaccessibility of a moment of crime, violence, trauma that is irretrievably located in the past. The two filmmakers do not so much represent this past as they reactivate it in images of the present. This is their distinctive postmodern feature as documentarians. In revealing the fabrications and scapegoating when fictional explanations were substituted for more difficult ones, they do not simply play off truth against lie; they show how lies function as partial truths to both the agents and witnesses of history's trauma. One of the most discussed moments of Shoah is the visit of Simon Srebnik to the town where he worked in the nearby death camp. The Poles on the church steps in Chelmno seem happy to see him, but in response
to questions by Lanzmann, at least four of the people collaborate in providing an anti-Semitic account of the Holocaust. This fantasy, meant to assuage the Poles' guilt for their complicity in the extermination of the Jews, actually repeats their crime of the past in the present. Williams concludes that the truth of the Holocaust does not exist in any totalizing narrative, but only, as Lanzmann shows, as a collection of fragments.
The Voice of Documentary
Vol. 36, no. 3 (Spring 1983): 17–30.
It is worth insisting that the strategies and styles deployed in documentary, like those of narrative film, change; they have a history. And they have changed for much the same reasons: the dominant modes of expository discourse change; the arena of ideological contestation shifts. The comfortably accepted realism of one generation seems like artifice to the next. New strategies must constantly be fabricated to re-present "things as they are" and still others to contest this very representation.
In the history of documentary we can identify at least four major styles, each with distinctive formal and ideological qualities. In this article I propose to examine the limitations and strengths of these strategies, with particular attention to one that is both the newest and in some ways the oldest of them all.
The direct-address style of the Griersonian tradition (or, in its most excessive form, the March of Time's "voice of God") was the first thoroughly worked-out mode of documentary. As befitted a school whose purposes were overwhelmingly didactic, it employed a supposedly authoritative yet often presumptuous off-screen narration. In many cases this narration effectively dominated the visuals, though it could be, in films like Night Mail or Listen to Britain , poetic and evocative. After World War II, the Griersonian mode fell into disfavor (for reasons I will come back to later) and it has little contemporary currency—except for television news, game and talk shows, ads, and documentary specials.
Its successor, cinéma vérité , promised an increase in the "reality effect" with its directness, immediacy, and impression of capturing untampered events in the everyday lives of particular people. Films like Chronicle of a Summer, Le Joli Mai, Lonely Boy, Back-Breaking Leaf, Primary , and The Chair built on the new technical possibilities offered by portable cameras and sound recorders which could produce synchronous dialogue under location conditions. In pure cinéma vérité films, the style seeks to become "transparent" in the same mode as the classical Hollywood style—capturing people in action,
and letting the viewer come to conclusions about them unaided by any implicit or explicit commentary.
Sometimes mesmerizing, frequently perplexing, such films seldom offered the sense of history, context, or perspective that viewers seek. And so in the past decade we have seen a third style which incorporates direct address (characters or narrator speaking directly to the viewer), usually in the form of the interview. In a host of political and feminist films, witness-participants step before the camera to tell their story. Sometimes profoundly revealing, sometimes fragmented and incomplete, such films have provided the central model for contemporary documentary. But as a strategy and a form, the interview-oriented film has problems of its own.
More recently, a fourth phase seems to have begun, with films moving toward more complex forms where epistemological and aesthetic assumptions become more visible. These new self-reflexive documentaries mix observational passages with interviews, the voice-over of the film-maker with inter-titles, making patently clear what has been implicit all along: documentaries always were forms of re-presentation, never clear windows onto "reality"; the film-maker was always a participant-witness and an active fabricator of meaning, a producer of cinematic discourse rather than a neutral or all-knowing reporter of the way things truly are.
Ironically, film theory has been of little help in this recent evolution, despite the enormous contribution of recent theory to questions of the production of meaning in narrative forms. In documentary the most advanced, modernist work draws its inspiration less from post-structuralist models of discourse than from the working procedures of documentation and validation practiced by ethnographic film-makers. And as far as the influence of film history goes, the figure of Dziga Vertov now looms much larger than those of either Flaherty or Grierson.
I do not intend to argue that self-reflexive documentary represents a pinnacle or solution in any ultimate sense. It is, however, in the process of evolving alternatives that seem, in our present historical context, less obviously problematic than the strategies of commentary, vérité , or the interview. These new forms may, like their predecessors, come to seem more "natural" or even "realistic" for a time. But the success of every form breeds its own overthrow: it limits, omits, disavows, represses (as well as represents). In time, new necessities bring new formal inventions.
As suggested above, in the evolution of documentary the contestation among forms has centered on the question of "voice." By "voice" I mean something narrower than style: that which conveys to us a sense of a text's social point of view, of how it is speaking to us and how it is organizing the materials it is presenting
to us. In this sense "voice" is not restricted to any one code or feature such as dialogue or spoken commentary. Voice is perhaps akin to that intangible, moiré-like pattern formed by the unique interaction of all a film's codes, and it applies to all modes of documentary.
Far too many contemporary film-makers appear to have lost their voice. Politically, they forfeit their own voice for that of others (usually characters recruited to the film and interviewed). Formally, they disavow the complexities of voice, and discourse, for the apparent simplicities of faithful observation or respectful representation, the treacherous simplicities of an unquestioned empiricism (the world and its truths exist; they need only be dusted off and reported). Many documentarists would appear to believe what fiction film-makers only feign to believe, or openly question: that film-making creates an objective representation of the way things really are. Such documentaries use the magical template of verisimilitude without the story-teller's open resort to artifice. Very few seem prepared to admit through the very tissue and texture of their work that all film-making is a form of discourse fabricating its effects, impressions, and point of view.
Yet it especially behooves the documentary film-maker to acknowledge what she/he is actually doing. Not in order to be accepted as modernist for the sake of being modernist, but to fashion documentaries that may more closely correspond to a contemporary understanding of our position within the world so that effective political/formal strategies for describing and challenging that position can emerge. Strategies and techniques for doing so already exist. In documentary they seem to derive most directly from Man with a Movie Camera and Chronique d'un été and are vividly exemplified in David and Judith MacDougall's Turkana trilogy (Lorang's Way, Wedding Camels, A Wife Among Wives ). But before discussing this tendency further, we should first examine the strengths and limitations of cinéma vérité and the interview-based film. They are well represented by two recent and highly successful films: Soldier Girls and Rosie the Riveter .
Soldier Girls presents a contemporary situation: basic army training as experienced by women volunteers. Purely indirect or observational, Soldier Girls provides no spoken commentary, no interviews or titles, and like Fred Wiseman's films, it arouses considerable controversy about its point of view. One viewer at Filmex interjected, "How on earth did they get the Army to let them make such an incredibly anti-Army film?" What struck that viewer as powerful criticism, though, may strike another as an honest portrayal of the tough-minded discipline necessary to learn to defend oneself, to survive in harsh environments, to kill. As in Wiseman's films, organizational strategies establish a preferred reading—in this case, one that favors the personal over
the political, that seeks out and celebrates the irruptions of individual feeling and conscience in the face of institutional constraint, that re-writes historical process as the expression of an indomitable human essence whatever the circumstance. But these strategies, complex and subtle like those of realist fiction, tend to ascribe to the historical material itself meanings that in fact are an effect of the film's style or voice, just as fiction's strategies invite us to believe that "life" is like the imaginary world inhabited by its characters.
A pre-credit sequence of training exercises which follows three women volunteers ends with a freeze-frame and iris-in to isolate the face of each woman. Similar to classic Hollywood-style vignettes used to identify key actors, this sequence inaugurates a set of strategies that links Soldier Girls with a large part of American cinéma vérité (Primary, Salesman, An American Family , the Middletown series). It is characterized by a romantic individualism and a dramatic, fiction-like structure, but employing "found" stories rather than the wholly invented ones of Hollywood. Scenes in which Private Hall oversees punishment for Private Alvarez and in which the women recruits are awak-
ened and prepare their beds for Drill Sergeant Abing's inspection prompt an impression of looking in on a world unmarked by our, or the camera's, act of gazing. And those rare moments in which the camera or person behind it is acknowledged certify more forcefully that other moments of "pure observation" capture the social presentation of self we too would have witnessed had we actually been there to see for ourselves. When Soldier Girls ' narrative-like tale culminates in a shattering moment of character revelation, it seems to be a happy coincidence of dramatic structure and historical events unfolding. In as extraordinary an epiphany as any in all of vérité , tough-minded Drill Sergeant Abing breaks down and confesses to Private Hall how much of his own humanity and soul has been destroyed by his experience in Vietnam. By such means, the film transcends the social and political categories which it shows but refuses to name. Instead of the personal becoming political, the political becomes personal.
We never hear the voice of the film-maker or a narrator trying to persuade us of this romantic humanism. Instead, the film's structure relies heavily on classical narrative procedures, among them: (1) a chronology of apparent causality which reveals how each of the three women recruits resolves the conflict between a sense of her own individuality and army discipline; (2) shots organized into dramatically revelatory scenes that only acknowledge the camera as participant-observer near the film's end, when one of the recruits embraces the film-makers as she leaves the training base, discharged for her "failure" to fit in; and (3) excellent performances from characters who "play themselves" without any inhibiting self-consciousness. (The phenomenon of filming individuals who play themselves in a manner strongly reminiscent of the performances of professional actors in fiction could be the subject of an extended study in its own right.) These procedures allow purely observational documentaries to asymptotically narrow the gap between a fabricated realism and the apparent capture of reality itself which so fascinated André Bazin.
This gap may also be looked at as a gap between evidence and argument. One of the peculiar fascinations of film is precisely that it so easily conflates the two. Documentary displays a tension arising from the attempt to make statements about life which are quite general, while necessarily using sounds and images that bear the inescapable trace of their particular historical origins. These sounds and images come to function as signs; they bear meaning, though the meaning is not really inherent in them but rather conferred upon them by their function within the text as a whole. We may think we hear history or reality speaking to us through a film, but what we actually hear is the voice of the text, even when that voice tries to efface itself.
This is not only a matter of semiotics but of historical process. Those who confer meaning (individuals, social classes, the media, and other institutions)
exist within history itself rather than at the periphery, looking in like gods. Hence, paradoxically, self-referentiality is an inevitable communicational category. A class cannot be a member of itself, the law of logical typing tells us, and yet in human communication this law is necessarily violated. Those who confer meaning are themselves members of the class of conferred meanings (history). For a film to fail to acknowledge this and pretend to omniscience—whether by voice-of-God commentary or by claims of "objective knowledge"—is to deny its own complicity with a production of knowledge that rests on no firmer bedrock than the very act of production. (What then becomes vital are the assumptions, values, and purposes motivating this production, the underpinnings which some modernist strategies attempt to make more clear.)
Observational documentary appears to leave the driving to us. No one tells us about the sights we pass or what they mean. Even those obvious marks of documentary textuality—muddy sound, blurred or racked focus, the grainy, poorly lit figures of social actors caught on the run—function paradoxically. Their presence testifies to an apparently more basic absence: such films sacrifice conventional, polished artistic expression in order to bring back, as best they can, the actual texture of history in the making. If the camera gyrates wildly or ceases functioning, this is not an expression of personal style. It is a signifier of personal danger, as in Harlan County USA , or even death, as in the street scene from The Battle of Chile when the cameraman records the moment of his own death.
This shift from artistic expressiveness to historical revelation contributes mightily to the phenomenological effect of the observational film. Soldier Girls, They Call Us Misfits , its sequel, A Respectable Life , and Fred Wiseman's most recent film, Models , propose revelations about the real not as a result of direct argument, but on the basis of inferences we draw from historical evidence itself. For example, Stefan Jarl's remarkable film, They Call Us Misfits , contains a purely observational scene of its two 17-year-old misfits—who have left home for a life of booze, drugs, and a good time in Stockholm—getting up in the morning. Kenta washes his long hair, dries it, and then meticulously combs every hair into place. Stoffe doesn't bother with his hair at all. Instead, he boils water and then makes tea by pouring it over a tea bag that is still inside its paper wrapper! We rejoin the boys in A Respectable Life , shot ten years later, and learn that Stoffe has nearly died on three occasions from heroin overdoses whereas Kenta has sworn off hard drugs and begun a career of sorts as a singer. At this point we may retroactively grant a denser tissue of meaning to those little morning rituals recorded a decade earlier. If so, we take them as evidence of historical determinations rather than artistic vision—even though they are only available to us as a result of textual strategies. More generally, the aural and visual evidence of what ten years of hard
living do to the alert, mischievous appearance of two boys—the ruddy skin, the dark, extinguished eyes, the slurred and garbled speech, especially of Stoffe—bear meaning precisely because the films invite retroactive comparison. The films produce the structure in which "facts" themselves take on meaning precisely because they belong to a coherent series of differences. Yet, though powerful, this construction of differences remains insufficient. A simplistic line of historical progression prevails, centered as it is in Soldier Girls on the trope of romantic individualism. (Instead of the Great Man theory we have the Unfortunate Victim theory of history—inadequate, but compellingly presented.)
And where observational cinema shifts from an individual to an institutional focus, and from a metonymic narrative model to a metaphoric one, as in the highly innovative work of Fred Wiseman, there may still be only a weak sense of constructed meaning, of a textual voice addressing us. A vigorous, active, and retroactive reading is necessary before we can hear the voice of the textual system as a level distinct from the sounds and images of the evidence it adduces, while questions of adequacy remain. Wiseman's sense of context and of meaning as a function of the text itself remains weak, too easily engulfed by the fascination that allows us to mistake film for reality, the impression of the real for the experience of it. The risk of reading Soldier Girls or Wiseman's Models like a Rorschach test may require stronger counter-measures than the subtleties their complex editing and mise-en-scène provide.
Prompted, it would seem, by these limitations to cinéma vérité or observational cinema, many film-makers during the past decade have reinstituted direct address. For the most part this has meant social actors addressing us in interviews rather
than a return to the voice-of-authority evidenced by a narrator. Rosie the Riveter , for example, tells us about the blatant hypocrisy with which women were recruited to the factories and assembly lines during World War II. A series of five women witnesses tell us how they were denied the respect granted men, told to put up with hazardous conditions "like a man," paid less, and pitted against one another racially. Rosie makes short shrift of the noble icon of the woman worker as seen in forties newsreels. Those films celebrated her heroic contribution to the great effort to preserve the free world from fascist dictatorship. Rosie destroys this myth of deeply appreciated, fully rewarded contribution without in any way undercutting the genuine fortitude, courage, and political awareness of women who experienced continual frustration in their struggles for dignified working conditions and a permanent place in the American labor force.
Using interviews, but no commentator, together with a weave of compilation footage as images of illustration, director Connie Field tells a story many of us may think we've heard, only to realize we've never heard the whole of it before.
The organization of the film depends heavily on its set of extensive interviews with former "Rosies." Their selection follows the direct-cinema tradition of filming ordinary people. But Rosie the Riveter broadens that tradition, as Union Maids, The Wobblies , and With Babies and Banners have also done, to retrieve the memory of an "invisible" (suppressed more than forgotten) history of labor struggle. The five interviewees remember a past the film's inserted historical images reconstruct, but in counterpoint: their recollection of adversity and struggle contrasts with old newsreels of women "doing their part" cheerfully.
This strategy complicates the voice of the film in an interesting way. It adds a contemporary, personal resonance to the historical compilation footage without challenging the assumptions of that footage explicitly, as a voice-over commentary might do. We ourselves become engaged in determining how the women witnesses counterpoint these historical "documents" as well as how they articulate their own present and past consciousness in political, ethical, and feminist dimensions.
We are encouraged to believe that these voices carry less the authority of historical judgment than that of personal testimony—they are, after all, the words of apparently "ordinary women" remembering the past. As in many films that advance issues raised by the women's movement, there is an emphasis on individual but politically significant experience. Rosie demonstrates the power of the act of naming—the ability to find the words that render the personal political. This reliance on oral history to reconstruct the past places Rosie the Riveter within what is probably the predominant mode of documentary film-making today—films built around a string of interviews—where we also find A Wive's Tale, With Babies and Banners, Controlling Interest, The Day After Trinity, The Trials of Alger Hiss, Rape, Word Is Out, Prison
for Women, Not a Love Story, Nuove Frontieras (Looking for Better Dreams) , and The Wobblies .
This reinstitution of direct address through the interview has successfully avoided some of the central problems of voice-over narration, namely authoritative omniscience or didactic reductionism. There is no longer the dubious claim that things are as the film presents them, organized by the commentary of an all-knowing subject. Such attempts to stand above history and explain it create a paradox. Any attempt by a speaker to vouch for his or her own validity reminds us of the Cretan paradox: "Epimenides was a Cretan who said, 'Cretans always lie.' Was Epimenides telling the truth?" The nagging sense of a self-referential claim that can't be proven reaches greatest intensity with the most forceful assertions, which may be why viewers are often most suspicious of what an apparently omniscient Voice of Authority asserts most fervently. The emergence of so many recent documentaries built around strings of interviews strikes me as a strategic response to the recognition that neither can events speak for themselves nor can a single voice speak with ultimate authority.
Interviews diffuse authority. A gap remains between the voice of a social actor recruited to the film and the voice of the film.
Not compelled to vouch for their own validity, the voices of interviewees may well arouse less suspicion. Yet a larger, constraining voice may remain to provide, or withhold, validation. In The Sad Song of Yellow Skin, The Wilmar 8, Harlan County, USA, Not a Love Story , or Who Killed the Fourth Ward , among others, the literal voice of the film-maker enters into dialogue but without the self-validating, authoritative tone of a previous tradition. (These are also voices without the self-reflexive quality found in Vertov's, Rouch's, or the MacDougalls' work.) Diary-like and uncertain in Yellow Skin ; often directed toward the women strikers as though by a fellow participant and observer in The Wilmar 8 and Harlan County; sharing personal reactions to pornography with a companion in Not a Love Story; and adopting a mock ironic tone reminiscent of Peter Falk's Columbo in Fourth Ward —these voices of potentially imaginary assurance instead share doubts and emotional reactions with other characters and us. As a result they seem to refuse a privileged position in relation to other characters. Of course, these less assertive authorial voices remain complicit with the controlling voice of the textual system itself, but the effect upon a viewer is distinctly different.
Still, interviews pose problems. Their occurrence is remarkably widespread—from The Hour of the Wolf to The MacNeil/Lehrer Report and from Housing Problems (1935) to Harlan County, USA . The greatest problem, at least in recent documentary, has been to retain that sense of a gap between the voice of interviewees and the voice of the text as a whole. It is most obviously a problem when the interviewees display conceptual inadequacy on the issue but remain unchallenged by the film. The Day After Trinity , for example, traces Robert F. Oppenheimer's career but restricts itself to a Great Man theory of history. The string of interviews clearly identify Oppenheimer's role in the race to build the nuclear bomb, and his equivocations, but it never places the bomb or Oppenheimer within that larger constellation of government policies and political calculations that determined its specific use or continuing threat—even though the interviews took place in the last few years. The text not only appears to lack a voice or perspective of its own, the perspective of its character-witnesses is patently inadequate.
In documentary, when the voice of the text disappears behind characters who speak to us, we confront a specific strategy of no less ideological importance than its equivalent in fiction films. When we no longer sense that a governing voice actively provides or withholds the imprimatur of veracity according to its own purposes and assumptions, its own canons of validation, we may also sense the return of the paradox and suspicion that interviews should help us escape: the word of witnesses, un-
critically accepted, must provide its own validation. Meanwhile, the film becomes a rubber stamp. To varying degree this diminution of a governing voice occurs through parts of Word Is Out, The Wobblies, With Babies and Banners , and Prison for Women . The sense of a hierarchy of voices becomes lost. Ideally this hierarchy would uphold correct logical typing at one level (the voice of the text remains of a higher, controlling type than the voices of interviewees) without denying the inevitable collapse of logical types at another (the voice of the text is not above history but part of the very historical process upon which it confers meaning). But at present a less complex and less adequate sidetracking of paradox prevails. The film says, in effect, "Interviewees never lie." Interviewees say, "What I am telling you is the truth." We then ask, "Is the interviewee telling the truth?" but find no acknowledgement in the film of the possibility, let alone the necessity, of entertaining this question as one inescapable in all communication and signification.
As much as anyone, Emile de Antonio, who pioneered the use of interviews and compilation footage to organize complex historical arguments without a narrator, has also provided clear signposts for avoiding the inherent dangers of interviews. Unfortunately, most of the film-makers adopting his basic approach have failed to heed them.
De Antonio demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the category of the personal. He does not invariably accept the word of witnesses, nor does he adopt rhetorical strategies (Great Man theories, for example) that limit historical understanding to the personal. Something exceeds this category,
and in Point of Order, In the Year of the Pig, Milhouse: A White Comedy , and Weather Underground , among others, this excess is carried by a distinct textual voice that clearly judges the validity of what witnesses say. Just as the voice of John Huston in The Battle of San Pietro contests one line of argument with another (that of General Mark Clark, who claims the costs of battle were not excessive, with that of Huston, who suggests they were), so the textual voice of de Antonio contests and places the statements made by its embedded interviews, but without speaking to us directly. (In de Antonio and in his followers, there is no narrator, only the direct address of witnesses.)
This contestation is not simply the express support of some witnesses over others, for left against right. It is a systematic effect of placement that retains the gaps between levels of different logical type. De Antonio's overall expository strategy in In the Year of the Pig , for example, makes it clear that no one witness tells the whole truth. De Antonio's voice (unspoken but controlling) makes witnesses contend with one another to yield a point of view more distinctive to the film than to any of its witnesses (since it includes this very strategy of contention). (Similarly, the unspoken voice of The Atomic Cafe —evident in the extraordinarily skillful editing of government nuclear weapons propaganda films from the fifties—governs a preferred reading of the footage it compiles.) But particularly in de Antonio's work, different points of view appear. History is not a monolith, its density and outline given from the outset. On the contrary, In the Year of the Pig , for example, constructs perspective and historical understanding, and does so right before our eyes.
We see and hear, for example, U.S. government spokesmen explaining their strategy and conception of the "Communist menace," whereas we do not see and hear Ho Chi Minh explain his strategy and vision. Instead, an interviewee, Paul Mus, introduces us to Ho Chi Minh descriptively while de Antonio's cut-aways to Vietnamese countryside evoke an affiliation between Ho and his land and people that is absent from the words and images of American spokesmen. Ho remains an uncontained figure whose full meaning must be conferred, and inferred, from available materials as they are brought together by de Antonio. Such construction is a textual, and cinematic, act evident in the choice of supporting or ironic images to accompany interviews, in the actual juxtaposition of interviews, and even in the still images that form a pre-credit sequence inasmuch as they unmistakably refer to the American Civil War (an analogy sharply at odds with U.S. government accounts of Communist invasion). By juxtaposing silhouettes of Civil War soldiers with GIs in Vietnam, the pre-credit sequence obliquely but clearly offers an interpretation for the events we are about to see. De Antonio does not subordinate his own voice to the way things are, to the sounds and images that are evidence of war. He acknowledges that the meaning of these images must be conferred upon them and goes about doing so in a readily understood though indirect manner.
De Antonio's hierarchy of levels and reservation of ultimate validation to the highest level (the textual system or film as a whole) differs radically from other approaches. John Lowenthal's The Trials of Alger Hiss , for example, is a totally subservient endorsement of Hiss's legalistic strategies. Similarly, Hollywood on Trial shows no independence from the perhaps politically expedient but disingenuous line adopted by the Hollywood 10 over thirty years ago—that HUAC's pattern of subpoenas to friendly and unfriendly witnesses primarily threatened the civil liberties of ordinary citizens (though it certainly did so) rather than posing a more specific threat to the CPUSA and American left (where it clearly did the greatest damage). By contrast, even in Painters Painting and Weather Underground , where de Antonio seems unusually close to validating uncritically what interviewees say, the subtle voice of his mise en scène preserves the gap, conveying a strong sense of the distance between the sensibilities or politics of those interviewed and those of the larger public to whom they speak.
De Antonio's films produce a world of dense complexity: they embody a sense of constraint and over-determination. Not everyone can be believed. Not everything is true. Characters do not emerge as the autonomous shapers of a personal destiny. De Antonio proposes ways and means by which to reconstruct the past dialectically, as Fred Wiseman reconstructs the present dialectically.
Rather than appearing to collapse itself into the consciousness of character witnesses, the film retains an independent consciousness, a voice of its own. The film's own consciousness (surrogate for ours) probes, remembers, substantiates, doubts. It questions and believes, including itself. It assumes the voice of personal consciousness at the same time as it examines the very category of the personal. Neither omniscient deity nor obedient mouthpiece, de Antonio's rhetorical voice seduces us by embodying those qualities of insight, skepticism, judgment, and independence we would like to appropriate for our own. Nonetheless, though he is closer to a modernist, self-reflexive strategy than any other documentary film-maker in America—with the possible exception of the more experimental feminist film-maker JoAnn Elam—de Antonio remains clearly apart from this tendency. He is more a Newtonian than an Einsteinian observer of events; he insists on the activity of fixing meaning, but it is meaning that does, finally, appear to reside "out there" rather than insisting on the activity of producing that "fix" from which meaning itself derives.
There are lessons here we would think de Antonio's successors would be quick to learn. But, most frequently, they have not. The interview remains a problem. Subjectivity, consciousness, argumentative form, and voice remain unquestioned in documentary theory and practice. Often, film-makers simply choose to interview characters with whom they agree. A weaker sense of skepticism, a diminished self-awareness of the film-maker as producer of meaning or history prevails, yielding a flatter, less dialectical sense of history and a simpler, more idealized sense of character. Characters threaten to emerge as stars—flashpoints of inspiring, and imaginary, coherence contradictory to their ostensible status as ordinary people.
These problems emerge in three of the best history films we have (and in the pioneering gay film, Word Is Out ), undermining their great importance on other levels. Union Maids, With Babies and Banners , and The Wobblies flounder on the axis of personal respect and historical recall. The films simply suppose that things were as the participant-witnesses recall them, and lest we doubt, the film-makers respectfully find images of illustration to substantiate the claim. (The resonance set up in Rosie the Riveter between interviews and compilation footage establishes a perceptible sense of a textual voice that makes this film a more sophisticated, though not self-reflexive, version of the interview-based documentary.) What characters omit to say, so do these films, most noticeably regarding the role of the CPUSA in Union Maids and With Babies and Banners. Banners , for example, contains one instance when a witness mentions the helpful knowledge she gained from Communist Party members. Immediately, though, the film cuts to unrelated footage of a violent attack on workers by a goon squad. It is as if the textual voice, rather than provide independent assessment, must go so far as to find diversionary material to offset presumably harmful comments by witnesses themselves!
These films naively endorse limited, selective recall. The tactic flattens witnesses into a series of imaginary puppets conforming to a line. Their recall becomes distinguishable more by differences in force of personality than by differences in perspective. Backgrounds loaded with iconographic meanings transform witnesses further into stereotypes (shipyards, farms, union halls abound, or for the gays and lesbians in Word Is Out , bedrooms and the bucolic out-of-doors). We sense a great relief when characters step out of these closed, iconographic frames and into more open-ended ones, but such "release" usually occurs only at the end of the films where it also signals the achievement of expository closure—another kind of frame. We return to the simple claim, "Things were as these witnesses describe them, why contest
them?"—a claim which is a dissimulation and a disservice to both film theory and political praxis. On the contrary, as de Antonio and Wiseman demonstrate quite differently, Things signify, but only if we make them comprehensible.
Documentaries with a more sophisticated grasp of the historical realm establish a preferred reading by a textual system that asserts its own voice in contrast to the voices it recruits or observes. Such films confront us with an alternative to our own hypotheses about what kind of things populate the world, what relations they sustain, and what meanings they bear for us. The film operates as an autonomous whole, as we do. It is greater than its parts and orchestrates them: (1) the recruited voices, the recruited sounds and images; (2) the textual "voice" spoken by the style of the film as a whole (how its multiplicity of codes, including those pertaining to recruited voices, are orchestrated into a singular, controlling pattern); and (3) the surrounding historical context, including the viewing event itself, which the textual voice cannot successfully rise above or fully control. The film is thus a simulacrum or external trace of the production of meaning we undertake ourselves every day, every moment. We see not an image of imaginary unchanging coherence, magically represented on a screen, but the evidence of an historically rooted act of making things meaningful comparable to our own historically situated acts of comprehension.
With de Antonio's films, The Atomic Cafe, Rape , or Rosie the Riveter , the active counterpointing of the text reminds us that its meaning is produced. This foregrounding of an active production of meaning by a textual system may also heighten our conscious sense of self as something also produced by codes that extend beyond ourselves. An exaggerated claim, perhaps, but still suggestive of the difference in effect of different documentary strategies and an indication of the importance of the self-reflexive strategy itself.
Self-reflexiveness can easily lead to an endless regression. It can prove highly appealing to an intelligentsia more interested in "good form" than in social change. Yet interest in self-reflexive forms is not purely an academic question. Cinéma vérité and its variants sought to address certain limitations in the voice-of-God tradition. The interview-oriented film sought to address limitations apparent in the bulk of cinéma vérité , and the self-reflexive documentary addresses the limitations of assuming that subjectivity and both the social and textual positioning of the self (as filmmaker or viewer) are ultimately not problematic.
Modernist thought in general challenges this assumption. A few documentary filmmakers, going as far back as Dziga Vertov and certainly including Jean Rouch and the hard-to-categorize Jean-Luc Godard, adopt the basic epistemological assumption in their work that knowledge and the position of the self in relation to the mediator of knowledge, a given text, are socially and formally constructed and should be shown to be so. Rather than inviting paralysis before
a centerless labyrinth, however, such a perspective restores the dialectic between self and other: neither the "out there" nor the "in here" contains its own inherent meaning. The process of constructing meaning overshadows constructed meanings. And at a time when modernist experimentation is old-hat within the avant-garde and a fair amount of fiction film-making, it remains almost totally unheard of among documentary film-makers, especially in North America. It is not political documentarists who have been the leading innovators. Instead it is a handful of ethnographic film-makers like Timothy Asch (The Ax Fight ), John Marshall (Nai! ), and David and Judith MacDougall who, in their meditations on scientific method and visual communication, have done the most provocative experimentation.
Take the MacDougalls' Wedding Camels (part of the Turkana trilogy), for example. The film, set in Northern Kenya, explores the preparations for a Turkana wedding in day-to-day detail. It mixes direct and indirect address to form a complex whole made up of two levels of historical reference—evidence and argument—and two levels of textual structure—observation and exposition.
Though Wedding Camels is frequently observational and very strongly rooted in the texture of everyday life, the film-makers' presence receives far more frequent acknowledgment than it does in Soldier Girls , or Wiseman's films, or most other observational work. Lorang, the bride's father and central figure in the dowry negotiations, says at one point, with clear acknowledgment of the film-makers' presence, "They [Europeans] never marry our daughters. They always hold back their animals." At other moments we hear David MacDougall ask questions of Lorang or others off-camera much as we do in The Wilmar 8 or In the Year of the Pig . (This contrasts with The Wobblies, Union Maids , and With Babies and Banners , where the questions to which participant-witnesses respond are not heard.) Sometimes these queries invite characters to reflect on events we observe in detail, like the dowry arrangements themselves. On these occasions they introduce a vivid level of self-reflexiveness into the characters' performance as well as into the film's structure, something that is impossible in interview-based films that give us no sense of a character's present but only use his or her words as testimony about the past.
Wedding Camels also makes frequent use of intertitles which mark off one scene from another to develop a mosaic structure that necessarily admits to its own lack of completeness even as individual facets appear to exhaust a given encounter. This sense of both incompleteness and exhaustion, as well as the radical shift of perceptual space involved in going from apparently three-dimensional images to two-dimensional graphics that comment on or frame the image, generates a strong sense of a hierarchical and self-referential ordering.
For example, in one scene Naingoro, sister to the bride's mother, says, "Our daughters are not our own. They are born to be given out." The implicit lack of completeness to individual identity apart from social exchange then receives elaboration through an interview sequence with Akai, the bride. The film poses questions by means of intertitles and sandwiches Akai's responses, briefly, between them. One intertitle, for example, phrases its question more or less as follows: "We asked Akai whether a Turkana woman chooses her husband or if her parents choose for her." Such phrasing brings the filmmaker's intervention strongly into the foreground.
The structure of this passage suggests some of the virtues of a hybrid style: the titles serve as another indicator of a textual voice apart from that of the characters represented. They also differ from most documentary titles which, since the silent days of Nanook , have worked like a graphic "voice" of authority. In Wedding Camels the titles, in their mock-interactive structure, remain closely aligned with the particulars of person and place rather than appearing to issue from an omniscient consciousness. They show clear awareness of how a particular meaning is being produced by a particular act of intervention. This is not presented as
a grand revelation but as a simple truth that is only remarkable for its rarity in documentary film. These particular titles also display both a wry sense of humor and a clear perception of the meaning an individual's marriage has for him or her as well as for others (a vital means of countering, among other things, the temptation of an ethnocentric reading or judgment). By "violating" the coherence of a social actor's diegetic space, intertitles also lessen the tendency for the interviewee to inflate to the proportions of a star-witness. By acting self-reflexively such strategies call the status of the interview itself into question and diminish its tacit claim to tell the whole truth. Other signifying choices, which function like Brechtian distancing devices, would include the separate "spaces" of image and intertitle for question/response; the highly structured and abbreviated question/answer format; the close-up, portrait-like framing of a social actor that pries her away from a matrix of on-going activities or a stereotypical background, and the clear acknowledgment that such fabrications exist to serve the purposes of the film rather than to capture an unaffected reality.
Though modest in tone, Wedding Camels demonstrates a structural sophistication well beyond that of almost any other documentary film work today. Whether its modernist strategies can be yoked to a more explicitly political perspective (without restricting itself to the small avant-garde audience that exists for the Godards and Chantal Akermans) is less a question than a challenge still haunting us, considering the limitations of most interview-based films.
Changes in documentary strategy bear a complex relation to history. Self-reflexive strategies seem to have a particularly complex historical relation to documentary form since they are far less peculiar to it than the voice-of-God, cinéma vérité , or interview-based strategies. Although they have been available to documentary (as to narrative) since the 'teens, they have never been as popular in North America as in Europe or in other regions (save among an avant-garde). Why they have recently made an effective appearance within the documentary domain is a matter requiring further exploration. I suspect we are dealing with more than a reaction to the limitations of the currently dominant interview-based form. Large cultural preferences concerning the voicing of dramatic as well as documentary material seem to be changing. In any event, the most recent appearances of self-reflexive strategies correspond very clearly to deficiencies in attempts to translate highly ideological, written anthropological practices into a proscriptive agenda for a visual anthropology (neutrality, descriptiveness, objectivity, "just the facts," and so on). It is very heartening to see that the realm of the possible for documentary film has now expanded to include strategies of reflexivity that may eventually serve political as well as scientific ends.
Old and New—Towards an Historical Profile
Our films remind some people of battle footage: grainy, camera weaving around trying to get the material and still not get beaten/trapped. Well, we and many others, are at war. We not only document that war, but try to find ways to bring that war to places which have managed so far to buy themselves isolation from it. . . . Our propaganda is one of confrontation. Using film—using our voices with and after films—using our bodies with and without camera—to provoke confrontation. . . . Therefore we keep moving. We keep hacking out films, as quickly as we can, in whatever way we can.
Robert Kramer, New York Newsreel, 1968
Documentary remains the major form of political filmmaking in this country. It has always been and probably will be in the foreseeable future. And yet, there has been very, very little discussion of how documentary films actually function. The political efficacy of documentary is derived from the relationship of the audience to the film—not the relationship of the filmmaker to the subject.
Larry Daressa, California Newsreel, 1983
Vol. 41, no. 1 (Fall 1987): 20–33.
December 1987 will mark the twenty-year anniversary of the formation of Newsreel, a radical film-making collective conceived during the last flush of New Left activism. Once boasting offices in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and Atlanta, Newsreel now survives in two versions: California Newsreel, San Francisco, producers and distributors of films about the workplace as well as South Africa and apartheid, with a new focus on media education (educating Americans about rather than through media); and Third World Newsreel, New York, vortex of film and video activities intended as the cultural interventions of the disenfranchised. In the following pages, I hope to suggest areas of conceptual as well as functional continuity and discontinuity between the two extant Newsreel organizations, as well as between the present enterprises and their Newsreel predecessors. In doing so, I seek to draw attention both to the achievements of a generation of American film activists and to the necessarily altered requirements for survival for politically committed documentarists in the late eighties. An historical profile of this sort can only point to a few of the most dramatic tendencies across decades of activity; this account will be supplemented by the soon-to-be-updated Third World Newsreel catalogue featuring descriptions of the Newsreel films in circulation (in addition to the hundred or so independently produced films and tapes they distribute) and by more in-depth accounts of the Newsreel infrastructure and output during its several phases.
The counterculture of the New Left tended toward negation, the issuing of shocks against presumed middle-class sensibilities, all the while reinforcing oppositional ties. Consequently, one must look elsewhere than to the culture of the American Left of the thirties for radical antecedents, perhaps to the Surrealist or
Constructivist positions earlier in the century. If one may judge from the rhetoric of first-generation Newsreelers such as Robert Kramer, it is the utopian socialism of the immediately post-revolutionary Soviet Union that resonates most deeply with the cultural radicalism of the New Left, not the populist humanism of the American thirties.
It is the combination of youthfulness, enthusiasm, and volatility that links the work and writing of Dziga Vertov with the first wave of Newsreel practitioners. Both were dedicated to the concept of a continuing revolution and the potential of the cinema to mobilize a shared political identity necessary for broad-based social change. What separates the two and forces us to pose them in dialectical tension are their respective relations to state power and to technology. Vertov and his comrades worked at the cutting edge of a state-run revolution. Newsreel was a manifestation of the counterculture, defining itself always in opposition to the dominant, generating and encouraging resistance to the authority of the prevailing system of social, political, and economic relations.
Vertov, trained as were so many other Soviet film artists for a scientific vocation, envisioned cinema as a technological vehicle for extending human powers of observation and cognition. His kinoki were labelled as "pilots" or "engineers" whose machine eye and radio ear could transform history. A child of his time, Vertov praised the beauty and perfection of the mechanical world and of chemical processes as the triumphant extension of natural forces.
A half-century later, the relationship of New Left media activists to technology was chiefly one of negation. Early Newsreelers harbored little hope of appropriating or re-routing channels of communication to further their political goals. ("None of us are old enough to have any illusions about infiltrating the major media to reach mass consciousness and change it—we grew up on TV and fifties Hollywood." ) Unlike Vertov and his kinoki , or even the American Old Left, the founders of Newsreel in late 1967 could claim no institutional or mass-based source of support. Rather, as suggested earlier, mass base had become mass culture; party was replaced by a constituency-in-media. And yet, as with Vertov, there was within the early Newsreel movement a feverish impulse toward an elemental reconstruction for its audience—if not of perception, at least of consciousness. These radical cineastes were inspired by the enforced aesthetic privations of true guerrilla footage, documents of forces fighting wars of liberation in Vietnam, Africa, or Latin America, or by the pre-industrialized methods of the American underground film, which also offered refuge from the seamless, ideologically complicit products of the culture industry.
There is a further point of historical tangency between early Newsreel and Vertov's efforts in the pre-dawn of radical cinema. Just as the Soviet agittrains, armed with camera equipment, film lab, and projector, traversed the land from 1919 to 1921 helping to forge a nascent cultural identity, so too did early Newsreelers mobilize their own community outreach program. Recent Academy Award recipient Deborah Shaffer (Witness to War , 1985) has spoken of the methods of distribution and exhibition in the Ann Arbor, Michigan chapter of Newsreel in 1969–70:
We had two motorcycles and we put this box on the back of the motorcycle to hold the projector. We'd go off on motorcycles with the projector and films. We would show them in dormitories, churches, people's living rooms, union halls, high school auditoriums.
Vertov and his New Left cousins shared the zeal and inventiveness of the bricoleur-evangelist.
The reconstruction of consciousness for the Newsreel audience was to be achieved by a willed abdication from the standards of quality or craft; the intention was a return to an essential cinema dedicated to the requirements of building an adversarial culture. The simplicity of the appellation "Newsreel" figures a desire for a fundamental reinscription of values and practices. The unstinting revisionism which underlies this naming and its return to the blank slate of historical representation is an act of both youthful bravery and of a willing forgetfulness which breaks ties with a set of complex histories. The
popular frontism of the American Left in the late 1930s and early 1940s was rooted in a hope of base-building and eventual unification while the political radicalisms of the late 1960s implied a contrary motive—the intensification of social contradiction to the point of rupture. For while the founding membership of Newsreel in New York included a core of veterans of mid-sixties community-organizing campaigns, the organization was forged in a moment of communal anger and indignation following the October 1967 March on the Pentagon. The agenda for a grass-roots, participatory democracy was buckling under the weight of a growing militancy.
The altered agenda of an increasingly apocalyptic moment is expressed quite succinctly in Garbage (Newsreel, 1968), a film which examines a planned provocation by the members of a New York anarchist group calling itself "Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers." During a prolonged strike of garbage collection workers, the Motherfuckers devise a plan to bring rotting garbage to the bastions of high culture and political power. They therefore dump enormous heaps of trash at the entrance-ways of Lincoln Center, home of the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic Symphony. As footage of this confrontation unspools, one demonstrator observes in voice-over that the difference between the Old Left and the New is expressed by their differing approaches to problems—the former sought to solve them, the latter to intensify them.
Institutional Ties—The Myth of Creation
As interviews with early New York Newsreel members indicate, the first generation of this radical film-making group represented a convergence of disparate impulses and constituencies. There were the former SDS activists whose political sensibilities had been forged through a decade of community-based activism and programmatic wrangling. Of this number, Robert Kramer and Norm Fruchter, with his ties to such influential journals as Studies on the Left and New Left Review , remain the prototypes. These were the ideologues, the political "heavies" whose Movement credentials and rhetorical skills were capable of intimidating opposition in mass meetings. In addition, there were the "underground" film-makers whose concerns were loosely tied to notions of alternative art-making and self-expression, products of the boom period of the New American Cinema when the Brakhages and the Baillies commanded a sizable audience in the museums and on the campuses. The former Newsreel faction was likely to give priority to the construction of correct political organizations expressed in filmic terms while the latter tendency defined itself more directly in terms of its craft, guided by political concerns but not subsumed by them. This is, of course, a rough approximation or profile of some forty or
fifty people whose idiosyncracies tended to obscure any such general tendencies.
There is a larger and quite striking commonality decipherable, however; neither faction could claim for itself an organized or structurally coherent base of support—in short, an audience. Neither the Marxists nor the underground film-makers could presume to know their constituencies in any but the most abstract terms, the political activists because the Movement was undergoing a painful process of fragmentation typified by the SDS splits while the film artisans were rooted in a tradition of expressivity which valued the isolation of the artist within the hegemony of mass culture. The very values which united every Newsreel audience or potential audience were based on a fundamental negation of institutionalized frameworks (alienation from accepted social and political forms, cynicism toward the trade unionism that had been the bastion of the Old Left, a preference for vaguely articulated rather than explicit associations). A politically inflected cultural group like Newsreel, in bearing what Bill Nichols has characterized as a barometric relationship to the Left, could only reproduce the soft boundaries and conceptual dissonance of late sixties political dissent typified by the rainbow of orientations and agendas that combined to protest the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention—from the Dave Dellinger–style anti-war pacifists to the anarchic Yippie contingent.
Despite the conceptual pluralism of Newsreel's position in the early years, we can discern certain frequently unstated premises of the organization. From an interview with a range of Newsreelers published in a 1968 Film Quarterly , Marilyn Buck and Karen Ross gave voice to the mythic origins of the collective: "And all the TV channels and American films speak from the same mouth of control and power. We looked around . . . and Newsreel was conceived and born." There is the suggestion of a kind of autochthony here, of a cleansing oracle arisen from within the belly of the mass-cultural beast. The two films which catapulted Newsreel to success in countercultural terms (Columbia Revolt, Black Panther —both 1968) offer further evidence of such a mythos of spontaneous generation. The films share an aura of revolutionary romanticism, offering direct contact with what appeared at the time to be the most advanced elements of the struggle—in short, news from the front. The Panther film, alternately titled Off the Pig (a phrase hypnotically chanted by a phalanx of Panthers during a demonstration at the Alameda County Courthouse), brought the words and images of Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale to Movement audiences everywhere. More importantly, by its mise-en-scène and incantatory music track accompanying bereted and leather-jacketed Panthers-in-training, the film manages to suggest a great deal more than it can show. "No more brothers in jail/The pigs are gonna catch hell" sing the militant brothers and sisters while Cleaver speaks of the bald-headed businessmen in the
Chamber of Commerce whose exploitation will be countered by mass insurgency as soon as the rest of America catches on (which Cleaver assures us will be very soon). Here is a mixture of buoyant militancy and a political optimism which is well nigh infectious—or would have been for a sympathetic 1968 audience. In any case, hundreds of prints sold in a matter of months.
As for Columbia Revolt , one need only consult the published responses of student audiences to be found in the underground press of the day. According to an October 1969 account appearing in Rat , a New York–based organ of the radical counterculture, Revolt was responsible for an incendiary outburst at a college campus in Buffalo: "At the end of the second film, with no discussion, five hundred members of the audience arose and made their way to the University ROTC building [the Reserve Officer Training Corps, target of much campus protest during the Vietnam War]. They proceeded to smash windows, tear up furniture and destroy machines until the office was a total wreck; and then they burned the remaining paper and flammable parts of the structure to charcoal." What the Buffalo student body had observed (and the apocryphal nature of the tale is no hindrance to a discussion of mythic contours) was the vanguard action of their Ivy League cousins, a model of energetic but sustained resistance to malign authority. The analysis contained in Columbia Revolt is muted in comparison to the spectacle of solidarity and community it offers. The New Age marriage rites of two students, the support marches of sympathetic faculty members, the pitch-and-catch of food stuffs holding intact the supply lines which, like the Ho Chi Minh Trail, meant sustenance for the guerrillas under siege—all these depictions of newly conceived social relations live on long after the immediate gymnasium construction issue is forgotten.
The efforts of the early Newsreel collectives aimed to inform and inspire their Movement audiences, with the balance between the two functions always in question. While a pre-Newsreel film like Troublemakers (1966), which follows the struggles of a community organizing group in a black neighborhood in Newark before the riots (examining the project's achievements and defeats), explores the contradictions inherent in grass-roots political activism, the post'68 Newsreel film was likely to stress action and elicit engaged (if not educated) response. In a pronouncement that echoes the Surrealist position of the 1920s, Robert Kramer outlined the Newsreel program circa 1968: "We strive for confrontation, we prefer disgust/violent disagreement/painful recognition/jolts—all these to slow liberal head-nodding and general wonderment at the complexity of these times and their being out of joint."
Given the avowedly confrontational status of the work, the emphasis upon a collective scheme of organization and production ("Newsreel is a collective rather than a cooperative; we are not together merely to help each other out
as filmmakers but we are working together for a common purpose"), what can be said about the precise division of labor of the groups in question and the material conditions of production? As every Marxist knows, consciousness does not anticipate productive relations but is conditioned and determined by them. But a major philosopher of the New Left like Herbert Marcuse was quite willing to theorize (in An Essay on Liberation , 1969) that, in a stage of advanced capitalism, imagination could show reason the way. Artists and free-thinkers could reshape the horizons of a society soured and desensitized by an over-rationalized ethos of thought and action. As a loosely bound group of like-minded cultural interventionists, Newsreel was the ideal manifestation of this New Age dogma.
Decision-making and the setting of policy were matters of some contestation given the lack of clear lines of authority and the diverse backgrounds of the participants. At a time that felt like a crisis period, specific goals (even ill-defined ones like "stop the war") offered sufficient binding power to keep the wheels turning and the Movement audience served. Those who, like Norm Fruchter, were accustomed to a greater precision of shared principles and a more disciplined group dynamic found the Newsreel experience a trying one. "I was . . . more of a Marxist, I think, than a lot of people in Newsreel," says Fruchter, "and so I was both interested in those congeries of different folks, and at the same time skeptical about whether we were going to hold together. The energy was awesome."
So far as the mechanism for production decisions was concerned, the pattern was erratic at best. The most fundamental decisions always surrounded the initial question—what films should be made. But a second question—how to finance a given project—often proved determinant. Films could be made if there
were those within the collective who could manage to make them by whatever means might present themselves. If the final result was unacceptable to the group, the film could not receive the "Newsreel" imprimatur. Several funding routes seem to have recurred in the early days. There was a core elite within the New York collective who matched the profile of the SDS leadership throughout the sixties—college-educated white males, verbal, assertive, confident, with access to funding sources both personal and institutional. Robert Kramer and Robert Machover could call upon family resources to finance projects. (Indeed, this pattern is a time-honored one in American Left circles, most recently exemplified by Haskell Wexler's anti-Contra feature, Latino —bankrolled in part by his mother.) The Fruchters, Kramers, and Machovers of Newsreel were the bright and persuasive young men who could function within the world of capital, either by virtue of birthright or by acquired expertise. Fruchter, for example, was well suited for fundraising given his scholarly and literary credentials (as a published novelist) and his first-hand experience with Left funding networks. Fruchter has estimated that he succeeded in raising more money for Troublemakers , his film about the Newark Community Union Project, than had the Project itself over its several-year lifespan. There were simmering animosities over this relative monopoly of capital-access, rooted as it was in class background. Furthermore, this same group of men (who were a key faction of the New York collective's coordinating committee) possessed far greater technical skills and experience; Fruchter, Kramer, and Machover had formed Blue Van Films several years before.
A second faction consisted of yet another group of white males who, though less likely candidates for institutional support, were well under way as independent film-makers. By 1968, Marvin Fishman and Allan Siegel had both organized film-making workshops at the Free University in New York and were able to translate their expertise into Newsreel product. At the moment of Newsreel's formation in December 1967, it was decided that a film was needed to chronicle the October 1967 March on the Pentagon; Fishman was farthest along with a personal project along those lines. Newsreel #1 (1968), entitled No Game , was the result, despite the fact that the film bears only a passing resemblance to the "Newsreel style" familiar from the later works—scenes of conflict; lively, nonsynch music interspersed with multiple voice-over narrations from impassioned participants. There were concerted efforts made to disseminate the technical skills, but the difficulties were more deeply embedded than these well-intentioned attempts could hope to rectify. Women and minorities—after lifetimes of limited access to resources, possessing severely stunted self-images as producers of culture—were incapable of closing the gap overnight. Frustration and unspoken critiques festered beneath the surface of the organization.
And yet a necessary pragmatism reigned. In the words of Allan Siegel: "It was the kind of thing that if you came up with the money to do it [make a film], well then, you could do it. You made a film. I always used to stash myself away someplace and make things out of nothing. So I kept turning things out . . ." Power and status were thus linked to the ability to produce despite the unequal distribution of the requisite tools for the task. In his discussion of Newsreel's collective process in the early days, Norm Fruchter recalls the inequities with some regret:
Your participation depended on having another means to finance yourself. There was a group of people who worked and therefore could never stay up all night . . . and couldn't shoot certain sequences. . . . And there were a lot of arguments about the contradictions of being in, not a rich person's organization, but certainly an organization which required the leisure to be full time in it. We talked about income-sharing but never did it. We talked about finding some way to subsidize the people who had to work and never did that. All the income that was brought in and all the fundraising that was done went right into the production of more films and that perpetuated the reign of the people who had self-sufficient resources or could somehow juggle their lives or their jobs or whatever so that they could do that. And I don't think it bothered us that much at the time. I remember thinking that, yeah, it was absolutely unfair and there was nothing to be done about it.
Problems arising from inequities internal to the collective—income differentials, housing, or childcare needs—were viewed as secondary to the pressing struggle for social change. The politics of sexuality and of everyday life remained issues to be addressed in a later phase of the organization.
By the early seventies, although the first-generation Newsreelers had left the organization, factionalism based on differences of privilege and access enjoyed by collective members prevailed. From 1971 to 1973, New York Newsreel members split themselves into "haves" and "have-nots," with the distinctions among ethnicity, class background, and functional class position somewhat blurred. Thus Christine Choy, a Chinese woman, at 22 the holder of a master's degree in architecture from Columbia University, was a have-not, due in part to her activities within the organization's Third World Caucus. While salary differentials posed no basis for contention—minimal stipends and rent support for collective dwellings were the extent of financial support—stratification was expressed in subtle forms: the haves edited on a Steenbeck while the have-nots made do with an old Moviola.
But the rift within the collective evidenced by the have/have-not division was only one stage among a series of convulsions that left New York Newsreel a three-person collective by 1973. The success of the San Francisco–shot The Woman's Film (1971) had coincided with the emergence of an outspoken feminist faction within the New York organization, which began to control distribution and exhibition; most of the men left the collective in the months that followed.
As the Third World faction within the group began to focus on recruiting minorities and passing on production skills, the rift between white members and those of color intensified to the breaking point. With the dwindling of the membership, the resources capable of sustaining the collective enterprise were near exhaustion. Gone were the human resources—years of experience in shooting and assembling footage under pressure for no money, and the financial reserves—family wealth to be tapped, as well as most of the equipment.
It should be noted that while the schisms that developed within Newsreel during the early seventies around class, gender, and race effected a series of ruptures at the localized, institutional level, these organizational convulsions serve to reinforce a sense of continuity at a broader historical level. For indeed, these were the same issues (gender, race, class) that increasingly split the always tenuous coalition of New Left/countercultural forces as the focus on war resistance waned. As debates over contradictions, primary and secondary, came to occupy center stage within Movement organizations, consensus collapsed. Newsreel was never merely a reflection or conduit, that is, about Movement tactics and sensibilities; it has always remained of the Movement, a palpable index of shifting fortunes and newfound necessities.
The single factor that ensured New York Newsreel's viability in 1973 remains the material basis for twenty years of continuity despite convulsions from within—that is, the collection of films themselves. The resurgence of production in New York did not occur until 1975, when work began on From Spikes to Spindles (1976), a project that established Third World Newsreel's reputation for compact, historically situated overviews of ethnic minorities in crisis (in this case, Chinese Americans in New York). Until that time, the focus of collective activity remained the revival of distribution of the original Newsreel collection (achieved in part through the issuing of a new catalogue), which was recognized as the backbone of the organization. The films were the sole resources that remained to the New York organization in 1973; they have sustained the Newsreel effort since that time as financial asset and historical legacy even as the New York and San Francisco collectives move toward a reordering of goals and priorities.
The film-making collective calling itself California Newsreel was formed in 1975 from the ashes of a San Francisco Newsreel branch which had absorbed the sort of gut-wrenching political upheavals and bitter factionalism that shook the New York group during the same period. (The chief source of San Francisco's division was a move toward the Revolutionary Communist Party by certain influential Newsreel members.) By 1978, California Newsreel was comprised of three white males—Larry Daressa, Larry Adelman, and Bruce Schmiechen—none of whom had been a part of the earlier incarnation of the San Francisco Newsreel collective that produced Black Panther and other militant films from 1968 to 1973. Several years later, another collective member was brought on to deal exclusively with archival and distributional matters (a black man, Cornelius Moore), while only recently Schmiechen has left the collective to pursue independent projects.
No greater contrast could prevail between Cal Newsreel and its predecessors with regard to its financial underpinnings, organizational precision, and concentration on distribution over production. Unlike New York Newsreel of the early years (and to a lesser extent Third World Newsreel), California Newsreel has emphasized distribution over production. Indeed, in the twelve years of its existence, the collective has produced only two films of its own while becoming a major player within a clearly demarcated sector of the educational film market. Cal Newsreel distributes films of particular interest to an audience of economists, sociologists, and labor historians for classroom use; to labor educators and organizers within the trade union movement; and to various progressive and special interest groups at the grass-roots level (churches, action groups, campus organizations). The two films produced, Controlling Interest and The Business of America . . ., were the results of the collective's perception of a felt need within this clearly defined audience and within the Left in general. Controlling Interest attempts in its 45 minutes to explain the complex nature and operating procedures of the multinational corporation and was produced at a time when no such study was available for purposes of political education. The film has sold over 800 prints since its release in 1978.
The Business of America . . . likewise aimed to fill a gap in the available public-educational resources. It was conceived in the aftermath of the Reagan victory and was intended as a more personalized treatise than the data-heavy Controlling Interest , capable of exposing the massive failures of the Reagan economic program and its supply-side, trickle-down ethos. Both films "found" their audience precisely because they were tailored to its particular needs—arrived at through a variety of feed-back mechanisms and close contact with the client groups.
No longer can the Newsreel audience be defined as an amorphous mass of like-minded individuals concerned to stay abreast of breaking stories of exploitation and political victories. It's now a discrete body of buyers or renters of a media product deemed vital to the educational needs of their organization or curriculum. What is interesting about this shift is that, to a certain extent, these two audiences overlap inasmuch as the 1980s generation of Left academics, organizers, and educators are largely drawn from that ill-defined body of radicalized spectators of the late sixties/early seventies. If California Newsreel seems a more briskly functional and business-like version of its progenitors, the same can be said of its audience, the Left activists who have survived into the eighties, who have withstood the onslaught of budget cuts, diminishing numbers, and the nation's mood swing to the right.
Since I have discussed the two California Newsreel productions at length elsewhere, it seems more appropriate to concentrate here on the significant features of the organization as a business enterprise. The San Francisco group has remained profitable by a combination of prescience and hard work. In the months after the Soweto uprisings in South Africa (June 1976), a collective decision was made to choose a Southern African focus—to purchase the distribution rights to a variety of films about Southern Africa and related issues in order to distribute them to interested parties worldwide. At the time, no such collection of films existed; even now, California Newsreel is the world's principal source of films on apartheid, divestment, and related issues with a total of 21 documentaries acquired from independents and the BBC alike.
The escalation of apartheid aggression throughout Southern Africa over the past several years and the upswing of world interest in countering the brutality of the Botha government through sanctions and strategies of resistance have subsequently rendered these films a resource in high demand. During the recent nationwide surge of campus protests against corporate investment in South Africa, California Newsreel played a vital role in boosting the level of educated debate simply by providing a range of relevant films as well as printed material researched and developed over nearly a decade.[*] Once again, although perhaps in a less dramatic fashion than in 1968, Newsreel was in the right place at the right time.
California Newsreel's formula for fiscal success combines business acumen with a knack for low-budget production made possible by the shrewd recy-
cling of archival footage and, in the beginning at least, the ability to attract donated labor (crew members, editing assistants, etc.). Controlling Interest was made for $30,000 with only 10% of that figure generated internally. The Methodist Church, small foundations, and concerned individuals provided the bulk of the funding for that project while The Business of America . . . was financed largely (2/3 of the $120,000 total cost) by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the corporate arm of the Public Broadcasting System now firmly controlled by Reagan acolytes. In the first year of its circulation, more than 250 prints of the film were sold to what can only be considered its secondary market (a series of nationwide PBS airdates broadcast the film to approximately four million Americans).
The remarkable truth is that California Newsreel can boast liquid assets sufficient to ensure its existence for years to come. In spite of its bountiful resources, each collective member draws the same salary ($25,000 annually) and will continue to do so, no matter how bullish the Left-wing educational film market may become. In fact, all workers—from Daressa and Adelman to the person who sweeps the floors at the crumbling, warehouse-district office perched in its San Francisco alleyway—receive the same base pay. This feature of the organization is its clearest link with Newsreel's past. There is one additional point of tangency with the early days, at least with one faction of the first New York collective. California Newsreel's activities as producer and distributor are deeply tied to the perceived requirements of the American Left and are calculated in pragmatic, politically sophisticated terms. Like the core membership of New Left ideologues of the late sixties, Cal Newsreel (and Daressa in particular) is equal to the task of mastering the vagaries of contemporary Marxist theory as well as mainstream economic thought and of offering cogently argued, conceptually sound analyses and critiques of national labor policies and long-term economic programs.
In something of a departure from its past achievements, California Newsreel has chosen to mark its twentieth anniversary year by launching a major five-year project aimed at deconstructing media as conventionally produced and received. This "Media on Media" project will attempt to use the prevailing technology (namely, broadcast television) to generate a meta-discourse on communications, an anti-television capable of exploring new modes of expression as well as new techniques for reading—in effect, to establish a context for exchange between media products and their audiences. California Newsreel thus commits itself to the creation of an environment favorable to a rejuvenated, experimental, reflexive documentary form at a moment of flagging hopes among American independent producers.
California Newsreel thus announces a dramatic shift of emphasis from "point of production" (the workplace) to "point of reception" (the home)
consistent with its analysis of the political/cultural focus that Left organizations need to develop in present circumstances. But the concern for engaging a nationwide rather than Movement audience is in accord with the organizations's public profile for nearly a decade. As co-chair of the National Coalition of Independent Public Television Producers, Larry Daressa has lobbied strenuously in Washington for a more meaningful role for independent producers within public broadcasting's program schedule as a way of insuring the vitality of contestation within an ever more uniform cultural climate. The present "Media on Media" project, while unique to the American airwaves, is clearly consistent with the efforts of British Channel Four's Michael Jackson, producer of "Open the Box" (1986), a six-part series exploring the complexities and social effects of television, and Jean-Luc Godard, whose groundbreaking videoworks of the seventies (Six Fois Deux and France/Tour/Detour/Deux Enfants ) radically challenged the French viewing public's media expectations at formal and thematic levels. Indeed, California Newsreel's ultimate aim is to intervene in the viewing habits of America, to alter not so much what we see but how we see it. This will mean working to establish a space for innovation and experimentation on American television, perhaps through the creation of an Independent Programming Service on the order of Britain's Channel Four to explore new dissemination technologies and sponsor unconventional programming. Perhaps it is the sheer scale of such aspirations that provides the clearest vector of continuity with the New Left utopianism of Newsreel's founding moment.
Third World Newsreel
As we have seen, the early Newsreel operation was able to offer battlefront coverage of contemporary struggles from a recognizably Left perspective—quickly and in vast number. If that function has been lost at California Newsreel, it lives on at the Manhattan headquarters of Third World Newsreel. At a time when politically oriented documentary film-making in the United States has suffered a near-catastrophic decline, Third World has remained capable of producing films at a dizzying pace. The garment district offices of the collective are always alive with production activities at several stages; the editing rooms are in constant use for in-house projects while visiting independent film-makers frequently avail themselves of the facilities and expertise at hand. In 1985, Third World shot and completed two 50-minute films, both of them commissioned or initiated by outside sources rather than generated from within the organization. Namibia: Independence Now was commissioned by the United Nations Council on Namibia; distributed by Third World Newsreel, the film has been translated into
seven languages. Chronicle of Hope: Nicaragua was a project developed in coordination with the Nicaraguan Peace Fleet, a Florida-based organization that regularly ships clothing and medical supplies donated by concerned Americans. The film traces a single journey from its source in upstate New York, through a series of American communities, to the point of embarkation in Florida, and at last to safe harbor in Nicaragua, thus establishing a human bridge among nations.
The primary sources of this productive momentum remain Christine Choy and Allan Siegel, who, while maintaining a long-standing personal relationship, manage to stay involved in countless projects simultaneously, all at different stages of completion. Siegel's relationship with Newsreel extends from the original December 1967 meeting through 1970 and from 1974 to the present. During that time, he has worked in a range of capacities: shooting much of Columbia Revolt; editing and directing such early works as Garbage, America, Community Control, Pig Power , and We Demand Freedom . Siegel's recent credits include the Nicaraguan film and one of the three segments of The Mississippi Triangle , a 1984 film that examines a particularly eccentric ethnic conjuncture—Chinese/black intermarriage in white Mississippi—with film-makers of each ethnic background directing the appropriate segments.
Choy has directed at a furious pace for the past decade, receiving in the process fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Film Institute, and the National Endowment of the Arts. Having come to the U.S. as a teenager from the People's Republic of China to attend school, Choy retains something of the outsider's view of American culture and politics. She has a photographer's eye and the skills of a graphic artist refined during her years of architectural training; she designs many of the layouts for the pamphlets and booklets which Third World distributes. Choy has also maintained a high profile in the Asian-American film and art-making communities and is active in a range of related organizations, coalitions, and support groups.
Unlike its San Francisco cousin, Third World Newsreel cannot begin to support its many projects through the sales and rentals of its films. Films are financed on an ad hoc basis, each one having a life and history of its own. In answer to a question concerning the economic health of the organization, Siegel replied: "Generally, we survive. There's a certain tension to that survival which just has to do with being a marginal-type arts organization. . . . Basically, we're a small business. It's taken us a while to figure out how you survive as a small business, and in that sense, California Newsreel is much more adept. . . . We've been somewhat more anarchistic in that regard."
And yet, the track record of Third World Newsreel is a tremendously solid one. When increased funding for women's and minority arts projects began to become available in the late seventies, Third World Newsreel was already a veteran organization with an impressive roster of completed films to its credit.
Choy's enduring advocacy in the field of Asian-American cultural studies and her high visibility within ongoing lobbying efforts for minority access to public funding have helped to secure for Third World Newsreel and other minority media groups some measure of financial stability. Another avenue of Newsreel's sponsorship has been the establishment of the Third World Producers Project administered by the Film News Now Foundation, conduit for a variety of Newsreel-related projects. Under the leadership of Choy and Renee Tajima (a frequent Third World Newsreel collaborator), the program provides one-on-one consultation to Third World and women media producers in all aspects of their work (fundraising, film and video production skills, distribution). Still another increasingly significant component of the Third World Newsreel portfolio is the Advanced Production Workshop. Begun in 1978, the workshop offers ten to fifteen people a year-long experience in film and video production through weekly classroom sessions culminating in several finished works. The workshops offer valuable training and experience, a community-based alternative to the competitive, industry-oriented film school model.
On another front, Third World Newsreel's exhibition programs constitute a vital sector of the collective's activities. Former Newsreel member Pearl Bowser was responsible for conceiving and programming a series of travelling film exhibitions. "Independent Black American Cinema 1920–1980" began as a retrospective of more than forty films and videotapes showcased in France in 1980 which then toured the United States over a two-year period. Other major efforts of this type have included the publication (in 1982) of a booklet entitled "In Color: Sixty Years of Images of Minority Women in the Media," which offers a series of essays intended as a contribution to the dialogue around the imaging of Third World women and the position occupied by women within the media. A related program of a dozen films ranging from Ousmane Sembene's Ceddo to short independent works such as Sylvia Morales's Chicana was organized as an exhibition event in the New York area. A more ambitious exhibition series and accompanying publication was completed in 1983—"Journey Across Three Continents," which combined a diverse selection of films by African cineastes and film-makers of the black diaspora with a lecture series and 70-page catalogue. The series toured 35 cities over a three-year period in an attempt to expose new audiences to the work as well as to convey the richness and diversity of the black experience in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. "Journey Across Three Continents," assembled and curated once again by Pearl Bowser, drew upon the research contributions of seven Black Studies scholars. Through its exhibition projects, Third World Newsreel has sought to facilitate dialogue between minority artists and concerned spectators, to develop an American audience for black and Third World media works outside the major urban centers. In this sense, Third World Newsreel shares California Newsreel's emphasis upon organizing at the "point of reception."
Spearheaded by Ada Gay Griffin, who joined Third World Newsreel through the Advanced Production Workshop, distribution has become an area of intensified focus, with the collection including more than 150 films and tapes. In addition to the early Newsreels, Cuban and Vietnamese films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the subsequent Newsreel projects of Siegel and Choy, the Third World Newsreel catalogue features the work of such independent producers as Arthur Dong, Charles Burnett, Steve Ning, Lourdes Portillo, and numerous lesser-known artists. By opting for nonexclusive contracts with minority producers, Third World seeks further coverage and heightened visibility for producers, while offering an average 50% return to the film-maker. Griffin has emphasized outreach to educational and community groups on a sliding scale: "I use discretion to give discounts to people I know should have access to the film." The priority here is to promote the work of minority artists unable to find distributional outlets elsewhere due to the limited appeal or controversial nature of the work—or its aesthetic roughness. In Griffin's opinion, the time has not yet arrived when aesthetic standards alone can be allowed to determine the life of socially concerned programming. Training programs and consultational services rather than elitist distributional practices have been chosen as the way to raise the level of professionalism within the minority media community.
The Anthology of Asian-American Film and Video functions as an additional and ongoing distribution project for the collective. Begun in 1984, the Anthology houses some thirty films by and about Asian-Americans, making this the most significant collection of such work. Like the larger Third World distributional scheme of which it is a part, the Anthology functions as a clearinghouse and organizational vehicle for independent productions, both documentary and fiction, which would be hard-pressed to find their appropriate audiences. The Anthology is a serious contribution toward the redress of an historical imbalance, the exclusion from public view of the dreams, aspirations, and achievements of minority populations within the United States. Given its history and the tenacity of the core collective members, Third World Newsreel's position in the vanguard of cultural-political change seems assured.
In assessing the complex contributions of Newsreel in its various incarnations, we must note the relationship of the local and cultural to the macro-economic or infrastructural level which is, in the end, determinant. The unceremonious retreat of progressive forces in this decade has by now convinced us that a Marcusean analysis sacrifices explanatory or predictive power for inspirational zeal. Fredric Jameson, in a recent ambitious attempt to periodize the
sixties, concludes that the turbulent decade represented, after all, a moment of transition from one infrastructural or systemic stage of capitalism to another. The eighties can, according to Jameson, be characterized as global capitalism's moment of reentrenchment, the era in which the unbound social forces and liberating energies of the prior moment must be brought to heel. The sixties' unleashing of prodigious and unexpected new forces, issuing from the social movements of blacks, students, feminists, and Third Worlders, produced a kind of "surplus consciousness" disinclined to forward the multinational corporate agenda. It is these emergent, relatively maverick constituencies that late capitalism must now attempt to proletarianize. But Newsreel has, from its beginnings, remained an active contributor to the development and dissemination of this "surplus consciousness," advocating resistance to the hegemonic while cultivating the values of a nascent political culture. Amidst the conservative backsliding and backlashing of the eighties, Newsreel has emerged as America's most consistent radical documentary voice. If, in the early years, its films spoke primarily to the Movement vanguard, Newsreel has moved toward a deepening of its ties with a broad spectrum of working Americans, offering a coherent Left perspective for an analysis-starved audience as well as a route to public access for minority artists. And finally, through continuing distribution of the early films of struggle and confrontation, the Newsreel enterprise has sustained the popular memory of concerted, energetic political activism. If the efforts of the sixties are to escape recuperation, to survive and, in time, to be renewed, it will be through cultural as well as political agitation. Given the history of the organization and its achievements to date, one can reasonably look to Newsreel for leadership in the struggle ahead.
When Less Is Less:
The Long Take in Documentary
Vol. 46, no. 2 (Winter 1992–93): 36–46.
There is a hidden problem in documentary film—the problem of the long camera take and what to do with it. With the exception of interview material, most of the shots in contemporary documentary films and television programs are only a few seconds long. This is in marked contrast to fiction films and television dramas, in which whole scenes are played out in a single shot. Documentary thus finds itself in the curious company of television commercials and music videos in seeking to maintain audience interest through the dynamics and variety of quick cutting. The long take has become the terra incognita of the modern documentary film, a blank space in a practice which devotes itself almost entirely to other properties of the shot. And this is contrary to its heritage, for documentary was born in the pleasures of watching such ordinary events as leaves shimmering on a tree or a train arriving at a station.
Not long ago I spent months filming in the streets of a small town in northern India. The finished film is intentionally one of counterpoints and disjunctions and not at all a smoothly flowing narrative. Yet while I was filming, something odd occurred which I still don't fully understand. I began to shoot a kind of "shadow" film alongside the main film. This notional film—notional because it remains unmade—consists of long camera takes which quite clearly could never have been used in the main film. My main justification for shooting these long takes was that we could at least extract and use pieces of them. But in the back of my mind they actually constituted an alternative film, a counter-film to the one we were making. They formed a necessary antidote, a way of holding on to qualities which are so often lost when a film is structured for its likely audiences. I remember thinking at the time: "Is it possible to go back to zero, to film as if the cinema has just been invented? What would it be like to work like Louis Lumière when he first set up his camera on the street?"
Some of these long takes last five or six minutes (200 feet of 16mm); none are shorter than a minute or two. To watch these shots one must suspend one's
This is an expanded version of ideas which I first presented in a seminar as a Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre in Canberra, Australia, in 1989. I should like to thank the HRC for its support. I am indebted to E. Richard Sorenson and Allison Jablonko for the term "digressive search," which I use in a rather different sense from theirs; and to Roger Cardinal for the stimulation provided by his essay "Pausing over Peripheral Detail." I am also grateful to Leslie Devereaux, Gary Kildea, and Paul Willemen for discussions with me of some of the issues raised here.
usual moviegoing and television-watching expectations. But these expectations serve as a frame of reference for what I want to discuss here.
Like a spark or a stab of lightning, a shot discharges most of its meaning at once, within the first few microseconds of appearing on the screen. If we close our eyes after that first instant, the meaning survives. The mind arrests it like the shutter of a camera. What follows in our response may be very different—a sudden adherence to something happening within the shot, or a kind of coasting perusal. Or so it can be if the shot continues. But most shots are not allowed to. In film-making few shots are used in their entirety. Most are shot long and cut short.
Christopher Pinney has argued that still photographs are more indeterminate than films, offering the viewer more because they dictate meanings less. Social scientists in particular, he suggests, are afraid of still photographs and prefer film because "still images contain too many meanings whereas the desirability of film lies precisely in its ability to constrain meaning through narrative chains of signification. . . . They close off plural readings in the temporal flow of succession and destruction." The temporal and sequential structure of film thus "provides a fortification against undesirable and 'unwarranted' readings."
But applying this argument to film itself produces a curious reversal of Pinney's observations. Short camera takes resemble still photographs in their fixing of a single image, but by their very brevity they disallow the kind of perusal of the image over time permitted by photographs and by longer takes. Longer takes, which create sequential chains and the narrative cloistering of meanings, also undermine these very meanings by leaving the viewer more time to ignore or challenge them. It can thus be said that the long take comes eventually to resemble the still photograph more closely than the short take, at least in these "lexical" properties.
Just as shots may be short or long, so there are short films, long films, and occasionally very long films which are rarely seen. While no one would argue that how one reads entire films is analogous to how one reads individual shots, there is perhaps a connection between the visual context within which a shot is framed and the footage from which a finished film is extracted. Dai Vaughan writes of an ideal cinema, never to be fully achieved because tending toward an impossible conflation, "something which would attain to a narrative significance whilst remaining random." The films that have come closest for him have been certain documentary films for television shot in cinéma-vérité or long-take style: "Not the rushes, yet not the fine cuts and most certainly not the transmitted versions with their cellophane wrap of commentary and captions and studio presentation, but the films as they stood when their narrative structures had just begun to emerge with the patient chipping away of the surrounding substance, yet were still perceptibly of its density and of its mass."
I want to examine this problem of the ideal and the actual, the object within grasp yet somehow lost, and draw a broad analogy between the way in which shots are reduced in length in films and the way in which an entire body of footage shot for a film is reduced to produce the finished film. On the way I hope to question some of the assumptions which underlie these practices.
Disquiet in Documentary
Long takes were not always the exception. In the early days of the cinema, when all films consisted of a single shot, they were the norm. Louis Lumière's first films ran for up to a full minute uncut—the length of a roll of film at the time. Some of Georges Demeny's shots (filmed in the 60mm gauge as early as 1895) ran to 40 seconds. That is very long by today's standards, even in fiction films, although a few directors (Jancsó, Jarmusch) have created distinctive styles around very long takes. In television documentary the average length of a shot is closer to five seconds, excepting interviews and "talking-head" presentations. These shots tend to be cut automatically at the point where it is assumed audience attention drops, or where there is any suggestion of a pause in narrative flow.
The great enemy of documentary (and oddly, rather a taboo topic of discussion among film-makers themselves) is the "dead spot" in which nothing seems to be happening. Film producers are terrified of such moments, for they are terrified of audience impatience. I suspect that the taboo status of this topic goes back to an inherent contradiction in documentary principles. In the early days of cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema, the prevailing ideology had it that dead spots weren't supposed to exist. Ordinary life was deemed to be interesting and worthy of everyone's attention. But documentary film-makers still contrived to avoid dramaturgical dead spots, cutting around them or focusing on exciting events and famous people. Documentary, whatever its ideology, still took its shape from fiction or journalism. It had to defend its interest in the ordinary by making sure that the ordinary played well. There was a tacit understanding that you didn't talk publicly about this. Who cared to admit that documentary actually concealed the lacunae characteristic of ordinary life and chose only the best bits, just like the fiction film-makers?
What constitutes a "long take" is obviously an artificial and somewhat arbitrary concept, formed in relation to an average notion of shot length and affected by content and position as well as by duration. Long takes are perhaps better defined by their structural qualities than by their length. Does the shot, for example, form an entire sequence in the film, or is it merely part of a more extended, edited sequence? In this analysis, the term "long take" refers more
to a method of film construction than to actual length. Brian Henderson has pointed out that although Murnau uses a long-take style, his shots are actually quite short. In his films the viewer's attention tends to be focused more upon developments within shots than upon linkages between them.
It is also evident that shots of long duration are not necessarily more revealing than if they had been shorter—for example, shots of repetitive activities or shots containing limited information which is rapidly grasped by the viewer. It is no use comparing generically different materials. Duration is perhaps the least important criterion in comparing a static, practically empty frame and a frame crowded with activity. And yet . . . and yet, as I shall argue later, absolute duration does finally matter. It is not wholly subjective and has its own measure of influence upon our reading of shots.
The Viewing of Images
It seems almost self-evident that how long we look at an image affects what we see in it and how we interpret it. Even if there were no other evidence of this, it has been shown that the eye successively scans an image in a series of fixations. If the time for doing this is cut short, the eye fixes on fewer points and the mind creates a less extensive version of what David Marr has called the "primal sketch." In talking about viewing film images it is useful to place the process in the context of viewing practices generally. How does film-viewing differ from viewing other kinds of images, such as still photographs?
Sometimes the length of time we devote to a still photograph is determined for us, as when a train we are on flashes by a billboard with a photograph on it. The frequency with which we view photographs is also often beyond our control: it is the aim of advertisers to expose us to the same pictures as often as possible, although many photographs, such as those in newspapers, we see only once, and then usually briefly. Others, such as family snapshots, may be seen again and again—and we may choose to study them for quite long periods.
When we watch films we exchange the role of private consumer of images for that of public participant at a spectacle. Our choices become more limited. Not only are the still photographs of the film regulated to 24 or 25 per second, but the length of time we have to view each shot is precisely dictated. We thus surrender an important part of our control over the image, although not all of it. There is still the possibility of searching the shot and interpreting it to some degree independently—for example, by looking for "peripheral detail." How we interpret it depends upon who we are and what assumptions we bring to it. This is a fertile process, the text of the film interacting with the texts of personality, culture, and society that define us. Despite that, there are
habits of film-viewing which will hold broadly true for audiences with a shared set of cultural expectations. If the following description is in any way recognizable, it is because it applies to a quite specific set of film-making and film-viewing conventions.
Responding to the Shot
For Western, middle-class viewers (at least), the initial response to a shot is determined both by its content and placement in the context of the film and by various plastic and compositional elements of the shot itself. The audience, from its grasp of the context, quickly identifies the intended center of signification of the shot. In a typical character-centered film, for example, imagine that a person whom we have already seen walks down a street and encounters a stranger. Our attention attaches to this person, is then transferred to the stranger, and then perhaps shifts back again to the familiar character. We take in certain background details, but we identify the primary meaning of the shot as residing in what happens to the major character. This primary meaning—perhaps related to what Eisenstein termed the "dominant"—need not be a person, or even a specific visual object. For example, a slow pan over a city may simply signify "a sunny morning in San Francisco" (as in Hitchcock's Vertigo , 1958).
Dramatic films thus extend to us a challenge which is a little like a game. We are invited to participate in creating the meaning of each shot by recognizing its narrative or expository center. The length of the shot is gauged so that we must carry this out fairly quickly, leaving little time for other considerations. This contrast between a centered meaning and other coded and uncoded information in the shot may be thought of as a figure-ground relationship. What is identified as figure, and what as ground, is a result of placement and, as Nick Browne has shown for sequences of shots, may also shift and depend upon duration. Previously noted details may be brought forward retrospectively by a new context. Centered meanings may be forgotten in a process Browne calls "fading."
However, there is a certain threshold of narrative or expository efficiency beyond which the motivated meaning of the shot is exhausted. If the shot unexpectedly remains on the screen without further developments, we may feel impatience or annoyance, during which we perhaps look away or withdraw our attention. If the shot continues still longer we may move to a third stage of what might be called "digressive search," when we begin to bring a very different and more idiosyncratic kind of interpretive process to bear upon the shot. In films like Andy Warhol's Sleep (1963) and Blow-Job (1964) our expectations are deliberately confounded and we are provoked into supplying
the images with meaning. Audiences, however, are generally asked to stretch the rules only so far. And when they are asked to do so they are usually offered compensations.
How we respond to a shot is shaped not only by our conventional expectations but also by the rules that the film itself establishes. In Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), for instance, shots early in the film are purposely lengthened considerably beyond the norms of Hollywood editing. The result is that when the climaxes come we accept that they develop at an almost dreamlike pace.
The viewing of film shots may also be affected by largely neurophysiological processes which are still not well understood. There may be a point at which the recognition of any sign becomes subject to a certain cognitive loss or slippage. For example, after a period of time our attention may automatically shift from a particular visual figure or thematic focus to "ground" or background material. This process may be related to the directional switching that occurs when we study the diagram of a cube, or to the experience of figure-ground switching familiar from such examples in Gestalt psychology as seeing a picture alternately as a vase or two symmetrical faces. It may have to do with the different functions of the two hemispheres of the brain, or with the way in which different cells in the visual cortex respond to highly specific shapes in the environment. It is possible that digressive search is triggered by such processes, so that a search for alternative configurations and meanings follows the "saturation" of an initial act of recognition.
Such a schematic description of how we read film images cannot, of course, pretend to deal with the many convolutions of pattern recognition or the kinds of layered responses that may be part of reading the denotative and connotative content of complex images.
From Rushes to Films
Few documentary film-makers would deny that their films are highly selective and expressive of a particular culture and ideology. At the same time, when film-makers measure their films against their experience of the world they often find them lacking. What has recently been referred to as a "crisis of representation" in a broad spectrum of human studies has resulted from just such a sense of discrepancy between experience and the existing paradigms for representing it. Such an intellectual climate may now encourage film-makers to pursue this sense of discrepancy a little further.
It is true that documentary film-makers have periodically questioned the inherited assumptions of their vocation. This has happened notably around the
years 1935, 1960, and 1975. Ethnographic film-makers, in their brushes with other arts and rhetorics, have perhaps been particularly inclined to do so. But even they have seemed unwilling to confront perhaps the most deeply seated assumption of all: that films are necessarily superior to the raw materials shot for them.
Despite this, it is not uncommon to hear film-makers say: "The real film was in the rushes." I have an instance of this from Roger Graef, the maker of many documentary films for British television. In an interview with Alan Rosenthal he says, "In one film we shot 100,000 16mm feet. That's fifty hours. . . . These vérité films are usually best in the rushes. All fifty hours tend to be interesting. It's like a long-running serial. Strangers wandering through our viewing rooms tend to sit there and come back, and back, and back because they want to know what's going to happen next. It's got that kind of excitement to it. There is a problem in structuring them. The films tend to be next best at something like six or eight hours. . . . And then there's a terrible problem because all of the subplots, all the nuances, all the things that aren't going to survive, but do feed the sense of reality, all have to be cut."
There is in descriptions like this, and in the experience of many film-makers, a pervasive sense of loss which is not about a quantitative difference but a qualitative one. It is as though once a film has been pruned to achieve what it actually sets out to achieve—a coherent narrative or analysis—certain qualities perceived in the rushes have been edited out of it. This contradicts the accepted notion of creative economy that "less is more," and "the work is greater than the sum of its parts." The feeling seems to be that the work has clearly become less than the sum of its parts. It is not merely a reduced semblance of the longer work but has been reduced in other important ways in achieving its final statements.
This is not to revert to the naïve view that film footage is some kind of unmediated evidence which contains the "truth" about external reality. If that were so there would be little point going beyond the rushes themselves. It would also deny that editing does in fact introduce its own higher order of truth and understanding. Rather, the sense of loss seems to identify positive values perceived in the rushes and intended by the film-maker at the time of shooting but unachieved in the completed film. It is as though the very reasons for making films are somehow contradicted by the making of them. The processes of editing a film from the rushes involve both reducing the length overall and cutting most shots to shorter lengths. I believe there is a connection between these two processes, in that they both progressively center particular meanings. Sometimes film-makers appear to recognize this when they try to preserve some of the qualities of the rushes in their films, or reintroduce those qualities through other means.
Much of what is lost from the rushes is a sense of the historical contingency of the images—the actual conditions under which films (and meaning) are produced. Film rushes are as much a chronicle of a film's production as they are of its supposed subject. The excitement Graef describes—of wondering what will happen next—is really the excitement of sensing that in the rushes anything can happen next. While finished films suggest a past tense, rushes seem to unfold in the present tense of a camera running. What editing removes are the stigmata of this historical moment. The shots that remain have been domesticated. They are neither tangential nor contradictory nor incontinent nor otherwise incapable of being marshalled to the film's purpose.
What does one lose, then, from the rushes? One loses, I think, qualities of spaciousness, context, and historicity, and these can be described in four different ways.
Qualities Sacrificed to the Film
First, one loses excess meaning —meaning in excess of what the film expresses and requires. This is not merely what remains unexplored in the subject that can still be found in the rushes, but all material which escapes from what might be called the "economy of signification" of the film.
Second, there is a loss of interpretive space —a closing-off of the legitimate areas in which the viewer is invited to supply meaning. The film dictates a certain standard of relevancy. As it moves toward its final form, the background around the centered subject is gradually whittled away. This controls the viewer's relationship to the footage in two ways: first, the background is made to appear incidental and subservient to what the film designates as a sufficient reality. Second, the background itself is physically thinned out by cutting, thus further reducing the opportunities for "irrelevant" intervention. Although different films provide different kinds of interpretive space for the viewer, this space often merely allows the audience to endorse the film-maker's meaning rather than to participate more actively in creating it. Viewers of rushes, by contrast, constantly interject their own interpretations.
Third, there is a loss of the sense of encounter . As the film becomes a polished, professional work, its connections with the historical act of filming, which were so evident in the rushes, gradually disappear. This is especially true of television documentaries, which typically begin with a title sequence whose purpose is to characterize the program as a fully packaged (and therefore predigested) institutional product.
Fourth, there is a loss of internal contextualization . In editing a film to its final length there is an inevitable loss of material which would otherwise clarify and extend the meaning of the material which is retained.
Throughout the editing process there is a constant tension between maintaining the forward impetus of the film and providing enough contextual information so that the central narrative or argument continues to make sense. As the film becomes shorter, the analysis becomes cruder. Film-makers continually sacrifice footage which they know would permit a more complex understanding of the subject but which, for reasons of length, the film cannot afford. To solve this problem, such gaps and elisions are often roughly patched over with spoken voice-over commentary.
The World within the Shot
Films and shots are complex structures, each evoking a larger world. Just as there are levels of contextual material within the footage shot for a film, so there are levels of contextualization within the shot itself. Loss of context can occur in discarding footage, but it can also occur when individual shots are made shorter.
Film-makers are aware of this. Sometimes they include an occasional long take simply to reinject into their film some of the qualities perceived in the rushes. But for a few film-makers the long take becomes a way of redefining the terms in which the film addresses its audience. Such an approach does not necessarily imply a realist aesthetic of the kind championed by André Bazin and many of the Italian neorealists. Brian Henderson notes this in the case of Ophuls, whose long takes can be highly choreographed, and in the case of Godard. He describes a long take in Godard's La Chinoise (1967), which tracks past the shacks of Algerian workers in Nanterre to a modern university complex. "Eisenstein," he writes, "would have cut from a shot of the one to a shot of the other, making the juxtaposition for the viewer, obliterating time and space relations to make a clearcut social relation. Godard observes the time and space relation and lets the viewer make the social relation. . . . He does this by virtue of the long take's continuity of dramatic space and time, which this usage reveals as itself a form of argumentation or demonstration; the shot has its own internal relations, its own logic. This instance of the shot seems Bazinian but, far from fidelity to the real, Godard rips this bit of footage from its grounding in the real and puts it down in the midst of a highly abstract film essay."
In this shot Godard uses a long take to create what Walter Benjamin called a "dialectical image"—an internal contextualization of a specific kind, in which one foreground element is qualified by another. But long takes permit contextualization of several kinds. They reveal relationships which link foreground with background, they reemphasize the objective presence of disparate physical objects in the shot, and they provide the "stage" for the enactment of human behavior which reveals individual identity.
Foreground/Background Relationships: A simple instance of linking between foreground and background within a shot is the way in which a moving camera defines the geography of a space. The perception of spatial relations is always a problem in the cinema because of the monocular vision of the camera, but by shifting the perspective, camera movement allows us to make sense of these relations. This movement must of necessity occur over time. A similar kind of spatial linking is produced by the quite different movement of people or objects within the frame. Thus the long take may be crucial to defining the geographical context within which a character exists or an action takes place. It is also obviously important in delineating actual matters of time, such as how long it takes someone to perform a particular task—something which is normally masked by the condensation of edited sequences.
Long takes can also reveal the relations between simultaneous actions and co-existing objects in one setting. These may be complex personal interactions or (as in the Godard example) connections between people and their surrounding social and economic environment. The objective conditions and historical processes which shape people's lives may often be more effectively demonstrated by appearing in the same frame than by being shown in the juxtapositions of editing, provided we are given a sufficient intellectual framework for interpreting them. This interpretation may require a conscious reapplication of detail from the margins of the film to its center.
The Persistence of the Physical: As I have mentioned, we sometimes subject an image to a process of digressive search. We inspect details which escape the film's inscriptions of meaning, resisting what Roger Cardinal calls the "fixation on congruity." Such details can play a role in film which goes beyond either the pleasures of discovery or a merely supportive "authenticity."
Realist documentaries have tended to rely on background detail to legitimate their choice of what is significant in the foreground, just as historical dramas provide set dressing of the proper period to make us accept their version of history. The long take, however, can serve the opposite purpose: to assert the independence and autonomy of a physical, "background" world and the constantly shifting relations, or lack of them, between material and social being. Presented in this way, physical objects reassert their stubborn and oblivious existence—what Barthes would call their "obtuse" presence. They may even appear as surreal, not because they invoke the irrational or the unconscious, but because they force upon us recognition and confrontation with the unnamed and the unremarked.
The Dimensions of Personhood: Finally, the long take can make possible a contextualizing behavior which may be essential to recognizing individual human identity. Over time, details about other human beings accumulate for us and eventually coalesce into distinct personalities. There is perhaps a parallel here with John Berger's distinction between the private photograph, produced
and consumed in a context of familiarity, and the public photograph, torn out of its context and presented to strangers. The challenge for the photographer, says Berger, is to restore context to the public photograph.
In daily life it is our observation of people over time which causes us to transform undifferentiated strangers (or human types) into known individuals. Film shots, unlike still photographs, can provide the necessary time frame in which sequences of behavior can unfold, allowing us to distinguish what Gombrich calls the "likeness" from the "mask." Likenesses emerge as continuities in the midst of variations. According to Gombrich, "[T]he film shot can never fail as signally as the snapshot can, for even if it catches a person blinking or sneezing the sequence explains the resulting grimace which the corresponding snapshot may leave uninterpretable."
In documentary, the long take can help redress the decontextualization of the fragmentary public image, or in Berger's terms, restore the context of the private. Such recontextualization can be seen clearly in ethnographic films, which for much of their history have defined people of non-Western cultures by their roles or occupations, as anonymous actors in exotic social mechanisms. They were almost always mask, never likeness. Longer camera takes with synchronous sound and subtitled dialogue provided a means of refiguring the relationship between the person on the screen and the viewer. More effective than narrative or other humanizing strategies, it was these uninterrupted passages of behavior which, despite cultural differences, gave the necessary clues to discovering the person within the indigenous social actor.
The long take has been associated with the very earliest motion pictures and with two recent periods in the history of documentary. In the cinéma-vérité and Direct Cinema films of the 1960s it was used to record extended events and conversations. In the political and biographical films of the 1970s and 1980s it was used largely to record interviews. These latter films were strongly influenced by television journalism, which produced its own special use of the long take in building programs around eminent talking heads. The long take proved equally serviceable in discovering these heads in European cathedrals, on Andean railway journeys, or amidst the flora and fauna of African jungles.
In each of these cases, the long take has been used for quite specific and, arguably, quite narrow purposes. Even so, some of these uses have been equivocal or self-contradictory. In the period of cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema, an important model for documentary was Italian neorealist cinema—films like La Terra Trema (1948) and Umberto D (1952), which themselves borrowed ideas
from earlier styles of documentary. But the attempt to reproduce in documentaries the literary qualities of fiction (as in Salesman , 1969) tended to confine the use of the long take to largely narrative, quasi-fictive, or authenticating functions. Paradoxically, many of the other potentialities of the long take—for articulating space and time, relating people to their environment, exploring human personality—were being more adventurously investigated in fiction, in the work of directors like Godard, Antonioni, Resnais, and Rossellini. In the second period of interview-based documentaries, the long take seems to have been devoted almost entirely to creating an oral narrative and establishing the authority of the interviewees.
There have of course been alternative tendencies and exceptions to this pattern. Leacock's Queen of Apollo (1970), Rouch's Tourou et Bitti (1971), Wiseman's Hospital (1970), and Kildea's Celso and Cora (1983) all use long takes in distinctive and sometimes idiosyncratic ways. Experimental (and "underground") films have provided other kinds of explorations. One should include here, along with the films of Andy Warhol, the work of Michael Snow, Stan Brakhage, and Trinh T. Minh-ha. In other recent documentaries, film-makers like Amos Gitai and Claude Lanzmann have used the long take to subvert the traditional construction of foreground and background. However, for most film-makers there remain serious obstacles to developing these possibilities. Film length is one of them. Films must either conform to conventional lengths, using fewer shots, or develop into much longer films. But who will watch longer films, especially if they willfully include the dreaded "dead spots" of ordinary life as legitimate content?
Segmentation suggests one possible strategy. There have been a number of experimental documentary series for television, such as Craig Gilbert's An American Family (1972), Roger Graef's Police (1982), and Melissa Llewelyn-Davies' Diary of a Maasai Village (1984), but so far these have tended to reproduce in documentary the interlocking story structures of drama series or have been composed of essentially self-contained episodes. In neither case has segmentation led to a noticeable expansion of conventional film time to allow for longer takes.
Ultimately the problem of film length is related to the larger problem of how to articulate longer shots to produce meanings. Without commentary, conventional documentary editing usually finds long takes intractable unless they are tracing a clear narrative line, as in Graef's films. Using longer takes gives fewer opportunities to signify by means of the cuts between them. Longer takes are also likely to be complex entities, creating problems of intellectual focus. They characteristically contain ambiguities, interruptions, and competing centers of attention. The content is mingled in ways which make it difficult for the film-maker to isolate "signal" from "noise." In scripted fiction,
"noise" is generally present only when it is put there on purpose to create verisimilitude, but documentary footage is rarely so tidy. Voice-over commentary has traditionally provided one means of superimposing meanings upon such material, but always at the cost of distancing it and reducing the viewer's engagement with its physical immediacy.
These obstacles are of course only obstacles in the context of a specific set of film-making conventions and viewing practices. The real test is whether long takes can find a place in quite new communicative structures. New technologies and shifts in popular culture at least open up certain possibilities for this to happen.
First, viewers' expectations of films are likely to change as some film-making practices which are now marginal enter the mainstream. This could alter the ways in which people actually "read" long camera takes. At the moment, the tendency in commercials and music video seems toward ever shorter takes, but this could contribute to a greater tolerance for associative, non-narrative editing and eventually for more films patterned on structures other than conventional stories or arguments. Films may emerge which require greater retrospective reconstruction in the mind. Against this current must be put the way in which the formats of television journalism seem actually to have narrowed the structural repertoire of documentary.
Second, unexplored opportunities exist for combining words with images, perhaps especially with long takes. One could cite the use of multiple voices on the sound track, voices used in less regular patterns, voices addressing us in new registers. There is no equivalent in documentary, so far as I know, to the whispered commentary which accompanies live golf telecasts. Words may also be deployed more effectively in titles and intertitles, as they once were in Soviet silent films and have been occasionally since, in such films as The Village of Furuyashiki (1982), by Shinsuke Ogawa. The history of documentary contains other experiments worth examining and pressing further, such as the use of spoken verse in the documentaries of the 1930s. One might expect certain parallel developments to evolve from the emergence of rap videos.
Third, one can imagine more complex layerings of sound and image. As precedents one can point to Godard's "middle period" films (British Sounds , 1969), Clément Perron's Day After Day (1962), and several of Gitai's documentary films (Ananas , 1984; and House , 1980). Sounds can make us reinterpret what is nominally background and, on some occasions, reconstitute it as thematic foreground.
A fourth strategy open to documentary is to make a much more consciously analytical use of the camera. Reframing with the camera resembles a form of montage which selects, connects, and juxtaposes different images, but in "real time." In fiction films it is possible for such an approach to be scripted, as in
Hitchcock's experimental Rope (1948). In documentary the situation is very different, requiring on the film-maker's part an ability to impose a process of thought on the camera's movements while filming unpredictable material. So far few film-makers have adopted such a demanding interpretive stance while filming or have developed the skills to accomplish it.
But camera movement within a shot allows for certain kinds of irony which are not possible with shorter takes. In Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985), the long take makes particular reference to the fact that however long one pans over landscapes where atrocities took place, one still sees only landscapes. In effect, one looks in vain for the signified in the signifier. In a number of Godard's films (Weekend , 1967; British Sounds ) long tracking shots, instead of following characters, as is usual in fiction films, track past them, fixing them not in relation to the film but in relation to their physical and social setting.
Lastly, it is worth noting that new technologies may have a profound effect upon viewing practices and, eventually, upon film form. We have yet to absorb the full implications of television. Video, an even more recent phenomenon, combines the privacy of television viewing with much greater control over the selection of viewing material. This could make possible longer works, organized in chapters or clusters of related films. Video also makes it easier to recast old films in new forms, or produce new commentaries on them. As for interactive video, it may, by giving the viewer even greater control over the investigation of material, generate much more exploratory viewing practices and eventually stimulate the new film-making practices that would allow for them.
Neither film-making nor documentary will be revolutionized by the long take alone, nor should it be claimed that the long take is in any sense the special province of documentary. But the question of what to do with the qualities which are found in long takes, and yet not found in the films derived from them, is perhaps the quintessential problem of documentary. It brings us closer to the paradox of reduction which lies at the heart of all representation, but which has none of the same implications in fiction that it does in documentary. For within every documentary is a kind of cavity, the negative imprint of the missing persons and events which are not there. In struggling with this material, the documentary film-maker is struggling not only with signs but quite literally with the shadows of the living and the dead. If photography does not steal the soul it steals something very like it, something deeply enough felt to generate the fraught ethical debates which uniquely surround the making of documentary films and photographs. These debates more commonly concern what is shown than what is left out. But for the film-maker the problem is truly one of disposing of the human remains.
Mirrors without Memories:
Truth, History, and the New Documentary
Vol. 46, no. 3 (Spring 1993): 9–21.
The August 12th, 1990, Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times carried a lead article with a rather arresting photograph of Franklin Roosevelt flanked by Winston Churchill and Groucho Marx. Standing behind them was a taut-faced Sylvester Stallone in his Rambo garb. The photo illustrated the major point of the accompanying article by Andy Grundberg: that the photograph—and by implication the moving picture as well—is no longer, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it, a "mirror with a memory" illustrating the visual truth of objects, persons, and events but a manipulated construction. In an era of electronic and computer-generated images, the camera, the article sensationally proclaims, "can lie."
In this photo, the anachronistic flattening out of historical referents, the trivialization of history itself, with the popular culture icons of Groucho and Rambo rubbing up against Roosevelt and Churchill, serves almost as a caricature of the state of representation some critics have chosen to call postmodern. In a key statement, Fredric Jameson has described the "cultural logic of postmodernism" as a "new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary 'theory' and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum" (Jameson, 1984, 58). To Jameson, the effect of this image culture is a weakening of historicity. Lamenting the loss of the grand narratives of modernity, which he believes once made possible the political actions of individuals representing the interests of social classes, Jameson argues that it no longer seems possible to represent the "real" interests of a people or a class against the ultimate ground of social and economic determinations.
While not all theorists of postmodernity are as disturbed as Jameson by the apparent loss of the referent, by the undecidabilities of representation accompanied by an apparent paralysis of the will to change, many theorists do share a sense that the enlightenment projects of truth and reason are definitively over. And if representations, whether visual or verbal, no longer refer to a truth or referent "out there," as Trinh T. Minh-ha has put it, for us "in here"
I owe thanks to Anne Friedberg, Mark Poster, Nancy Salzer, Marita Sturken, Charles Musser, James Shamus, B. Ruby Rich, and Marianne Hirsch for helping me, one way or another, to formulate the ideas in this article. I also thank my colleagues on the Film Quarterly editorial board, whose friendly criticisms I have not entirely answered.
(Trinh, 83), then we seem to be plunged into a permanent state of the self-reflexive crisis of representation. What was once a "mirror with a memory" can now only reflect another mirror.
Perhaps because so much faith was once placed in the ability of the camera to reflect objective truths of some fundamental social referent—often construed by the socially relevant documentary film as records of injustice or exploitation of powerless common people—the loss of faith in the objectivity of the image seems to point, nihilistically, like the impossible memory of the meeting of the fictional Rambo and the real Roosevelt, to the brute and cynical disregard of ultimate truths.
Yet at the very same time, as any television viewer and moviegoer knows, we also exist in an era in which there is a remarkable hunger for documentary images of the real. These images proliferate in the vérité of on-the-scene cops programs in which the camera eye merges with the eye of the law to observe the violence citizens do to one another. Violence becomes the very emblem of the real in these programs. Interestingly, violent trauma has become the emblem of the real in the new vérité genre of the independent amateur video, which, in the case of George Holliday's tape of the Rodney King beating by L.A. police, functioned to contradict the eye of the law and to intervene in the "cops'" official version of King's arrest. This home video might be taken to represent the other side of the postmodern distrust of the image: here the camera tells the truth in a remarkable moment of cinema vérité which then becomes valuable (though not conclusive) evidence in accusations against the L.A. Police Department's discriminatory violence against minority offenders.
The contradictions are rich: on the one hand the postmodern deluge of images seems to suggest that there can be no a priori truth of the referent to which the image refers; on the other hand, in this same deluge, it is still the moving image that has the power to move audiences to a new appreciation of previously unknown truth.
In a recent book on postwar West German cinema and its representations of that country's past, Anton Kaes has written that "[T]he sheer mass of historical images transmitted by today's media weakens the link between public memory and personal experience. The past is in danger of becoming a rapidly expanding collection of images, easily retrievable but isolated from time and space, available in an eternal present by pushing a button on the remote control. History thus returns forever—as film" (Kaes, 198). Recently, the example of history that has been most insistently returning "as film" to American viewers is the assassination of John F. Kennedy as simulated by film-maker Oliver Stone.
Stone's JFK might seem a good example of Jameson's and Kaes's worst-case scenarios of the ultimate loss of historical truth amid the postmodern hall of mirrors. While laudably obsessed with exposing the manifest contradictions of
the Warren Commission's official version of the Kennedy assassination, Stone's film has been severely criticized for constructing a "countermyth" to the Warren Commission's explanation of what happened. Indeed, Stone's images offer a kind of tragic counterpart to the comic mélange of the New York Times photo of Groucho and Roosevelt. Integrating his own reconstruction of the assassination with the famous Zapruder film, whose "objective" reflection of the event is offered as the narrative (if not the legal) clincher in Jim Garrison's argument against the lone assassin theory, Stone mixes Zapruder's real vérité with his own simulated vérité to construct a grandiose paranoid countermyth of a vast conspiracy by Lyndon Johnson, the C.I.A., and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to carry out a coup d'état. With little hard evidence to back him up, Stone would seem to be a perfect symptom of a postmodern negativity and nihilism toward truth, as if to say: "We know the Warren Commission made up a story, well, here's another even more dramatic and entertaining story. Since we can't know the truth, let's make up a grand paranoid fiction."
It is not my purpose here to attack Oliver Stone's remarkably effective deployment of paranoia and megalomania; the press has already done a thorough job of debunking his unlikely fiction of a Kennedy who was about to end the Cold War and withdraw from Vietnam. What interests me, however, is the positive side of this megalomania: Stone's belief that it is possible to intervene in the process by which truth is constructed; his very real accomplishment in
shaking up public perception of an official truth that closed down, rather than opened up, investigation; his acute awareness of how images enter into the production of knowledge. However much Stone may finally betray the spirit of his own investigation into the multiple, contingent, and constructed nature of the representation of history by asking us to believe in too tidy a conspiracy, his JFK needs to be taken seriously for its renewal of interest in one of the major traumas of our country's past.
So rather than berate Stone, I would like to contrast this multimillion-dollar historical fiction film borrowing many aspects of the form of documentary to what we might call the low-budget postmodern documentary borrowing many features of the fiction film. My goal in what follows is to get beyond the much remarked self-reflexivity and flamboyant auteurism of these documentaries, which might seem, Rashomon-like, to abandon the pursuit of truth, to what seems to me their remarkable engagement with a newer, more contingent, relative, postmodern truth—a truth which, far from being abandoned, still operates powerfully as the receding horizon of the documentary tradition.
When we survey the field of recent documentary films two things stand out: first, their unprecedented popularity among general audiences, who now line up for documentaries as eagerly as for fiction films; second, their willingness to tackle often grim, historically complex subjects. Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (1987), about the murder of a police officer and the near execution of the "wrong man," Michael Moore's Roger and Me (1989), about the dire effects of General Motors' plant closings, and Ken Burns' 11-hour "The Civil War" (1990) (watched on PBS by 39 million Americans) were especially popular documentaries about uncommonly serious political and social realities. Even more difficult and challenging, though not quite as popular, were Our Hitler (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, 1980), Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985), Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (Marcel Ophuls, 1987), and Who Killed Vincent Chin? (Chris Choy and Renee Tajima, 1988). And in 1991 the list of both critically successful and popular documentary features not nominated for Academy Awards—Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston), Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper), 35 Up (Michael Apted), Truth or Dare (Alex Keshishian)—was viewed by many as an embarrassment to the Academy. Village Voice critic Amy Taubin notes that 1991 was a year in which four or five documentaries made it onto the Variety charts; documentaries now mattered in a new way (Taubin, 62).
Though diverse, all the above works participate in a new hunger for reality on the part of a public seemingly saturated with Hollywood fiction. Jennie Livingston, director of Paris Is Burning , the remarkably popular documentary about gay drag subcultures in New York, notes that the out-of-touch documentaries honored by the Academy all share an old-fashioned earnestness toward
their subjects, while the new, more popular documentaries share a more ironic stance toward theirs. Coincident with the hunger for documentary truth is the clear sense that this truth is subject to manipulation and construction by docuauteurs who, whether on camera (Lanzmann in Shoah , Michael Moore in Roger and Me ) or behind, are forcefully calling the shots.
It is this paradox of the intrusive manipulation of documentary truth, combined with a serious quest to reveal some ultimate truths, that I would like to isolate within a subset of the above films. What interests me particularly is the way a special few of these documentaries handle the problem of figuring traumatic historical truths inaccessible to representation by any simple or single "mirror with a memory," and how this mirror nevertheless operates in complicated and indirect refractions. For while traumatic events of the past are not available for representation by any simple or single "mirror with a memory"—in the vérité sense of capturing events as they happen—they do constitute a multifaceted receding horizon which these films powerfully evoke.
I would like to offer Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line as a prime example of this postmodern documentary approach to the trauma of an inaccessible past because of its spectacular success in intervening in the truths known about this past. Morris's film was instrumental in exonerating a man wrongfully accused of murder. In 1976, Dallas police officer Robert Wood was murdered, apparently by a 28-year-old drifter named Randall Adams. Like Stone's JFK, The Thin Blue Line is a film about a November murder in Dallas. Like JFK , the film argues that the wrong man was set up by a state conspiracy with an interest in convicting an easy scapegoat rather than prosecuting the real murderer. The film—the "true" story of Randall Adams, the man convicted of the murder of Officer Wood, and his accuser, David Harris, who picked Adams up when he ran out of gas on the night of the murder—ends with Harris's cryptic but dramatic confession to the murder in a phone conversation with Errol Morris.
Stylistically, The Thin Blue Line has been most remarked for its film-noirish beauty, its apparent abandonment of cinema-vérité realism for studied, often slow-motion, and highly expressionistic reenactments of different witnesses' versions of the murder to the tune of Philip Glass's hypnotic score. Like a great many recent documentaries obsessed with traumatic events of the past, The Thin Blue Line is self-reflexive. Like many of these new documentaries, it is acutely aware that the individuals whose lives are caught up in events are not so much self-coherent and consistent identities as they are actors in competing narratives. As in Roger and Me, Shoah , and, to a certain extent, Who Killed Vincent Chin? , the documentarian's role in constructing and staging these competing narratives thus becomes paramount. In place of the self-obscuring voyeur of vérité realism, we encounter, in these and other films, a new presence in the persona of the documentarian.
For example, in one scene, David Harris, the charming young accuser whose testimony placed Randall Adams on death row and who has been giving his side of the story in alternate sections of the film from Adams, scratches his head while recounting an unimportant incident from his past. In this small gesture, Morris dramatically reveals information withheld until this moment: Harris's hands are handcuffed. He, like Adams, is in prison. The interviews with him are now subject to reinterpretation since, as we soon learn, he, too, stands accused of murder. For he has committed a senseless murder not unlike the one he accused Adams of committing. At this climactic moment Morris finally brings in the hard evidence against Harris previously withheld: he is a violent psychopath who invaded a man's house, murdered him, and abducted his girlfriend. On top of this Morris adds the local cop's attempt to explain Harris's personal pathology; in the end we hear Harris's own near-confession—in an audio interview—to the murder for which Adams has been convicted. Thus Morris captures a truth, elicits a confession, in the best vérité tradition, but only in the context of a film that is manifestly staged and temporally manipulated by the docu-auteur.
It would seem that in Morris's abandonment of voyeuristic objectivity he achieves something more useful to the production of truth. His interviews get the interested parties talking in a special way. In a key statement in defense of his intrusive, self-reflexive style, Morris has attacked the hallowed tradition of cinema vérité: "There is no reason why documentaries can't be as personal as fiction filmmaking and bear the imprint of those who made them. Truth isn't guaranteed by style or expression. It isn't guaranteed by anything" (Morris, 17).
The "personal" in this statement has been taken to refer to the personal, self-reflexive style of the docu-auteur: Morris's hypnotic pace, Glass's music, the vivid colors and slow motion of the multiple reenactments. Yet the interviews too bear this personal imprint of the auteur. Each person who speaks to the camera in The Thin Blue Line does so in a confessional, "talking-cure" mode. James Shamus has pointed out that this rambling, free-associating discourse ultimately collides with, and is sacrificed to, the juridical narrative producing the truth of who, finally, is guilty. And Charles Musser also points out that what is sacrificed is the psychological complexity of the man the film finds innocent. Thus the film forgoes investigation into what Adams might have been up to that night taking a 16-year-old hitchhiker to a drive-in movie.
Morris gives us some truths and withholds others. His approach to truth is altogether strategic. Truth exists for Morris because lies exist; if lies are to be exposed, truths must be strategically deployed against them. His strategy in the pursuit of this relative, hierarchized, and contingent truth is thus to find guilty those speakers whom he draws most deeply into the explorations of their past. Harris, the prosecutor Mulder, the false witness Emily Miller, all
cozy up to the camera to remember incidents from their past which serve to indict them in the present. In contrast, the man found innocent by the film remains a cipher, we learn almost nothing of his past, and this lack of knowledge appears necessary to the investigation of the official lies. What Morris does, in effect, is partially close down the representation of Adams's own story, the accumulation of narratives from his past, in order to show how convenient a scapegoat he was to the overdetermining pasts of all the other false witnesses. Thus, instead of using fictionalizing techniques to show us the truth of what happened, Morris scrupulously sticks to stylized and silent docudrama reenactments that show only what each witness claims happened.
In contrast, we might consider Oliver Stone's very different use of docudrama reenactments to reveal the "truth" of the existence of several assassins and the plot that orchestrated their activity, in the murder of JFK. Stone has Garrison introduce the Zapruder film in the trial of Clay Shaw as hallowed vérité evidence that there had to be more than one assassin. Garrison's examination of the magic bullet's trajectory does a fine dramatic job of challenging the official version of the lone assassin. But in his zealous pursuit of the truth of "who dunnit," Stone matches the vérité style of the Zapruder film with a vérité simulation which, although hypothesis, has none of the stylized, hypothetical visual marking of Morris's simulations and which therefore commands a greater component of belief. Morris, on the other hand, working in a documentary form that now eschews vérité as a style, stylizes his hypothetical reenactments and never offers any of them as an image of what actually happened.
In the discussions surrounding the truth claims of many contemporary documentaries, attention has centered upon the self-reflexive challenge to once hallowed techniques of vérité. It has become an axiom of the new documentary that films cannot reveal the truth of events, but only the ideologies and consciousness that construct competing truths—the fictional master narratives by which we make sense of events. Yet too often this way of thinking has led to a forgetting of the way in which these films still are, as Stone's film isn't, documentaries—films with a special interest in the relation to the real, the "truths" which matter in people's lives but which cannot be transparently represented.
One reason for this forgetting has been the erection of a too simple dichotomy between, on the one hand, a naïve faith in the truth of what the documentary image reveals—vérité's discredited claim to capturing events while they happen—and on the other, the embrace of fictional manipulation. Of course, even in its heyday no one ever fully believed in an absolute truth of cinema vérité. There are, moreover, many gradations of fictionalized manipulation ranging from the controversial manipulation of temporal sequence in Michael Moore's Roger and Me to Errol Morris's scrupulous reconstructions of the subjective truths of events as viewed from many different points of view.
Truth is "not guaranteed" and cannot be transparently reflected by a mirror with a memory, yet some kinds of partial and contingent truths are nevertheless the always receding goal of the documentary tradition. Instead of careening between idealistic faith in documentary truth and cynical recourse to fiction, we do better to define documentary not as an essence of truth but as a set of strategies designed to choose from among a horizon of relative and contingent truths. The advantage, and the difficulty, of the definition is that it holds on to the concept of the real—indeed of a "real" at all—even in the face of tendencies to assimilate documentary entirely into the rules and norms of fiction.
As The Thin Blue Line shows, the recognition that documentary access to this real is strategic and contingent does not require a retreat to a Rashomon universe of undecidabilities. This recognition can lead, rather, to a remarkable awareness of the conditions under which it is possible to intervene in the political and cultural construction of truths which, while not guaranteed, nevertheless matter as the narratives by which we live. To better explain this point I would like to further consider the confessional, talking-cure strategy of The Thin Blue Line as it relates to Claude Lanzmann's Shoah . While I am aware of the incommensurability of a film about the state of Texas's near-execution of an innocent man with the German state's achieved extermination of six million, I want to pursue the comparison because both films are, in very different ways, striking examples of postmodern documentaries whose passionate desire is to intervene in the construction of truths whose totality is ultimately unfathomable.
In both of these films, the truth of the past is traumatic, violent, and unrepresentable in images. It is obscured by official lies masking the responsibility of individual agents in a gross miscarriage of justice. We may recall that Jameson's argument about the postmodern is that it is a loss of a sense of history, of a collective or individual past, and the knowledge of how the past determines the present: "the past as 'referent' finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts" (Jameson, 1984, 64). That so many well-known and popular documentary films have taken up the task of remembering the past—indeed that so much popular debate about the "truth" of the past has been engendered by both fiction and documentary films about the past—could therefore be attributed to another of Jameson's points about the postmodern condition: the intensified nostalgia for a past that is already lost.
However, I would argue instead that, certainly in these two films and partially in a range of others, the postmodern suspicion of over-abundant images of an unfolding, present "real" (vérité's commitment to film "it" as "it" happens) has contributed not to new fictionalizations but to paradoxically new historicizations. These historicizations are fascinated by an inaccessible, ever receding, yet newly important past which does have depth. History, in Jameson's sense of traces of the past, of an absent cause which "hurts" (Jameson, 1981, 102), would seem, almost by definition, to be inaccessible to the vérité documentary form aimed at capturing action in its unfolding. The recourse to talking-heads interviews, to people remembering the past—whether the collective history of a nation or city, the personal history of individuals, or the criminal event which crucially determines the present—is, in these anti-vérité documentaries, an attempt to overturn this commitment to realistically record "life as it is" in favor of a deeper investigation of how it became as it is.
Thus, while there is very little running after the action, there is considerable provocation of action. Even though Morris and Lanzmann have certainly done their legwork to pursue actors in the events they are concerned to represent, their preferred technique is to set up a situation in which the action will come to them. In these privileged moments of vérité (for there finally are moments of relative vérité) the past repeats. We thus see the power of the past not simply by dramatizing it, or reenacting it, or talking about it obsessively (though these films do all this), but finally by finding its traces, in repetitions and resistances, in the present. It is thus the contextualization of the present with the past that is the most effective representational strategy in these two remarkable films.
Each of these documentaries digs toward an impossible archeology, picking at the scabs of lies which have covered over the inaccessible originary event. The film-makers ask questions, probe circumstances, draw maps, interview historians, witnesses, jurors, judges, police, bureaucrats, and survivors. These diverse investigatory processes augment the single method of the vérité camera.
They seek to uncover a past the knowledge of which will produce new truths of guilt and innocence in the present. Randall Adams is now free at least partly because of the evidence of Morris's film; the Holocaust comes alive not as some alien horror foreign to all humanity but as something that is, perhaps for the first time on film, understandable as an absolutely banal incremental logic and logistics of train schedules and human silence. The past events examined in these films are not offered as complete, totalizable, apprehensible. They are fragments, pieces of the past invoked by memory, not unitary representable truths but, as Freud once referred to the psychic mechanism of memory, a palimpsest, described succinctly by Mary Ann Doane as "the sum total of its rewritings through time." The "event" remembered is never whole, never fully represented, never isolated in the past alone but only accessible through a memory which resides, as Doane has put it, "in the reverberations between events" (Doane, 58).
This image of the palimpsest of memory seems a particularly apt evocation of how these two films approach the problem of representing the inaccessible trauma of the past. When Errol Morris fictionally reenacts the murder of Officer Wood as differently remembered by David Harris, Randall Adams, the officer's partner, and the various witnesses who claimed to have seen the murder, he turns his film into a temporally elaborated palimpsest, discrediting some versions more than others but refusing to ever fix one as the truth. It is precisely Morris's refusal to fix the final truth, to go on seeking reverberations and repetitions that, I argue, gives this film its exceptional power of truth.
This strategic and relative truth is often a byproduct of other investigations into many stories of self-justification and reverberating memories told to the camera. For example, Morris never set out to tell the story of Randall Adams's innocence. He was interested initially in the story of "Dr. Death," the psychiatrist whose testimony about the sanity of numerous accused murderers had resulted in a remarkable number of death sentences. It would seem that the more directly and singlemindedly a film pursues a single truth, the less chance it has of producing the kind of "reverberations between events" that will effect meaning in the present. This is the problem with Roger and Me and, to stretch matters, even with JFK : both go after a single target too narrowly, opposing a singular (fictionalized) truth to a singular official lie.
The much publicized argument between Harlan Jacobson and Michael Moore regarding the imposition of a false chronology in Moore's documentary about the closing of General Motors' plant in Flint, Michigan, is an example. At stake in this argument is whether Moore's documentation of the decline of the city of Flint in the wake of the plant closing entailed an obligation to represent events in the sequence in which they actually occurred. Jacobson argues that Moore betrays his journalist/documentarian's commitment to the objective
portrayal of historical fact when he implies that events that occurred prior to the major layoffs at the plant were the effect of these layoffs. Others have criticized Moore's self-promoting placement of himself at the center of the film.
In response, Moore argues that as a resident of Flint he has a place in the film and should not attempt to play the role of objective observer but of partisan investigator. This point is quite credible and consistent with the postmodern awareness that there is no objective observation of truth but always an interested participation in its construction. But when he argues that his documentary is "in essence" true to what happened to Flint in the 1980s, only that these events are "told with a narrative style" that omits details and condenses events of a decade into a palatable "movie" (Jacobson, 22), Moore behaves too much like Oliver Stone, abandoning the commitment to multiple contingent truths in favor of a unitary, paranoid view of history.
The argument between Moore and Jacobson seems to be about where documentarians should draw the line in manipulating the historical sequence of their material. But rather than determining appropriate strategies for the representation of the meaning of events, the argument becomes a question of a commitment to objectivity versus a commitment to fiction. Moore says, in effect, that his first commitment is to entertain and that this entertainment is faithful to the essence of the history. But Moore betrays the cause and effect reverberation between events by this reordering. The real lesson of this debate would seem to be that Moore did not trust his audience to learn about the past in any other way than through the vérité capture of it. He assumed that if he didn't have footage from the historical period prior to his filming in Flint he couldn't show it. But the choice needn't be, as Moore implies, between boring, laborious fact and entertaining fiction true to the "essence," but not the detail, of historical events. The opposition poses a false contrast between a naïve faith in the documentary truth of photographic and filmic images and the cynical awareness of fictional manipulation.
What animates Morris and Lanzmann, by contrast, is not the opposition between absolute truth and absolute fiction but the awareness of the final inaccessibility of a moment of crime, violence, trauma, irretrievably located in the past. Through the curiosity, ingenuity, irony, and obsessiveness of "obtrusive" investigators, Morris and Lanzmann do not so much represent this past as they reactivate it in images of the present. This is their distinctive postmodern feature as documentarians. For in revealing the fabrications, the myths, the frequent moments of scapegoating when easy fictional explanations of trauma, violence, crime were substituted for more difficult ones, these documentaries do not simply play off truth against lie, nor do they play off one fabrication against another; rather, they show how lies function as partial truths to both the agents and witnesses of history's trauma.
For example, in one of the most discussed moments of Shoah , Lanzmann stages a scene of homecoming in Chelmno, Poland, by Simon Srebnik, a Polish Jew who had, as a child, worked in the death camp near that town, running errands for the Nazis and forced to sing while doing so. Now, many years later, in the present tense of Lanzmann's film, the elderly yet still vigorous Srebnik is surrounded on the steps of the Catholic church by an even older, friendly group of Poles who remembered him as a child in chains who sang by the river. They are happy he has survived and returned to visit. But as Lanzmann asks them how much they knew and understood about the fate of the Jews who were carried away from the church in gas vans, the group engages in a kind of free association to explain the unexplainable.
As critic Shoshana Felman has pointed out, this scene on the church steps in Chelmno shows the Poles replacing one memory of their own witness of the persecution of the Jews with another (false) memory, an auto-mystification, produced by Mr. Kantarowski, of the Jews' willing acceptance of their persecution as scapegoats for the death of Christ. This fantasy, meant to assuage the Poles' guilt for their complicity in the extermination of the Jews, actually repeats the Poles' crime of the past in the present.
Felman argues that the strategy of Lanzmann's film is not to challenge this false testimony but to dramatize its effects: we see Simon Srebnik suddenly silenced among the chatty Poles, whose victim he becomes all over again. Thus the film does not so much give us a memory as an action, here and now, of the Poles' silencing and crucifixion of Srebnik, whom they obliterate and forget even as he stands in their midst (Felman, 120–128).
It is this repetition in the present of the crime of the past that is key to the documentary process of Lanzmann's film. Success, in the film's terms, is the ability not only to assign guilt in the past, to reveal and fix a truth of the day-to-day operation of the machinery of extermination, but also to deepen the understanding of the many ways in which the Holocaust continues to live in the present. The truth of the Holocaust thus does not exist in any totalizing narrative, but only, as Felman notes and Lanzmann shows, as a collection of fragments. While the process of scapegoating, of achieving premature narrative closure by assigning guilt to convenient victims, is illuminated, the events of the past—in this case the totality of the Holocaust—register not in any fixed moment of past or present but rather, as in Freud's description of the palimpsest,
as the sum total of its rewritings through time, not in a single event but in the "reverberations" between.
It is important in the above example to note that while cinema vérité is deployed in this scene on the steps, as well as in the interviews throughout the film, this form of vérité no longer has a fetish function of demanding belief as the whole. In place of a truth that is "guaranteed," the vérité of catching events as they happen is here embedded in a history, placed in relation to the past, given a new power, not of absolute truth but of repetition.
Although it is a very different sort of documentary dealing with a trauma whose horror cannot be compared to the Holocaust, Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line also offers its own rich palimpsest of reverberations between events. At the beginning of the film, convicted murderer Randall Adams mulls over the fateful events of the night of 1976 when he ran out of gas, was picked up by David Harris, went to a drive-in movie, refused to allow Harris to come home with him, and later found himself accused of killing a cop with a gun that Harris had stolen. He muses: "Why did I meet this kid? Why did I run out of gas? But it happened, it happened." The film probes this "Why?" And its discovery "out of the past" is not simply some fate-laden accident but, rather, a reverberation between events that reaches much further back into the past than that cold November night in Dallas.
Toward the end, after Morris has amassed a great deal of evidence attesting to the false witness born by three people who testified to seeing Randall Adams in the car with David Harris, but before playing the audio tape in which Harris all but confesses to the crime, the film takes a different turn—away from the events of November and into the childhood of David Harris. The film thus moves both forward and back in time: to events following and preceding the night of November, 1976, when the police officer was shot. Moving forward, we learn of a murder, in which David broke into the home of a man who had, he felt, stolen his girlfriend. When the man defended himself, David shot him. This repetition of wanton violence is the clincher in the film's "case" against David. But instead of stopping there, the film goes back in time as well.
A kindly, baby-faced cop from David's home town, who has told us much of David's story already, searches for the cause of his behavior and hits upon a childhood trauma: a four-year-old brother who drowned when David was only three. Morris then cuts to David speaking of this incident: "My Dad was supposed to be watching us. . . . I guess that might have been some kind of traumatic experience for me. . . . I guess I reminded him . . . it was hard for me to get any acceptance from him after that. . . . A lot of the things I did as a young kid was an attempt to get back at him."
In itself, this "getting-back-at-the-father" motive is something of a cliché for explaining violent male behavior. But coupled as it is with the final "confes-
sion" scene in which Harris repeats this getting-back-at-the-father motive in his relation to Adams, the explanation gains resonance, exposing another layer in the palimpsest of the past. As we watch the tape recording of this last unfilmed interview play, we hear Morris ask Harris if he thinks Adams is a "pretty unlucky fellow?" Harris answers, "Definitely," specifying the nature of this bad luck: "Like I told you a while ago about the guy who didn't have no place to stay . . . if he'd had a place to stay, he'd never had no place to go, right?" Morris decodes this question with his own rephrasing, continuing to speak of Harris in the third person: "You mean if he'd stayed at the hotel that night this never would have happened?" (That is, if Adams had invited Harris into his hotel to stay with him as Harris had indicated earlier in the film he expected, then Harris would not have committed the murder he later pinned on Adams.)
Harris: "Good possibility, good possibility. . . . You ever hear of the proverbial scapegoat? There probably been thousands of innocent people convicted. . . ."
Morris presses: "What do you think about whether he's innocent?" Harris: "I'm sure he is." Morris again: "How can you be sure?" Harris: "I'm the one who knows. . . . After all was said and done it was pretty unbelievable. I've always thought if you could say why there's a reason that Randall Adams is in jail it might be because he didn't have a place for somebody to stay that helped him that night. It might be the only reason why he's at where he's at."
What emerges forcefully in this near-confession is much more than the clinching evidence in Morris's portrait of a gross miscarriage of justice. For in not simply probing the "wrong man" story, in probing the reverberations between events of David Harris's personal history, Morris's film discovers an underlying layer in the palimpsest of the past: how the older Randall Adams played an unwitting role in the psychic history of the 16-year-old David Harris, a role which repeated an earlier trauma in Harris's life: of the father who rejected him, whose approval he could not win, and upon whom David then revenged himself.
Harris's revealing comments do more than clinch his guilt. Like the Poles who surround Srebnik on the steps of the church and proclaim pity for the innocent child who suffered so much even as they repeat the crime of scapegoating Jews, so David Harris proclaims the innocence of the man he has personally condemned, patiently explaining the process of scapegoating that the Dallas county legal system has so obligingly helped him accomplish. Cinema vérité in both these films is an important vehicle of documentary truth. We witness in the present an event of simultaneous confession and condemnation on the part of historical actors who repeat their crimes from the past. Individual guilt is both palpably manifest and viewed in a larger context of personal and social history. For even as we catch David Harris and the Poles of Chelmno in the act of scapegoating innocent victims for crimes they have not committed, these acts are revealed as part of larger processes, reverberating with the past.
I think it is important to hold on to this idea of truth as a fragmentary shard, perhaps especially at the moment we as a culture have begun to realize, along with Morris, and along with the supposed depthlessness of our post-modern condition, that it is not guaranteed. For some form of truth is the always receding goal of documentary film. But the truth figured by documentary cannot be a simple unmasking or reflection. It is a careful construction, an intervention in the politics and the semiotics of representation.
An overly simplified dichotomy between truth and fiction is at the root of our difficulty in thinking about the truth in documentary. The choice is not between two entirely separate regimes of truth and fiction. The choice, rather, is in strategies of fiction for the approach to relative truths. Documentary is not fiction and
should not be conflated with it. But documentary can and should use all the strategies of fictional construction to get at truths. What we see in The Thin Blue Line and Shoah , and to some degree in the other documentaries I have mentioned, is an interest in constructing truths to dispel pernicious fictions, even though these truths are only relative and contingent. While never absolute and never fixed, this under-construction, fragmented horizon of truth is one important means of combating the pernicious scapegoating fictions that can put the wrong man on death row and enable the extermination of a whole people.
The lesson that I would like to draw from these two exemplary postmodern documentaries is thus not at all that postmodern representation inevitably succumbs to a depthlessness of the simulacrum, or that it gives up on truth to wallow in the undecidabilities of representation. The lesson, rather, is that there can be historical depth to the notion of truth—not the depth of unearthing a coherent and unitary past, but the depth of the past's reverberation with the present. If the authoritative means to the truth of the past does not exist, if photographs and moving images are not mirrors with memories, if they are more, as Baudrillard has suggested, like a hall of mirrors, then our best response to this crisis of representation might be to do what Lanzmann and Morris do: to deploy the many facets of these mirrors to reveal the seduction of lies.
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