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August 17, 2009 | by  | in Film |
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Framing Reality

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I watch documentary film to look at something real—and preferably shocking—without having to leave my own city. Every film is constructed by an artist, but when they’re constructed from footage of real people being themselves, we expect not to be lied to. The ‘Framing Reality’ section of this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival indicates that its documentaries take something from our world and frame it for easier consumption—but the centrepiece film, We Live in Public, breaks down this distinction between real and acted footage.

Director Ondi Timoner (Dig!), almost certainly the most interesting documentary maker of this decade, appears on screen for the first time, and turned up in person to discuss her film with us: We Live in Public follows internet pioneer Josh Harris, particularly during his December 1999 project Quiet. Quiet collected dozens of people who volunteered to be imprisoned in a New York basement for a month, surrounded by cameras and monitors upon which they could watch each other talking, eating, defecating, firing guns and rutting—there was no hiding from the camera, and Harris was delighted that people would subject themselves to surveillance and manipulation, apparently out of some desire to be seen; by the time police shut down the project, he found that constant electronic connection actually alienated the participants from one another. What Harris created has subsequently fed into Big Brother and Facebook status updates. The people on Quiet or on Facebook are real, but their real behaviour is modified by the knowledge that they’re being watched.

In another ‘Framing Reality’ doco, Examined Life, philosophers Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor walked on camera while talking about what it means to walk (Taylor is in a wheelchair). So one way of overcoming the problem “how manipulated is the reality of this footage by the fact that the subjects know they are on film?” is to acknowledge and discuss this very fact. But documentaries also have to grip and entertain us: We Live in Public would not have been so effective if Timoner hadn’t held back certain facts (Harris’ escape to Africa) until late in the film, just as last year’s Dear Zachary wouldn’t have left the entire audience in tears if it had been honest with us from the start. This is not a criticism, just so long as the film becomes honest by the time it ends, and admits that the appearance of its subjects on film is not “authentic”.

The very act of pointing a camera, then, affects what is caught. Dutch filmmaker Renzo Martens uses Enjoy Poverty to point out that, because Westerners will pay more to see pictures of African war and poverty than for pictures of African parties, therefore poverty is a resource. The document is determined by the demand: we see more images of African corpses than African wedding ceremonies not because there are more corpses than marriages on the continent, but because corpses seem more important to us, they make us feel something. Now, while Martens’ film makes this point, he is honest enough to show us himself as a rather annoying little man, egging his subjects on, encouraging them to perform and sell their poverty. This makes his film less effective than a less honest version might have been, but surely this is a virtue. Martens resisted dramatising his document as a quest for good.

Double Take, in the festival’s ‘New Directions’ section, played with the distinction between drama and documentary by cutting news footage of the cold war space race with scenes from Hitchcock and sixties coffee ads. The glue that held all this together was a fictional Borges story, but the film is still a documentary since it uses news footage to make an argument about a real event—director Johan Grimonprez suggesting that the cold war was all a joke designed to frighten us. Contrast the highly stylised, self-acknowledged manipulation used in non-fiction films like Double Take, Examined Life and We Live in Public with the deadly serious realism of festival fictions Firaaq and Balibo: both are deeply affecting dramatisations of ethnic violence (in Gujarat and Timor Leste respectively), relying on down-to-earth performances and camera work to convince us that what we are seeing is at least similar to what really happened. It’s as if by using real footage and calling your film a documentary, you can get away with more flashy self-analysis that you can in a dramatisation.

However, the six Barry Barclay documentaries the festival put on entirely reject the hyperreal self-awareness and flashy filmmaking of Timoner and Grimonperez. In particular, Barclay’s 1974 Tangata Whenua series simply shows members of various Maori communities walking their land while discussing loss, and cooking food while discussing family. Presenter Michael King occasionally appears on camera—he certainly isn’t being ‘hidden’ to make the footage seem more genuine—but only as a listener. Barclay’s style is not as gripping as Timoner’s, but it is neither better nor worse. Perhaps what Harris, via Timoner, is telling us is that we are inevitably, to paraphrase Judith Butler, performers, who dramatise ourselves even when we’re not on camera, so the notion that documentary footage can be fake is problematic. On the other hand, when you compare the Soundtrack to War clip of the filmmaker egging on a US soldier to sing ‘The Roof is on Fire’, with the edited version of the same clip that appears in Farenheit 9/11, without the egging on, you realise that while documentary footage will always be manipulated, it’s not too much to ask for a little honesty in this manipulation: great documentaries are able to remain true for the very reason that they acknowledge their own status as film.

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Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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