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Black and white has served a multitude of filmmakers as a means to tell a story since colour took over as the dominant form, as it offers a different technique for expression. Alfred Hitchcock famously went back and forth between the two, using red and green in the lusty illusions of Vertigo, but harsh shadows and spooky lighting in black and white for Psycho. And, of course, The Wizard of Oz starts in black and white before exploding in vibrant colours. Since nowadays black and white has become a deliberate choice, it pays to examine why filmmakers use it. The most obvious example is Spielberg’s Schindler’s List; it prompts the clear discrepancy between good and evil, while also placing us temporally. Furthermore, the often noir-style cinematography lends itself to the format with shadows, smoke, and brutal violence often featured within the frame.
16mm black and white has also offered many varying filmmakers the ability to shoot their projects dirt cheap. Kevin Smith’s Clerks managed to scrape by on no budget, Christopher Nolan used his noir tendencies to save money with The Following, and Roman Polanski brought a visceral portrayal of sexual anxiety to the screen with Repulsion in the ’60s — the lo-fi/low-tech nature of the film working to make it all the more disturbing. At its most essential form, black and white cuts out the middleman of colour and sends our brain images of pure composition without any frills or distractions. Here’s a brief collection of films (all of which, by chance, are documentaries) that have used the advantages of black and white memorably.
The Ground We Won (2015)
Directed by Christopher Pryor and Miriam Smith
It’s honestly surprising, given our nation’s apparent love of rugby, that more cinema hasn’t come of it. The explanation for this may well lie in this primarily observational documentary, which follows the Reporoa Rugby Club through their season, and in doing so portrays the extent to which the sport is ingrained into the New Zealand community. There’s all the swearing (“let’s smash these c*nts”), drinking (primarily crate beer), and hazing you might, or might not, have expected, but there’s also a genuine camaraderie shown between the players. Indeed, all the “aftermatch” behaviour is bracingly upfront, with alcohol-fuelled masculinity bringing out what some would call the worst of rural New Zealand. In a way, the style is almost a reference to the polarising nature of the sport itself — while some are neutral or indifferent towards rugby, there are many who loathe it, and others who live and breathe it (I am referring to those who act as if “soccer” is a poncy frivolity which threatens their way of life and furthermore is played by girls).
This is a sports film only in the loosest sense. There’s no narration, so you’re left with whatever the filmmakers capture the men saying, and it is in the lack of explanation that the filmmakers enforce the absurdity of rugby. Had this been a documentary about the All Blacks or any of other well known rugby team, all the beats and motions would have been predictable and familiar. But with the obscurity of the team, and the use of black and white, the film becomes a microcosm of a greater community. The removal of colour makes you feel as if you could be watching any provincial team at any time in New Zealand’s history, and the film’s overall comment is all the greater for its stylistic choice.
One More Time With Feeling (2016)
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Following 2013’s 20,000 Days On Earth, which chronicled Nick Cave’s thoughts and feelings on that particular time in his life (as well as semi-documenting the creation of the album Push The Sky Away), this film finds Cave in the wake of personal tragedy, and follows far more closely his creativity and creative process in the making of the album Skeleton Tree. Immediately reflexive in its format, the film finds Cave agitated and more concerned than usual — at a kind of crossroads. Not only in black and white, but also in 3D, you truly feel like an inhabitant of Cave’s world. That said, you’re also occasionally thrust back into the real world as the camera sometimes breaks and the filmmakers resort to split screen, with one camera flicking in and out of focus. To match that level of realism is a Nick Cave far more candid than he was in 20,000 Days, and he even admits this in relation to his songwriting. In the interviews the camera is often handheld and evocative, and intercut with lush cinematography of his surrounding seaside town, complemented by the sense of otherworldliness that black and white implies.
As Cave describes how in wake of his son’s death he sees the world differently, we too see the world differently. It’s not a morbid piece, or one that lingers in grief, but is rather a meditation on life when you’re forced to readjust so drastically. And I haven’t even mentioned the songs yet. The entire album is played (and filmed) throughout, and there is a filmic progression to all the songs. In the beginning the filmmakers capture a distracted and hesitant Cave singing “Jesus Alone” and the set pieces get more and more elaborate and emotional, with the second to last song, “Distant Sky”, being filmed in colour and representing a progression as well as hope. In the end it’s a beautiful portrait that is thoughtful and riveting, and one that will undoubtedly engage you with its thesis on life.
The Salt Of The Earth (2014)
Directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
This one’s a bit of a cheat, because it is only about two-thirds black and white, but the way this film cuts from black and white to the occasional use of colour is something worth talking about. Exploring the 40-year career of photographer Sebastiao Salgado, this epic and breathtaking documentary recounts his greatest expeditions and examines his attitude to his work, his life, and to our own species. All of Salgado’s photographic work is black and white, so the filmmakers match this with the interview footage and a lot of the other cinematography. It’s not just stylistic however: Salgado’s work is timeless through its lack of colour, and so too becomes the film.
Most of interviews are Salgado himself recounting his experiences as he looks over his photography, and you slowly gain insight into his views on humanity. As he documents extreme genocide and famine in Africa, it becomes apparent that the human condition is one of perpetual, self-inflicted sickness, and his photography becomes confronting and brutal. Here the timeless nature of black and white serves as a reminder that the issues that Salgado photographed then are not only issues of that time, but of all time. Incredible humanitarian injustices occurred before he saw and photographed them, and they still continue today. Within the interviews a very sombre Salgado conducts himself thoughtfully, and his eyes give the viewer a hint of the suffering he has seen. In this way the black and white serves as a means to deconstruct human expression to pure composition, with the emotion somehow more tangible, something seen also in Salgado’s work. Towards the end of the film colour is used more, as Salgado in more recent times documents the purity of nature and restores his family farm in Brazil from virtual desert to a thriving ecosystem, and in that Salgado finds his resolution in the thought that humans can still bring positive impact to the world, ending a monumental legacy of photography with a fitting conclusion.