The documentary world


By Hartmut Bitomsky

Originally published in ‘Hartmut Bitomsky: Retrospective’, Goethe Institut München, 1997. As found in the Doc’s Kingdom 2010 catalogue. Hartmut Bitomsky will be our guest for the next DISSENT ! session, on March 28.

Films are not alone. They live in an environment of wonderful moments. One, for example, is in Flaherty’s The Land, when a child takes a little piece of bread and wipes the last remaining bit of sauce from his plate. There is the scene of a sandstorm in Turksib by Viktor Turin: the figures are seen crouching down behind the bodies of the camels, and the bulging bales of cotton burst open. The sand buries and suffocates a whole caravan. At the end only a couple of pieces of white fluff remain, which are blown about over the dunes by the wind.
We know nothing about the people nor about the covering letters that they were carrying under their jackets. The greatest tragedies always probably occur in a state of anonymity; it is not necessary to have individuals and persons in order to speak about the human condition.
There is the smile of Nanook, the Eskimo whom Flaherty got to play himself, but who in smiling into the camera stepped out of his role, and in doing so created what many would like to call the documentary moment, the moment of truth that only cinematography can create.
There is the circle of faces that Eisenstein in The General Line has gathered around a separator, the device that removes cream from milk. In the spinning movement of critical emotions a clarity shows in the faces of the farmers. One can see the smoothness of the features, the swaying of firm opinions and the hardness of the singular character.
Another film is Las Hurdes [Land Without Bread], which impresses me because of its incorruptible pitilessness. It does not ally itself with poverty, nor does it blur the difference between film-making and the filmed subject
There is the bird that flies up from a branch, startled in anticipation of the pealing of a bell, which Basil Wright only includes later in the film when he adds the sound track to Song of Ceylon.
From Franju we learn that even in the cruellest moments, there is something like a condition of mercy in which everything has a part – people and things – even in the shabbiest and most despicable state.
There is Vigo, who during every take in A propos de Nice cannot conceal how filming has made him so excited, and the cheerfulness that overcomes him in view of the fact that someone with a maimed hand takes part in a game that nonetheless requires dexterity.
In Forest of Bliss Gardner describes to us the world in its total unintelligibility and incomprehensibility. People develop activities, carry out plans and ritually obey regulations and laws, and yet there is no real reason why things have to happen the way they happen.
Nothing must be the way it is.
In a Kinopravda [cinema-truth] by Vertov, a person is seen crossing the wide street, and the camera moves with him showing his movement in great detail, in order to let us see exactly how crossing a street takes place – as if this walking movement were the most important event happening at this moment in the world. There is Grierson, who in Drifters, as sailors at sea wake up in the morning blinking their eyes, inserts shots of houses situated on the beach, as if the seamen with a feeling of longing are trying to salvage their last dreamy thoughts or home from the depths of sleep into the reality of the day.
And there is also the cheerfully light, almost carefree film-making style of Jean Rouch in Chronique d’un Été, with his nearly brazen use of an obsolete grammar of film to treat a unsuitable subject.
We also have the media of film to thank for showing us that people are no more than masks, masks that bear an extraordinary resemblance to themselves. What they do in film are simply attempts to acquire a physiognomy through their work – one could also say, attempts to make a grimace at the world.
That is the society in which I see my films.


The work of an artist, says Lévi-Strauss, is engaged in a threefold dialogue. First of all there is the dialogue with the audience or, as it is referred to these days, with the user, which is a halfway acceptable term. However, when we consider the many misunderstandings, the wrongly understood and forgotten and rediscovered works, the outrage of scathing reviews, the condemnations, the attacks of the censors, the scandalous events, the ridiculing and mutilation, then it becomes clear how difficult and controversial this dialogue is. And perhaps it must be this way, confused and erratic. This illustrates clearly the extent to which indeed all communication also contains an element of unreconciled opposition and conflict. In a work of art this might even appear to be enlarged.
The reason for this seems in part to lie in exactly the other two dialogues that the work maintains. One of these dialogues refers to the depicted things, the represented objects, the model (Lévi-Strauss uses the term model here, because he is referring to paintings and sculptures in the fine arts; for similar reasons Bresson, incidentally, also calls his actors and actresses models). From a broad perspective this is a dialogue with the world and with reality, which the artist confronts together with his work of art, and which attempt to gain entry to the work in various ways.
Finally, the third dialogue deals with the artistic material that the artist has, or does not have, at his disposal the material that he must select or master. For the filmmaker this artistic material consists of the camera, the lens, filters, light, sound and editing, and the whole history of film and all methods of making a film that exist or that do not yet exist.


In the dialogue with the artistic processes there appears something that in another place would be called the aesthetic resistance. The work of art gives to things a particular form, one that they do not bring with them naturally – it first has to be given to them, and sometimes in a really violent way. A situation is not simply filmed; the images, the shots have to be worked out. Eisenstein speaks of the film shot, and thus of filmmaking in general, as knocking out a piece of reality by means of the lens. This is related to Michelangelo’s dictum, according to which the statue may indeed already be contained within the block of marble, but the superfluous parts would still have to be hammered away. In Man of Aran Flaherty shows how a small boy catches fish from high above in the cliffs. The boy is wearing a balloon-like cap. He smiles as he removes it, and he has to take it off because under the cap he keeps his bait – live shrimps. Having no fishing rod, he extends his leg outward and lowers the line down to the water between his toes.
In order to show all of this, perhaps three of four shots would have sufficed. One long shot for general information, a close-up of the boy, another one of the foot, then another long shot and the episode would have been clear to anyone. Flaherty, however, shot the scene from all sides, from the front, from the side, from the back and again from the front, from above and from below; he repeats takes, re-edits and cross-edits them. He really has the boy work in front of the camera.
This method has, of course, a delaying effect, completely in the style of Flaherty’s slow procedure, referred to as slight narrative. This can be called the putting up of aesthetic resistance. Just as in music a phrase is modulated again and again, the film images, as if they wanted to be heard from all sides, spread out in every conceivable direction, until it becomes evident that here Flaherty is comparing the work of the boy with that of film-making, and that the one type of work is just like the other, as if there is a close affinity between them.


The third dialogue is the dialogue with the subject, with the object in the lens, with reality, the dialogue with the world. What happens in front of the camera at the moment of filming is the domain of the documentary film. The camera is aimed at objects that exist independent of it and of the situation in which the filming is taking place. It is fixed on the material world, in a visibility of its own.
With a certain justification it can be assumed that the documentary film works with ready-made objects: things that already exist, that are prefabricated in a particular, already developed form and state, and with a separate history; things that have their own distinctive right to exist, that have developed in a specific (even if perhaps unknown or only vaguely suspected) context to become what they are. I call this development a primary production, by which I also truly understand the process of a person’s life, the production of his biography and physiognomy, his individuality, his character and his fate.
The film-maker – by making a picture and by recording a sound – tears the subject out of its original context, sometimes in quite a violent way but sometimes without leaving behind a distinct mark (which is what happens with ready-made objects in the strict sense of the term), and places them in a new context and into another structure. This is what I term secondary production or the aesthetic production (it can well be minimalist or, in accordance with the theories of Direct Cinema, consist more of an avoiding of the aesthetic element)
Grierson once defined the documentary film as a creative treatment of actuality – whereby creative treatment could indeed refer to what has here been called the second aesthetic production and should certainly be associated with Levi-Strauss dialogue with the artistic material. Behind the concept of actuality there appears once again the completed substance of reality, as it is also suggested in the term ready-made object. It is from this consideration that the idea of the primary production was developed
In keeping with this idea Siegfried Kracauer in his most important work, Theory of Film (which bears the subtitle “The Redemption of Physical Reality”), distinguished between the two fundamental categorical functions of film, namely a recording function and a revealing function. This certainly goes along with Dziga Vertov’s dual appeal to film: it is to capture the world as it is, and at the same time it must decipher it.

How can, however, this registering and the revealing, the reproduction and the deciphering tally in this equation? When Joris Ivens unexpectedly encountered difficulties during the production of a film a while ago, he believed to have discovered that the aesthetic production was definitely derived from reality. The task involved filming some workers as they were in the process of moving basalt rocks, but somehow Ivens was not able to correctly capture the work in pictures. So, he looked for a way of gaining access to the action in that he performed the work himself, and this gave him information about how to go about filming the subject: “I noticed that the greatest exertion was in the shoulder muscles and in the chin. Thus, to film this action, these places had to be emphasised because they are an organic part of the work. From then on the camera, the angle of shooting and the composition of the picture were all determined by these muscles and the chin. They became something like two focal points of the action. The photography is determined by reality and not by my aesthetic efforts to obtain a well-chosen balance between line and light. But then it was precisely this realistic viewpoint that was the most beautiful one. I could not film the stoneworkers before I had understood the physical exertion involved in their work.”
Although it cannot be denied that Ivens insight has a certain, almost touching persuasiveness about it, nevertheless there are doubts that the standpoint of the work and the standpoint of the film-making could simply coincide. The reason for this is that pictures do no just come from the things they depict; they also originate from other pictures, and this origin cannot be placed in a picture.


Another film by Ivens, namely De Brug (“The Bridge” was his first film, which one notices because of his particular fascination with pictures) elucidates the problem from another point of view. The film, as the title indicates, is all about only one thing: a bridge. The one here is a lift bridge, which is raised so that large ships with high superstructures can pass under it.
The film shows all views and aspects of the bridge, every single element and each individual function during the construction of the bridge. One would almost like to say that each detail corresponds to a camera shot, just as the bridge itself corresponds to the engineers’ detailed plans according to which it was constructed. Indeed, one could say that the film is a blue print of the bridge – it is created before our eyes a second lime, and this time it is not to be used by pedestrians or by railway passengers, but rather to be looked at.
This leads us to consider that a documentary film does not simply reproduce reality, but rather causes it to be created visually once again: it shows us how reality is created. What we perceive is the creation of reality, the creation of a second reality.
Jean Rouch, who with his cinéma vérité worked on exactly the problem of how to record and reproduce reality, was incidentally led to the concept of cinétrance by a similar realisation. The concept cinétrance describes the fact that when a piece of reality and a camera are brought together, something new is created, something that would not exist if the camera were not present.


This conclusion causes, of course, a certain uneasiness and invites us to contradict it. With the documentary film there is an almost yearning expectation of reality, enlightenment and truth. In the same way there is also its opposite, namely a disappointment and a discontent of all those truths and realities that are brought to the surface in the documentary idiom.
Chris Marker once described this conflict as two fundamental ways of behaving, which the documentary film synthesises. On the one hand the film-maker behaves in a modest way towards reality and accepts it as it is. On the other hand, however, he determines beforehand what reality has to be – and when in fact it does not correspond to this, then reality is just wrong. In other words, first reality is accepted, and even more than that, it is held as if in a tender embrace; then it is rejected and denied.
In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men written by James Agee there appears a photo of a pair of torn-up shoes, which was taken by Walker Evans. This photograph puts the observer in an almost paradoxical situation. It is apparent that the shoes have reached the end of their usability, and they are looked upon as someone’s wretched belongings, as poverty that is naked and above all dispossessed of its usefulness. We revolt at the sight of them.
Nevertheless, at the same time these shoes have a unique preciousness: they are real shoes and they have a true life-story. They were not devised nor specially produced for the picture: they are not props, not part of the scenery, and they have not been made instruments of something. They simply are what they are. And they are beautiful, with an unmistakable beauty all their own. Finally, it should definitely be added here that the shoes in the photo no longer exist. They have rotted. The pictures show a reality that does not exist. Perhaps the documentary is nothing more than a place of exile for reality, a home away from home.
What I am getting at is that the documentary, because of its subject, is a critical genre. It is the expression of a crisis, because that which we call reality is itself something that is in a crisis. This realness is always in the process of dissolving, breaking apart, breaking down and breaking through, of developing and changing, of slipping away and of crossing over. The concept of reality itself indeed concerns an object in its crisis.


Franju, whose film Sang des Bêtes will remain unforgotten, although the slaughterhouses in Paris no longer exist – they are now art exhibition halls – and although the animals in the meantime are slaughtered in a completely different, namely industrial, way, Franju in a discussion once emphasised the artificial aspect of realness as it appears in film. He said that with a film the world had to be created again, because it was constantly running away from us. “Reality denies reality” – this is the formula he reduced it all to, and for this reason the artist always has to give reality an aspect of artificiality. Reality is always on the run. A documentary film cannot keep a firm hold on it; it can only create it again.
In a metaphorical way Fellini once evoked this loss of reality as a wonderful albeit wistful moment: In the film Roma, when a catacomb is opened during excavation work for an underground, frescos are discovered which have survived there in the darkness for two thousand years, but in that moment through the fresh air that streams in and the daylight that filters in they are destroyed and vanish from the walls before our eyes.


New York, N.Y. is a film whose subject refused being captured by the camera in another, perhaps even more extreme way. It is an almost inconspicuous, casual little film by Raymond Depardon, who made it in New York at the beginning of the eighties, and it consists of only three albeit long shots.
The first one is a travelling shot high above the East River along a bridge full of traffic, taken from the gondola of a cable railway that passes over the river at that location. The second shot shows a street intersection in Manhattan in the twilight – a couple of pedestrians are crossing the street. The third shot is again a travelling shot over the river, although in the opposite direction and at a later time of day.
In a voice-over during the first shot Depardon says a few sentences about how the film came about: A few years before, he had stayed in New York for a couple of weeks, and every day he had set out with his camera to take shots of the city. After finishing he had gone into a little café and looked out of the window at the intersection. At some point in time he had discontinued shooting the film, had returned to Europe and had totally forgotten the film about New York until he discovered these three shots during an occasional examination of his film material.
These three shots became the film, but it is not about New York: it is the film that New York made against the film-maker. He looked at the subject, but it did not look back at him; it merely turned its back on him.
The filming was done in New York, but what it shows is not this city but rather a hazy diffusion, which softens the three pictures with shadows, as if perceived through the unwashed windowpane of a café. The passers-by at the street intersection are nothing else but strange, anonymous silhouettes, who are wandering through a Nietzschean metropolis. No one sees anyone else, and everyone is alone.

This film sticks like a thorn in the flesh of documentary film-making. It instantly caused all other documentary films to age, so that the whole genre, in its self-confidence of being able to capture what is real, has something strangely old-fashioned clinging to it. This is because the documentary film has always seen itself as a driving force in the salvation of reality, and in this regard it was always certain at the affirmation of the real object.
Here, however, the object manifests itself through its absence. It has vanished from the film.


In order to continue developing the concept of disappearing reality (of the reality of disappearing), we should remember the fact that there are astonishingly few film recordings of the Gulf War. The explanation given is the rigid censorship of the military. The Vietnam war had been accompanied by a flood of pictures – it has even been suggested that this flood of pictures was a decisive factor which contributed to ending the war. This time history was not to repeat itself, and thus the entire press coverage of the war was put under the massive control of the military. In a way the censors functioned like a photo agency, which at their own discretion did or did not make their material available to the press.
As a consequence the visuality of the Gulf War remained rather meagre. When new material was released recently, which until then had been kept under lock and key, it was possible to view scenes like the following: A group of tanks moving at high speed through the flat desert (this shot was fairly long) suddenly came to halt and then fired a series of rounds in an undefined direction. No target could be seen, and for that reason it was not possible to determine what damage the barrage of cannon fire had caused. Finally, the tanks turned around and returned in the direction from which they had come. Then there is a cut to General Schwarzkopf, who said that they had hesitated for a long time before attacking the heavily fortified lines of the Republican Guard, but then finally decided to proceed, and in fifteen seconds the job had been completed.
What took place cannot be called a battle of tanks. To identify this event as a conflict between two opposing military forces who resolved their differences with the use of weapons is simply impossible. The kind of weapons and strategies used make traditional war invisible. The soldiers are no longer engaged in action; they fight each other over enormous distances, and instead of making contact with the enemy, they sit down in front of television monitors on which combat targets appear as small dots of light.
Other pictures of this war – but should we not call them pictures? – were made by cameras mounted on missiles, which glided through a milky darkness until the missile hit the target and the transmission on the monitor died because the missile and with it the camera exploded. Nothing was seen of what took place. It was necessary to resort to one’s imagination in order to recognise again a reality in this softened representation, a reality that at one time was powerful but now has been done away with.
In the television series Heimat [“Home”] by Edgar Reitz there was an aerial shot of Hunsrück, which was supposed to show in one take the entire area where the action with its stories would cover. The shot was filmed from a jet fighter, which flew at the speed of sound. It lasted, I don’t know, for about two minutes, and what there was to see can no longer be called a picture: it was a trembling, blurred shaking movement of visually perceived elementary particles, crashing into each other grey in grey. Such enormous speeds disconnect the cinematographic picture from every object, and the unit of measurement of twenty-four frames per second can no longer capture it. Virilio will probably not have seen this shot. Otherwise he would have rewritten his book Cinema and War. Modern war and cinematic pictures do not go together any more.


With the advent of digitalised pictures, the detachment of reality from the cinematographic and photographic image has again continued at an accelerated pace. Every digital element can be substituted for another digital element without leaving any trace of this substitution. A photograph (or what looks like a photograph) does not necessarily have to refer to a real model, at least not entirely. Then we would be at the end of the age of a consubstantiality of photography and object. The technique of retouching – for which photography in the Soviet Union was condemned and ridiculed – has become a generally used, accepted and commended process (Forrest Gump was still a bit chubby, but that will improve).
This situation is a challenging one. In the future the documentary film will have to change in order to survive and to have new definitions for itself to develop. It will no longer be able to exist by guaranteeing a truth that is based on the mechanical reproduction technology of the camera and the film material. Authenticity has held the documentary film in shackles long enough, and consuming reality instead of producing it more than ever will not be sufficient. And it will become evident that the reality even of something documentary is not to be found somewhere beyond the pictures but rather in them.