What is it that a camera sees? Do we need to accept and conform to the dominant storytelling paradigms, or is there actually more that we can be striving for? Perhaps no life and work embodies these questions as well as Ricky Leacock. Filmmaker David Van Taylor guest posts today with an examination of him and these issues, and the difference between documentary and essay film. There is a lot that can be said about these subjects, certainly enough for a six hour documentary AND many blog posts.
For over a decade, Lumiere Productions has been working to create TO TELL THE TRUTH, a 6-hour history of documentary film. As the title suggests, we’re not interested in appreciating documentary just as an art form, in “film for film’s sake.” We’re exploring how documentary operates in the real world, where non-fiction films have both causes and consequences.
One joy of this project was our in-depth 2004 interview with the late lamented Ricky Leacock. Ricky was part of a small group that helped invent “Direct Cinema” (aka “cinema verité”) in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s. For many, this was the beginning of “real documentary,” since much of what came before entailed what we now call “re-enactments” or other intrusions that Ricky and his colleagues found a way to avoid.
Here’s a clip where Ricky describes his awakening, with the help of Bob Drew, to a new documentary concept. Note—he’s not talking about equipment or even technique. He’s not talking about intrusion or reenactment. No, the most critical shift was his understanding of what constitutes an interesting subject and a worthwhile impact on the viewer.
The (much-deserved) postmortem ado about Ricky has stressed this ability to be “fascinated,” and his lifelong quest to convey “the feeling of being there.”
But … it has been scarcely noted that these core convictions about what makes a good documentary are, if not dead, then distinctly out of fashion. We are in the midst of a documentary renaissance in theaters, on TV, at festivals. It is dominated, though, not by Ricky’s brand of cinema verité, but by essays and exposés on distinctly important topics—in Ricky’s words (not mine!), “films that convert people to this that and the other thing … all this left-wing, politically-correct bullshit.”
This opposition—between films “fascinated” by human stories and films that aim to change people’s attitudes about a critical issue—is not new in the history of documentary. It wasn’t new at the time of Ricky’s epiphany, either. For all their innovations, Leacock et al. were also standing on the shoulders of Ricky’s erstwhile mentor Robert Flaherty. The director of Nanook of the North, Man of Aran and Louisiana Story—whose work prompted the popular coinage of “documentary”—created observational, character-centered story films before the technology existed to do so. He believed the essence of filmmaking was “non-preconception.”
But in the same era as Flaherty, a very different mold was being forged half-way across the globe. Committed Soviet Communist Dziga Vertov, in Man with a Movie Camera, Three Songs of Lenin, and Enthusiasm, pioneered montage-driven essays about mass movements and social issues. The films, often distributed through innovative grass-roots “outreach,” were explicitly intended to change the world.
You can view documentary history as a pendulum swinging between these two poles—observational and argumentative, Flaherty and Vertov—due to shifting historical and political contexts. For example, the argument film dominated in World War II, when governments around the world sponsored documentaries for propaganda. Observational cinema returned, as “cinema verité,” in the ‘50’s, when McCarthyism (like Stalinism) made direct political expression dangerous.
As I see it, most prominent documentarians these days are children of Vertov, whether they know it or not. (Most don’t.) I’m not sure we yet have the historical perspective to know why that is. It may have something to do with a long-term conservative political tide that has left many viewers eager for a strong opposing voice. But whatever the reason, critics, viewers, film students today seem more likely to complain that a documentary doesn’t make a clear statement than to complain that it has an axe to grind.
I’m pretty sure Ricky couldn’t have been too happy about that. I’m less certain how I feel about it. Maybe the argument film is what we need as a culture right now. And let me be clear: these are not simple, black/white distinctions, even at their root. Vertov was a master of “fly-on-the-wall” filming, though he then manipulated the heck out of it in editing. (He also coined the term “kino-pravda,” which translates as “cinema verité,” now connoting a very different kind of film than those he made.) Flaherty, on the other hand, was famous for manipulations as he was filming—there’s a shot in Nanook where you can see the rifle the Eskimo would have used if Flaherty hadn’t asked him to use an old-fashioned spear—but made films that appeared as seamless and natural as life itself.
The controversy at the time about Flaherty’s poetic liberties still echoes today. HBO is about to release Cinema Verité, a (fictionalized) condemnation of how observational filmmakers allegedly exploited the Loud family in the ur-reality series. Perhaps it’s always the case that f you put something on the screen that appears unmanipulated, from Nanook to An American Family, you open yourself to feelings of betrayal when viewers discover that the documentary lens has in fact had a hand in shaping events.
Maybe that’s another reason argument-driven documentaries dominate today. We’re all convinced that everyone’s trying to spin us, from elected officials to news reporters to the kid with the Flip camera. So maybe the best we can hope for is that they’ll spin us straight—not pretend that they’ve gone in without preconception and are just trying to convey the feeling of being there.
Figuring out the last couple of decades will probably be the hardest part of making TO TELL THE TRUTH. I’d love to hear what anyone out there—documentary filmmakers, dedicated viewers, or just film lovers in general—thinks about this perspective on recent doc history. Am I on target, or full of BS? If I’m right that argument-driven docs dominate the scene now, why do you think that is? And is it something to be embraced, to be combated, or somehow to be transcended?
Right now my personal feeling is: Ricky, please don’t go. We need you more than ever.
— David Van Taylor
David Van Taylor and Lumiere Productions are currently completing 2 episodes of TO TELL THE TRUTH. For more on the history of documentary, including additional clips of Ricky Leacock, please follow TO TELL THE TRUTH on Facebook.