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by james macgregor |

Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary


It always comes as something of a pleasant surprise when a British film takes an Oscar, but when that Oscar winner is a documentary film rather than fiction, it is time to take notice and take stock of cinema’s most neglected genre.

A happy surprise then, to discover that Faber are ahead in the game, with this very illuminating collection of thoughts and expression edited by Scotland’s Oscar winning documentary winner Kevin Macdonald and a director of Drambuie Edinburgh Film Festival, Mark Cousins, also a documentary film maker.

Given the influence that the Scot John Grierson had on generations of filmmakers who documented reality after him, Scottish credentials for the editors are entirely appropriate. But my interest was stirred by the fact that the book pre-dates Macdonald’s Oscar winner One Day In September and could yield some clues about the thinking that shapes the work of this now acclaimed documentary maker.

It is an informative and illuminating collection of texts about the documentary form from the Lumiere brothers to camcorder culture, all by film makers themselves. Their thoughts have been organised into logical sections; early documentary, the British movement, the essayists and the cinema of social concern.

The editors have searched wide for their material. Ken Loach reveals that the film that had a special significance for him was John Pilger and David Munro’s East Timor television documentary Death of a Nation., translated from the French film magazine Positif. East Timor was annexed by Inonesia after which over one third of the population disappeared, to be unearthed later in mass graves. The Loach extract includes the text of a revealing interview with then British Defence Minister Alan Clark telling John Pilger he was not bothered in the slightest about the suffering being inflicted on people of East Timor through British military equipment, whilst admitting that for reasons of personal conscience, he is vegetarian. We’ve grown used to seeing East Timor through a news lens. This extract proves that whilst it may be less dramatic in impact, documentary can be every bit as revealing.

Imagining Reality is not an academic tome. It is an honest collection of views of cinema’s forgotten form, a form hi-jacked by television and then too often treated like news footage. Nicholas Fraser editor of BBC 2’s "Fine Cut" documentary strand describes documentary filmmakers as "the mendicant friars of our times, visiting one forlorn hell-hole after another in a vain effort to correct the growing view that everything is no more than virtual."

In a sense, cinema having largely turned its back on documentary in favour of fiction has helped preserve the documentary form, keeping it relatively safe from searching examination, whereas film fiction is now venerated like literature. As Fraser puts it "Academic criticism is the death of documentary impulse. Is the image genuinely annexed to reality, or is it part of a societal code? Do all messages carried in the film format contain their quota of non-explicit bias? Does anyone care?"

Clearly, documentary filmmakers do. And for them documentary is the supreme narrative form. Grierson’s First Principles of Documentary make this clear. "My separate claim for documentary is simply that in its use of the living article, there is also an opportunity to perform creative work. I mean, too, that the choice of the documentary medium is as gravely distinct a choice as the choice of poetry instead of fiction." Later, he expands on this with emphasis on realism. "But realist documentary, with its streets and cities and slums and markets and exchanges and factories, has given itself the job of making poetry where no poet has gone before it….It requires not only taste but also inspiration, which is to say very laborious, deep-seeing, deep sympathising creative effort indeed."

The structure is of the book is chronological, not as an intended history of the form, simply reflecting the way documentary has developed over the last one hundred years.

The editors admit to gaps in the book. There is no coverage of nature documentaries, of ethnographic film-making, of Chinese documentary and the digital revolution is only just getting underway in this as in every other film field, so we stop documenting at the introduction of Hi-8.

The texts chosen for inclusion were selected because they are close to the films, either written by filmmakers themselves or interviews with filmmakers. In a sense, that restricts the scope of the book. Only available material could be considered, hence the gaps, noticeably the yawning chasm in the field of British television documentary. Plenty of footage, but little informed commentary, which seems astonishing.

John Grierson, as the editors freely admit, has a lot to answer for, particularly for popularising the rather ugly word "documentary". He was a utilitarian however, and it is a useable term, if not terribly attractive. The editors have gone some way towards answering for him and explaining in fine detail the creations that have preceded and followed him. Imagining Reality serves as a very useful reference to the body of work in the genre and to the variety of styles that have evolved since 1903 when dramatic fiction began to exercise a hold over the cinema going public. Astonishingly before that, three out of four films seen in cinemas were "Actualities", to my mind a much more attractive term than the rather ponderous "Documentary" label.

The awful thing is, having got a taste for the form, where on earth do you go to see these films? Some have vanished, some went up in flames in nitrate filmstock fires. Some exist only as folk memories or as cracked photographs. Most of them are locked away in film vaults, in national collections and most of them are rarely seen. Perhaps they should be. In a perverse sense it seems foolish to document films and filming styles through a book. A film could be so much more interesting. The sad thing is, since most of these films are not easily accessible, they will never be seen by those who would appreciate them most. The closest you could ever get to a seat in the stalls, is this book.

Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary
By Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins
Published by Faber & Faber, London 1996 £20

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