Film-Thinking in Documentaries

To have an encounter with the film that one is making is a compelling idea that stayed with me from last week’s session. David Lynch’s Inland Empire and the discussion about films without scripts that proceed the filming made me think about documentary films, which are generally unscripted. Most of what happens in front of the camera is not predetermined, but an event with unanticipated consequences and meanings. I am not suggesting that there are no agendas involved – the choices of what to film and how are made more or less intentionally by the filmmaker, as are the things said and done by the subjects in front of the screen. However the outcome of the whole that is captured is generally less planned for, than in fiction films that follow a concrete script. To be surprised by life in front of the camera is one of the reasons why I have developed a strong attachment to the documentary form and non-fiction films. Of course the process of discovery is not always as fruitful as it potentially could be. Often there are preconceived ideas that guide the filmmaker and make the film just another representation of a specific idea, not a possibility for something new to emerge. Nevertheless I think that in its nature the documentary form has good prerequisites for the real encounter between the filmmaker, the film and the world.

However there is also a paradox built into the general understanding of documentary form that inhibits the full freedom and potential for something new to emerge. It is the common understanding of documentary as somehow representing reality “as it is”. Even if there is an acknowledgement that the film is always different from the events that were captured,(due to editing as well) the assumption remains that a reality in documentary should resemble more or less the reality outside the film world.
Hence even if we go along with David Frampton’s (2006) claim that film produces its own way of thinking, I would argue that the distinction that is made between documentary and fiction is making us expect the thinking of documentaries to be much closer to everyday thinking and cognition processes. This makes the documentary process fall too easily into the preconceived categories of understanding.

I am not advocating this paradox to be completely resolved, since I feel there are films where the explicitly “life like” character of the film is relevant for its reception. For example in documentary films that advocate a concrete cause. However I think it is necessary to also approach the documentary genre as an art form in becoming, so that the established notions would not predetermine all possible developments. To provide an example I am posting one of my old time favorites – Peter Greenaway’s short film H is for House. It is an example that in my view manages to go beyond the established notions of documentary form, initiating a distinct film-thinking

Piibe Kolka


Frampton, David. 2006. Filmosophy London: Wallflower Press

2 Responses to “Film-Thinking in Documentaries”

  1. scripts, themes…

    […]Film-Thinking in Documentaries « Immanent Terrain[…]…

  2. immanentterrain2 Says:

    I was particularly interested in when you said, “To be surprised by life in front of the camera is one of the reasons why I have developed a strong attachment to the documentary form and non-fiction films.” I think that the idea of surprise is something that can be incorporated into narrative film and creates a nice hybridity between fiction and non-fiction. Abbas Kiarostami does this in his 1997 film A Taste of Cherry.

    Here are links to part 2 and 3 of this film:

    In this particular scene, the main character picks up a young, Kurdish solider and the two have a conversation while in the car. The young man is not an actor at all; he is an actual solider. In reality it was actually director Kiarostami driving and having a conversation with the solider. Kiarostami later filmed scenes with the lead actor and edited both sets of footage together in order to simulate that the two men were actually in the car together, which they never were at any point during filming.

    In the film, the solider became afraid and jumped out of the car. This legitimately happened because Kiarostami must have alarmed the young man at some point. This goes along with the statement of being “surprised by life in front of the camera.” Kiarostami could have never predicted that the solider was going to run out on him like that, but he made use the incident by incorporating it into his narrative film.

    – Danielle Mantione

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: