Monday, March 16, 2009

Group #3: Adam/Stephen/Will

This past week we studied documentaries, and their relationships, similarities, and differences to other film forms. Here are a few questions we came up with to help you think more about this subject:

What makes a film a documentary?

How and why does a documentary rely on conceptions of "reality," and how do they achieve this status?

What point is Kiarostami trying to make at the end of Close-Up with the whole "bad sound" scene (as they're trying to record Makhmalbaf and Sabzian)? Does this heighten the reality of the scene? Is it just an artistic show? Also, what effect does the music later in the scene add?

What does Dabashi mean when he says that "Kiarostami has opened the way to radical dismantling of the structural violence of 'meaning,' upon which is predicated such metaphysical surrogates as 'history,' "tradition,' 'identity,' and 'piety.'" (67) Do you agree with this statement? If so, how does Close-Up achieve this?

What does it mean when actors play themselves in a film? Does it make it more "real" or believable? Are they still even acting, or recreating?

In relation to The Thin Blue Line, do the stylized "recreations" cheapen the source material and factualness of the film, or do they help add to it? How also do the interviews affect us the viewer and the film at large?

What is the obsession with epistephilia that documentaries have? How does this differ from narrative films?

Is it truly impossible for a documentary (or any film) to show the objective truth and appeal to authenticity?

Does the fact that most of Battle of Algiers is obviously staged and made within the realm of classical film style impede its appeal to authenticity and realism, even though most of the sets used were authentic and many of the actors were actual participants in the revolution? Is this any more or less true than with Close-Up or The Thin Blue Line?

What does Nichols mean when he says that “Something is at stake. Namely, our very subjectivity within the social arena.” (194) Why do documentaries have this effect? How does this differ, or does it, from narrative film?


  1. I think we should consider the question of whether documentaries can ever show "truth" in the same way that we consider the question of whether there will ever be an appropriate and legitimate form of counter-cinema. Although Mulvey lays out the foundations for the creation of a counter-cinema, it seems that every attempt to create it can be contested (for example, one can argue that Godard both is and isn't the counter-cinema that Mulvey calls for). So while there seems to be a way to create counter-cinema, no one has been able to successfully and flawlessly do it. In the same way, perhaps documentaries have the potential to show absolute truth, but every attempt to do this has been followed with criticism, to the point that we wonder if it actually can be done at all.

    As we discussed in section, perhaps the fact of the matter is that because the camera cannot work on its own, and must be controlled and operated by a human, there is no way to get any closer to an unbiased universal truth than a human would be able to. Therefore our experience is never a subjective one, but always manipulated - even unintentionally - by the director or camera operator.

  2. In terms of (what makes a film into a documentary?), I think you really have to dive into some of Nichols' methodology. You can classify a documentary when you start from the reference point of the reality that is being conveyed, knowing full well that realism, however straightforward, is a style. I noticed a striking similarity on Nichols's table in "Representing Reality" on p. 166 between Classic Hollywood and Documentary. Notice that the viewer works to interpret a singular moral at the end of a Hollywood film. But the singular moral is inevitably an argument, not so far removed from what viewer interprets from a historical documentary. The contrast is the practice, or how it is carried out. In a documentary, voices build off of others, and anecdotes provide proof, so viewer receives consequential hand-off. In a Hollywood film, however, viewer is given a diffuse network of perspectives, but also an observation of action. So while we observe action, we presuppose it. We could not easily trust a documentary with fictional characters because the viewer would likely revert to the Classical Hollywood interpretation, trusting the genuine feelings of the fictional characters, but lacking complete participation in the network. In a serious documentary, we naturally remove the inclination to see the subjects or sources as representations and further don't need to presuppose their further action. All we need is institutional identification with some place in the hand-off, not the complication of an extracted moral. So really my answer to the initial question would be- ritual.

  3. It is very difficult and maybe impossible for a documentary to depict complete truth or reality, largely because the definitions of truth and reality are so ambiguous. Certainly nothing deliberately put on film can be considered truly objective; while the camera may show exactly what is going on in a certain space, the framing and the decision that an object or event is worthy of being filmed inherently introduces discourse to the film. Perhaps if we imagine a camera accidentally dropped somewhere that filmed without the knowledge of any director, this could be the closest film could get to reality. Even then, if we consider truth to include not just what appears to be happening but also why it is happening, the image will not be enough to reveal truth.

    Kiarostami's use of people playing themselves in a recreation of events in Close Up further complicates documentary's attempt at reality. This is especially the case with Sabzian, who plays himself playing Makhmalbaf, who also appears as himself in the film. The film never tells us what parts are real (if that word can even be used) and what are recreations. Interestingly, Sabzian's aspirations of being an actor are realized, as he is an actor in this film. Kiarostami certainly aims for an accurate recreation of the events that occurred; nonetheless knowing that it is a recreation leads to a curiosity about how the actual events transpired.

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  5. It feels as though we have well established the fact that a film is bound to subjectivity because we humans are controlling where it is to be pointed, etc. But is it possible to say that, if we set a camera down somewhere and just did a long take of something, that that something becomes objective? (I don't know if I'm making any sense...) So even though the choice of placing the camera was subjective and was our decision, the fact that the camera is still rolling and recording what ever happens despite what that not objective? I guess another way of saying it might be; if we abandon all and any possible cinematic coding, and just resorted to the camera's power to record, would we be able to attain a certain objectivity in the film?

  6. I have always been struck by films that are designated to be "fake documentaries". I think that films like these do a great job of exposing the truth behind documentaries, because when someone watches one, they are taking it at face value, that the content is true and that is it not altered or for that fact completely fabricated. I guess this is why I have always seen the difference between documentary and films as merely semantics.

  7. What does it mean when actors play themselves in a film? Does it make it more "real" or believable? Are they still even acting, or recreating?

    I think that this question is extremely interesting in relation to Kiarostami's Close-Up, in which we see not only the director himself, Makhmalbaf, but arguably Sabzian and the Ahankhah family engaged in such methods. I think that their roles being a representation of their "actual" identities directly correlates to what these interesting forms of documentary are attempting to show. It is interesting to consider what in fact it means to even act as oneself and if it is at all different than normal expression of an individuals identity. Because the self is not some static entity that can be simply expressed it is interesting to think of how our identities are in some way always constituted in some performative fashion.
    I do think that this act of self-reflexive acting though does follow an aesthetic of authenticity that is coded within documentary. It is also interesting to think of the stakes of this method in a film like Algiers, where people who were involved in the resistance helped to play some of the roles.

    To take up the question regarding Algiers I think it is important to note that because it was made and edited somewhat in the style of classical film making, it still gives claim to aesthetic of authenticity that truly sets it apart from traditional narrative. I feel that many of the modes of standardized coding are subverted and therefore help to give the feel of something more than a constructed narrative.

  8. To pose the question of whether documentary can ever show the objective truth of an event, I think, misses the point somewhere. The issue is not whether a documentary fails or succeeds in depicting an objective truth, but whether there is an objective truth to actually appeal to. The status of an event is never objective, it is always mediated through a subject. I think it's more instructive to ask this question in terms of authenticity. Trying to define what it means to be authentic is a bit messier than questions of truth, but I suppose one could pose it as a sort of "truth" of the subjective position—faithfully representing the way an event seemed to you. Thus, perhaps as an alternative to the traditional "objective" documentary, there could be something to gain in assuming a directly subjective position in documentary. As an example, what if The Battle of Algiers was made from the point of view of a single character and presented the events as close to how that person saw them, regardless of how we know them to be now. I think the suppression of this sort of filmmaking—I could be wrong that it's even suppressed at all. I'm not terribly well-versed in documentary—can be attributed to the epistephilia of documentary, that this reference to knowledge or objective truth is something demanded by the viewer of documentary.

  9. The Battle of Algiers was interesting for quite a bit of reasons, not limited to the fact that it was unapologetically one-sided. That's the key word, though--unapologetically. The spectator knows that it is one-sided, and it doesn't try to hide the fact. Honestly, I believe that when a film/documentary tries to portray an objective truth, it tends to get skewed more than something like the Battle of Algiers. As the spectator knows that there is a bias, they'll try by instinct to figure out the other side. While watching the Battle of Algiers, I realized the potential one-sided look at the situation and tried to look at it from multiple viewpoints (particularly the French viewpoint).

    During the Thin Blue Line, I felt a bit more confused as I didn't know what I was missing. The movie clearly provided a "truth", but what was it missing? As it tried to be objective, I thought I was missing much more than say The Battle of Algiers, where I could piece together the lost puzzle pieces as a spectator.