Eye am a camera
IMAGINING REALITY: The Faber Book Of Documentary eds Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins, Faber pounds 20 ,
Sunday 09 February 1997
Extracts in this anthology record an unexpected coincidence of views between the Soviet film-maker Dziga Vertov and John Grierson, the leading figure in the British documentary movement of the 1930s, both of whom were deeply suspicious of movie fictions. For Vertov and the other members of the Kino-Pravda movement, in the decade after the Russian Revolution, the "art film" was a bourgeois genre which had to be supplanted by a new, proletarian cinema, using the camera as a scientific instrument (a "mechanical eye") to achieve "the sensory exploration of the world through film". Grierson came from a Scottish Calvinist background which had a puritanical dislike of play-acting, but found documentary cinema less objectionable. He wrote elsewhere of his revulsion against musicals, comedies and "love-howls", considering them only suitable for "exclusively women's theatres, which men may know to avoid".
Grierson was also a socialist, who admired the work of the Russians (though he considered Vertov too tricksy). The films he produced for the Empire Marketing Board and the GPO Film Unit were enormously influential. The nature of the influence is not easy to pin down, though it is hard to imagine the British "New Wave" of the Sixties without the pre-war documentary movement, and a generation of National Film Theatre members in the post- war years had an instinctive feeling that black-and-white, socially concerned documentaries, such as Industrial Britain, Night Mail and Housing Problems, possessed a peculiar aesthetic as well as moral purity. Documentaries were not meant to entertain.
The editors of this anthology dismiss Grierson's claims to speak of and for the working class, and consider his influence rather pernicious. Poor Grierson: they accuse his work, on the one hand, of using so many devices of feature films that it fails to qualify as true documentary; and, conversely, of making the term documentary "a byword for tedium".
The problems of the genre are mainly to do with questions of truth and distortion, manipulation and propaganda, objectivity and intervention, all of which lends a certain earnestness to discussions of them. There are not many laughs here, though the collection includes a witty piece on Nick Broomfield by Allison Pearson, which first appeared in this paper, as well as a description of audience reaction to Andy Warhol's Sleep, by the manager of the Los Angeles Cinema Theatre, which should raise a sympathetic smile.
Except in a few cine-clubs and at film festivals, documentaries seldom reach the large screen any longer - Hoop Dreams was a notable exception. Television, great as its appetite is, provides a different sort of outlet; most of its output is factual film of one sort or another. Macdonald and Cousins fail to analyse the true effect of television on the genre. They are surely wrong to claim, as they do in this book, that "television commissioning editors, a1most the sole source of money for documentaries now, don't want the down-beat, the depressing and the real on their screens". On the contrary, all four British channels have documentary strands which have been eager to show socially concerned films - and there is a certain type of late-night Channel 4 current-affairs film which could give Grierson a post-graduate course in tedium.
The book ends with 16 documentary film-makers, asked to define the aims of their work and to speculate on the future of the genre in a questionnaire. Few are prepared to welcome the "camcorder culture", with its video diary in every home, its fly on every wall. But neither they nor the book's editors seem to have much idea what it will mean. The extracts in Imagining Reality amount to a useful account of the documentary movements of the past, including a section on Asian cinema, but these raw materials are not brought together to answer some of the fundamental questions about what documentary is and where it is going.
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