Essay: The television documentary that gives you time to think

Jim Burge explains why Angus Macqueen's `Gulag' - shown on BBC2 next weekend - is a masterpiece

Jim Burge
Saturday 03 July 1999 23:02

There is no particular anniversary or other television trigger for Gulag, Angus Macqueen's epic documentary about Stalin's political imprisonment machine. The reasons for the programme's existence are more important than that: we are living at the end of the 20th century, and the programme-maker has spent years studying the subject. At three hours, this programme is ludicrously long for television. Not because it is difficult or boring - it is neither - but because few people's Saturday evenings have three-hour gaps in them. But see at least some of it if you can, because there is something special about Gulag.

What makes Gulag special is not the subject-matter, nor even the depth of the excellent research, but the way the programme is made. The established style for most historical documentaries is to recount a story in chronological order, using a commentary to tell the hard facts and introducing snippets of interview which provide the more anecdotal stuff. The programme typically finishes with some conclusions about the peccadilloes of whichever of the great and the good has been held up for examination. The credits roll, and we are left unsurprised by the discovery that some newspaper magnates have been philanderers, or that not all novelists are nice to their children. But in Gulag, interviews alternate with music; there is no comment; there is no conclusion.

Any programme-maker who has tried even to reduce the amount of commentary in a factual television film will know how robustly the established style defends itself. One of the reasons for this is that commentary has a practical advantage for series producers, executive producers, heads of department and others who have an editorial say. A commentary is tractable: it can be written down in script form and taken home and thought about. Together with the transcripts of the interviews, it will give you a reasonable representation of what the film is about. But if, on the other hand, a film has no existence as a written document, the executives can know about it only from the, necessarily infrequent, viewings. This has the net effect of returning control of the programme to the programme-maker, with all the risks that that entails.

And Gulag resists joining the dominant documentary genre by allying itself with another: that of the Russian feature film. Its gentle pace and lengthy shots (a typical 50-minute programme has more shots in it than this three-hour film does) interact with plangent Russian music to produce an almost meditative atmosphere.

The film opens with a lengthy aerial shot of the Russian forest, and music full of patience and suffering. Only when it has been held long enough to establish that there are going to be no introductory words are we shown a caption. It tells us that estimates of the number of people killed under Stalin vary from 20 to 50 million. This imprecise statistic was deliberately chosen in order to tell viewers that they are not watching a simply factual programme. Films have to declare early on what they are and what they are not: it is very hard to concentrate on anything which offers one thing and then delivers another.

Once it has been established that commentary is not going to encumber the pictures, they develop stronger meanings of their own. Cutaways, those non-specific shots which cover the edits in an interview, become in themselves rich and ambiguous comments on the people we meet. The ship passing through a canal lock becomes a focus for horror when it follows a woman who describes how she saw the bodies of dead workers thrown into the concrete during construction of the Dmitrov canal. The frequent shots of water become the cleansing and distorting medium of Tarkovsky's great symbolic film, Mirror. The protracted shot overflying a city in dull grey sleet which introduces a visit to the prisoner-built city of Norilsk becomes an image of hell by way of the surface of the planet Solaris. Its effect is to make us concentrate on the sequence to come. Purely visual breaks have become invitations to think.

The strength of Gulag is the ambiguity allowed to it by its style. Freed from the need which commentary imposes to draw conclusions, it can accommodate episodes whose meanings are, if not opposed to each other, then at least orthogonal. A man tells how he was trapped, realising that as soon as he protested against the daft verdicts passed on his fellow- Russians he would meet the same fate. His wife at another time remarks that the kind of people who were arrested were natural born complainers - "They went on whingeing in the camps." The senior NKVD member who all but ran Norilsk remarks that "Prisoners were the only solution, given the drive to industrialise", and is feted to this day on the local TV station. There's the woman prisoner who gives every impression of being happily married to one of the guards; the interrogator who talks about the technique of breaking a prisoner down; the prisoner who talks about being raped. Victim, perpetrator, and observer all still live together, all breathing the same air. The film gives us an image of the confusion of the people of the former Soviet Union. At times it seems as if one is seeing them for the first time.

It was during the Stalin era, ironically, that Eisenstein tried to develop a socialist cinema representing the people as a whole, without relying on stars or on making one character seem more significant than another. This is exactly what Gulag does: the interviewees speak for themselves but come together into one picture. The programme represents all their contradictions and uncertainty without itself becoming confusing. This is difficult enough to achieve in a television programme but it might also incidentally be a necessary condition for a decent society: everybody has to have a say, but none too much. The Russians must have needed to have their say so much they eventually invented a new term, derived from their word for "voice", to describe what it was they were after - glasnost.

In the final scene of Gulag, an old woman in Norilsk, imprisoned by Stalin along with the rest of her family, buries her sister. She tells the handful of mourners attending the open coffin: "Papa told me, `When the time comes, demand that the truth be told - our truth'." Most television documentaries make a sincere attempt to tell the truth, but sometimes the listing of facts is counterproductive. To understand the truth, you have to think.

This film should remind all of us that television as a medium is disastrously underused. By adopting a different style, you can make it do very different things. It is not the case that viewers are unable to cope with innovation. They have never been more sophisticated - they are able to decode complicated and allusive advertisements that would have baffled them a decade ago. The truth is that their responsiveness to the power and subtlety of medium often far outstrips the willingness of television programme-makers to use it.

Gulag represents only one way in which the power of film can invite people to think. But what is remarkable about it is that it uses this style to deal with a political subject which might easily have been given a conventional treatment. What should give heart to all programme-makers, and incidentally despair to all despots, is that when people are invited to think, they often do so.

`Gulag': 9pm, BBC2, Saturday

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments