P.O.V. No.13 - On documentary filmmaking

Confessions of a Teacher
"Documentarists" and "Fictionalists" - thoughts about
selecting students for a documentary course

David Wingate

These notes are the result of a conversation with Richard Raskin in northern Finland in November of last year. We talked about what distinguishes documentary student filmmakers from fiction students. He asked me to write down some of my thoughts as an article for POV.

For five years in the early nineties I ran a documentary course in Norway. It was at the regional High School in Volda and lasted one academic year. We thought of it as a third year course, because applicants had to have done at least two years of media studies at university level and have at least a year of professional production experience. Selecting students for this course presented some interesting problems.

The course was getting a huge number of applications. This was part of the over-inflated interest among young people for media courses of all kinds and the growth of media education to cope with and exploit this "market." But how to find the right ones among all these applicants?

We were not allowed by the high school system to interview applicants, but with the Volda media department's approval, we short-listed about three times as many students as there were places for on the course and sent them written tasks to do. The results of these tasks then determined who was offered a place.

Among the material sent to them were still photographs, and they were asked to comment in various ways about these pictures. One of these photos was a portrait of a man in the middle of an on-going situation, taken on the fly, snapped just as he looks at the camera. The rather unkind question they were asked about this picture was this: "When you look at the man in this photo, do you feel he is like himself?"[1]

Some of the applicants replied: "How the hell do I know, I never met him," or words to that effect, and this was a fair enough answer, of course. Others gave answers like: "Of course I have never met him, but when I look at the photo I think... " and so on. Others answered like this: " When I look at him, I think the camera and the photographer have made him feel... " and so on.

I found the results of this little task revealing and, I think, quite useful. I felt I did not want students who were too naïve about documentary's abilities to represent realities, but rather students who were already aware - either intuitively, or consciously - of pitfalls of documentary "authenticity." Personally I believe that documentary is, basically, impossible, but that it is nevertheless very necessary. A film culture that contained only fiction would not be a healthy one. In particular it seemed to me that, on this short course, I needed students who already understood that documentary realism is different from fictional realism and that a fictional photographer has a different kind of influence on what is in front of the camera than does a documentary photographer. I felt the one-year course was too short to have to teach them this from scratch.

So a certain maturity and sophistication with regard to the paradoxes and dilemmas of documentary realism seemed to me to be a necessary pre-condition for recruiting students for the course and probably an important quality in people who wanted to become documentary makers. The little still photo task was an attempt to measure some of all this.

Obviously I wanted to find those students who, among all the applicants, were genuinely interested in documentary, who had a talent for documentary, and who were strongly motivated to learn more about it. More importantly, it seemed to me, I needed to avoid those who actually were more suited to do fictional films, but who had applied for this documentary course because they needed to get into film making.

So I began to imagine that I had to find ways of distinguishing between applicants who were "documentarists" as opposed to those who were "fictionalists."

Obviously it was silly to propose that there are only two kinds of applicants - and obviously there are some examples in film history of film makers who can do both. Nevertheless, this simple dualistic model seemed to be useful in this particular student selection process.

But how to distinguish between the two? What might be the qualities of a typical "doumentarist" student as opposed to a typical "fictionalist" student?

Another of the written tasks sent to the short-listed applicants was to describe a documentary they wanted to make, one that might possibly be their diploma film at the end of the course. It seemed to me that some of these written presentations clearly wanted to gather documentary material and use it in an illustrative way to support their preconceived notions about how the world worked. These applicants seemed to want to confirm what they already believed about reality by making the proposed film. Their proposals tended to be like illustrated lectures and often hinted at rhetorical structures for the finished film.

Other applicants were clearly using their notions about reality more tentatively, as working hypotheses rather than beliefs, and wanted to test these by making the proposed film. They seemed to be genuinely curious about how the world worked, wanted to use the film to explore their curiosity and seemed to want to have their preconceived notions changed by the filming process. Their proposals tended to be observational films and hinted at narrative rather than rhetorical structures.

I found that those who seemed more open minded - in the sense that they were genuinely curious about the world - appealed to me more and I tended to select them. I had already decided that the documentary course should have a narrative and observational bias. Pragmatically, I had decided that work for the students after the course would be in television and observational narrative seemed to be the way television documentary was going at that time. So these kinds of student proposals tended to fit in the course because of this chosen bias. But I found myself thinking that an open mind and lively curiosity about realities, rather than wanting to illustrate pre-conceived beliefs, and the need to tell stories about things rather than argue about them, might actually be characteristics of the "documentarist" as opposed to the "fictionalist" student applicant.

During the 5 years I ran the course, I did sometimes select an applicant whom I suspected of being a "fictionalist" but who had many other attractive merits. Some of these students worked out fine, or not so well. One of the things that seemed to occur with most of these typically "fictionalist" students was something I came to think about as the "field research angst syndrome."

It was hard to get these students to go out and do research in the field. They seemed scared to start and often came back from field research trips feeling depressed and de-motivated. In contrast, the typical "documentarist" students enjoyed doing field research and came back from research trips refreshed and refilled with creative energy. So the "field research angst syndrome" became for me a characteristic of "fictionalist" students. Puzzling about this I came to certain provisional conclusions connected with the methods I had chosen for teaching documentary project development.

Working with the students, researching other filmmakers' and other documentary teachers' experiences and reflecting about my own, largely fiction film making experience, I began to see certain general characteristics of typical film project development processes. I tried to use these apparent general characteristics in my teaching methods.

Part of this resulted in a generalized model for how to teach the writing of documentary film proposals when applying for production financing.[2]

As another part of this, I found myself encouraging the students throughout the development process to imagine possible documentary film scenes. I realized that this was like the process of fiction film script writing, but nevertheless believed it was applicable to documentary.

It seemed to me reasonable to suppose that if you were writing for the theatre, then you shut your eyes and imagined a stage. You put the actors on the stage, put up the scenery, you switched on your chosen lights and so on and you ran a bit of a possible play in your mind. You changed and improved it, still in your mind, and then you wrote down some notes about it so you could recall it later on.

If you were writing for radio fiction, then you shut your eyes and listened, creating possible sound scenarios in your mind. And if you were writing for film fiction, then you shut your eyes and ran possible film scenes back and forth in your mind as if you had an editing machine in your head. Then, as if you had a camera and a microphone in your head, you change the acting and "re-shoot," change the dialogue and "re-record," "re-edit" and so on, changing these imagined scenes, improving them until you are more satisfied with them. Then you noted them down so you could recall them later. As a fiction film writer your aim is to work all these notes about your imagined scenes into a film script.

This seemed to me to be a reasonable model for parts of a fictional development process.

I began to think of this ability to imagine film scenes in a film that has not been made yet - very concretely to see and hear them in your mind – as an essential part of teaching any film development process, documentary as well as fiction. I started to think of it as the "filmic imagination" and to regard it as an important faculty, something that any film course should continually measure, evaluate and train in its students.

I encouraged the documentary students to use their "filmic imaginations" in developing their films. This suited the "fictionalist" students because the "pre-scripting" of what they wanted to be their film felt for them like a natural part of the development process. But it was harder for the "docmentarists," especially early in the development of their documentary projects.

Nevertheless, I continued to encourage them all, before and after field research – indeed, throughout the whole development process and during the filming itself – to go on imagining concrete film scenes, but to always keep these provisional. They were encouraged to pre-imagine how to film scenes in considerable detail, in spite of knowing that they would have to reject most of these imaginings as the project developed. I wanted them to think of the imagined scenes as highly detailed sketches that were going to be rejected as the process developed. I tried to help them design parts of their field research to investigate whether these pre-imagined scenes were filmable "out there" in the real world. Almost invariably they were not, but I believed that having tried to imagine how to film it was an important preparation for actually having to film it. Later in the development process I would encourage them to imagine several ways of filming possible scenes – a series of "what if" scenarios – and ways of testing these possible scenarios and how to film them in the next stage of field research. In this way they could begin to appreciate what parts of the coming film were more predictable with regard to how they could be filmed, which parts were less predictable, and which parts were largely unpredictable.

An important restriction in this "filmic imagination" training method was that they were not to spend too much time trying to imagine the whole film. I encouraged them to pre-imagine individual scenes and groups of scenes and to think of these as the possible building blocks for the film. But they were not encouraged to imagine putting these pre-imagined scenes and blocks together into a whole film. In particular they were encouraged not to put too much energy into imagining how to connect scenes or blocks to one another, but rather to keep thinking about them as provisional and free-floating building blocks which could be used to build several possible films.

The "documentarists" initially resisted this method. Early in the course, their "filmic imaginations" really did not get going until they had concrete material to work with. When they had done field research – begun to get to know the people, the places, the situations, the actions and so on, that they were going to film - then they could imagine ways of filming these things. So they tended to put off pre-imagining until late in the development process. This often meant, in the films they did early in the course, that they were not sufficiently prepared when the filming started.

Later in the course most of the "documentarists" learned to use their filmic imaginations earlier in development and tended to find the change energizing and motivating. They understood that all the filmic solutions they had imagined and had rejected were, in a sense, still "there" and helped them to focus on what they should film, no matter how they filmed it. A number of them, year after year, reported that they felt they could "improvise" better during the filming because of the imagined scenes they had rejected. Some of them even reported that the pre-imagined, but rejected scenes helped them during the editing. I regarded these things as successes for the method.

For the "fictionalists," I believe, the method exaggerated, perhaps even created the "field research angst syndrome." They felt I was encouraging them to build up "finished" film scenes in their heads and they tended to become more attached to these imagined scenes than the "documentarists."

They found it more difficult to regard their imagined scenes as provisional, just detailed, exploratory sketches that were going to be rejected later. In spite of my instructions, the "fictionalists" tended to build their imagined scenes together, linking them with elegant transitions, and they tended to become fond of these imagined links. So it was harder for them to keep the imagined parts of the film as free-floating building blocks. To a greater extent that the "documentarists," they seemed to need to refer to the whole film in order to be able to pre-imagine its parts. So in their early films for the course, the "fictionalists" tended to spend too much time and energy too early in the development process pre-scripting too much of the film. This contrasted clearly with the "documentarists," who, in their early films for the course, tended to wait until too late before beginning to pre-imagine scenes.

When it came to field research, the typical "fictionalists" did not want to do it. I had the feeling that they had built fiction-like "castles in the air." They had become too attached to their castles and did want to go out into the real world because they knew they would find out that their castles could not be filmed. Some of them reported that it felt as though the documentary process was destroying their illusions. Field research forced them to revise their imagined films and they found this process painful.

In contrast, some of the "documentarists" – particularly the ones with a powerful curiosity about the how the world worked – seemed to actually enjoy pulling down their own castles in the air, feeling that the world had thus taught them something important.

So I think, in conclusion, it was less painful for the "fictionalists" to make illustrative, rhetorical and lecture-like films confirming the beliefs they already had about reality. And that narrative, observational documentary, the chosen bias for the course, was not really their métier.

Let me make a final observation.

On that Norwegian course the typical "documentarist" student personality, particularly of those who were best at gathering observational film material, was usually not particularly structuralist.

It was as if in order to be open to what was spontaneously happening in front of the observational documentary camera, the film maker should not be too consciously occupied with how the scene being filmed should fit into the whole film, otherwise they would miss the scene. They have to be very concretely present in the now of the filming process.

It was my impression that the students I worked with who were best at filming observationally, were often not so good as editors. It was as if their "documentarist" abilities, vitally necessary in the observational filming process, were different from the more structuralist and perhaps "fictionalist" requirements of the editing. Conversely, the best editors were often found among the students I thought of as being more "fictionalists."

I felt that this probably meant that the editing of narrative structured, observational documentary is actually rather fiction-like and therefore liable to suit "fictionalist" students.

Skärkäll, 4 January 2002

1 The "... is he like himself ?" question originated from Agneta Ekman Wingate. It was one she started using when she was a teacher of documentary still photography at Christer Strömholm's Foto Skolan in Stockholm in the '60s.

2 See articles in DOX magazine for June and September 2001 about the Sources 2 documentary workshops.

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