Confessions of a Documentary Teacher [Number 3]

David Wingate

Documentaries should be subversive.
Paul Watson

This is the third article about teaching documentaries that I am writing for POV. The articles have their origin in five years of running a post-graduate course in documentary production at a Norwegian regional university in the early 90's and in the stimulating conversations I have had with Richard Raskin.

What does Paul Watson mean by "subversive"? And why does he insist that documentaries need to have this quality?

Paul Watson is a hugely productive documentary maker. He has been working in British TV for 30 years - the first 20 with the BBC and subsequently for Channel Four and for Granada. He is reputed to have been responsible for over 300 TV documentaries! He has directed some 40 films himself and produced or commissioned the others. In the 1980's he was commissioning editor of the BBC 2 "40 minutes" documentary strand.

Paul Watson's own films are astonishingly diverse in subject and tone and he is able to get close to and film an extraordinary variety of different people. In a recent article in the Guardian newspaper Paul Watson was described the "revered and reviled" documentary film maker. His own films are often controversial and stir up debates. His critics attack his ethics, his methods and accuse him of "manipulation". His interviewees are candid to the point of what looks like carelessness and he is accused of deceiving them. But he assures his critics that he drums into his subjects the possible dangers of being in his films. His admirers praise the acuteness of his vision and the attitudes of his films.

It is said of him that he tries to "upset people to the point of political thinking".

Films like The Fishing Party (1985) and The Dinner Party (1997) are bitingly satirical reflections on the lives and attitudes of the rich, and made a lot of people very angry. His film Convictions about young criminals in London so upset the law and order lobby and the BBC leadership that it was never broadcast in the UK, though the BBC did sell it abroad. Other films like The Home (1993), a series about an old peoples' home, and Malcomb and Barbara: a love story (1999) about the onset of Alzheimer's, or The Queen's Wedding (2002) are far more gentle, but just as incisive.

He is recognized a pioneer of the "fly on the wall" observational documentary on British television. He was the first UK film maker - indeed the first European film maker - to direct a documentary TV series, The Family in 1974. He is the creator of the term "documentary soap", launching it in connection with his Australian series Sylvania Waters, about a nouveau riche family, BBC 1992.

So I think when Paul Watson, a documentary maker of such distinction, says that documentaries must be "subversive" it is worth while trying to find out what he means.

Let me add some more quotes from him to complicate the question of what he might mean:

Documentary film must question the status quo and you can only do that if you speak to ordinary people, not politicians. People need to understand one another better.

My films are unique, they are influenced by the wants and needs inherent in the film. My style evolves and is informed by the subject matter with which I am dealing.

Documentary is a very important medium to help us understand each other. Authorship is everything.

Film makers need to be subversive, probe the stereotypes, dig beneath the surface, bring the evidence into question and live the lives of the people they are filming.

(These quotes are from an interview Watson gave in connection with the Encounters documentary festival in Cape Town in 2000.)

When I was starting the documentary course in Norway in the early 90's it seemed sensible to connect to British TV documentary makers and Paul Watson was one of these.

I used to take students to London every year and he was one of the film makers they met. We would watch several of his films before we went over and always had lively and fruitful discussion with him. He always talked about subversiveness. I was attempting to change Norwegian TV 2 and Swedish TV4's documentary policies, trying to get them to start domestic strands and to commission more national films. I took people from these TV companies to London and brought people over from London to meet them brought people to meet then and Paul Watson was one of those who helped me with this. Both with the students and with the professionals one of his messages was always that documentaries must be "subversive".

But what does he mean by this?

Let me approach this indirectly and first sketch some of my thinking as I tried to find out how to teach documentary.

It seemed to me then that one might think about what the students were to gain from the course in terms of three rather contradictory aspects.

Firstly I should encourage them to find and cultivate their own documentary voice. Their films should be "authored" as they say in British TV, the "film maker" being present in the film - in the choice of subject, the style, the attitude and so on.

Secondly, since documentary was then - and still is - mostly financed and distributed by TV - I wanted them to be able to get work in TV. So, pragmatically, I needed to help them be aware of and be able to adjust to and work within the agendas, the formats, the traditions, the tastes and so on that de facto existed in TV in Norway at that time.

But, thirdly, I wanted them to be reformers and changers of TV in their country, their task being to get more and different kinds of documentaries broadcast. So I needed to encourage a skepticism about TV documentary practices and a willingness to contravene these.

Finding their own documentary voices definitely did not mean encouraging them to see their films as vehicles of their own "self expression". The cult of the film director was particularly strong in Norway then. Young people coming into the industry tended to equate the "film makers presence" or "voice" in the film as being that of the director. They thought the director was THE film maker and the film was his or her self expression. Their underlying paradigm of creativity was almost entirely individual. There was little understanding for the collaborative creativity and/or for the collaborative nature of almost all film production.

I have always believed the cult of the director is rather silly and impractical. In almost all documentary filmmaking I find the cult of the director particularly inappropriate since documentary is so dependent on the contribution of the people in front of the camera. Exceptions are perhaps certain kinds of experimental documentaries created by single artists working alone or some kinds of nature documentaries made by lone filmmakers. Otherwise documentary is deeply collaborative.

I encouraged the students to think of their films as meeting places between "realities".

The people behind the camera - director, producer, cinematographer, sound person, editor etc - came to the film with their perceptions and experience of their different realities and with their skills, habits and traditions of film making. All of these contributed to the film and together constituted the presence of the "film maker", the "author" of the film.

The people in front of the camera - the people whose lives were being filmed - I thought then, brought to the film their diverse perceptions and experiences of their different realities. So I encouraged the students to think of their films as meeting places for and hybrids of all these diverse "realities" and rather than any single person's version of "reality".

An aside
We of course had documentary history lectures and screenings and the students were aware of Griersons's ancient definition. This is often quoted as "a personal interpretation of reality". But I think the original quote used the word "actuality" rather than reality. As Brian Winston has pointed out (Claiming the Real, 1995), Grierson was very influenced by his visit to French-speaking Canada in the mid 1920's. In Canada then the word "actualités" was in common use meaning non-fiction film in general and newsreels in particular. Winston even suggests that the French Canadians were already using the word "documentaire" for longer "actualités" and that Grierson may have "borrowed" the term from them and then went on to launch his career in documentary at the Post Office Film Unit.

I wanted the students to think that one of the joys of documentary making is the continual discovery that things and people are not what you thought them to be, that other people live in different realities from your own and perceive and experience their worlds in different ways than you do. I wanted to cultivate in the students an open-mindedness and curiosity about the world around them and encouraged them to think of this as being characteristic of good documentary makers.

At the same time I wanted the students to be able to get work in television, and in order to further this goal, it was important to thoroughly inform them about present TV practice, about the existing documentary slots and commissioners. Norwegian TV documentary was at that time still dominated by journalism so that its journalistic agendas tended to determine what subjects and issues were in vogue, how these should be dealt with and thus which films got made. I tried to help the students to be aware of the nature of the current journalistic agenda so that they could find work in these areas of television. But at the same time trying to make them aware of the limitations of that agenda and the habits and traditions of Norwegian TV journalists. Looking at long form TV journalism from other countries and trying to extract their underlying journalistic agendas, was useful in helping the students see the agendas in their own TV culture.

At that same time, both the public service channel and the main commercial channel were just beginning to commission observational, narrative, character driven documentaries scheduled for prime time. (This became the commissioner's mantra in the years that followed). Observational and inter-active observational story telling documentary had then been in vogue on British television for at least twelve years. So it was important to give the students the opportunity to see a lot of British prime time TV documentaries - singles, strands and serials - what the British were then beginning to call "pop-doc" - as well as British long form television journalism. Paul Watson's films were among those I showed. In this way I hoped to prepare then for a coming trend in the students own national TV channels.

At the same time I tried to make them aware of the limitations of both British and Norwegian television documentary practice and the need to question and perhaps change these. I thought of this as being the "politics of reality".

I suggested that in a more totalitarian society only certain realities were permitted to be dealt with in the media, and these were usually the realties which gave legitimacy to those in power. In a more democratic society a great diversity of realties was allowed in the media. Indeed the democratic project was one which recognized that thousands of parallel realties co-exist within any society, reality being different according to your place in that society, your class, your education, your geographical or regional identity, your subculture, etc. One might say that a democracy was a society which encouraged this multiplicity of co-existent realities and saw it as a strength and saw their presence in the media as a natural reflection of the societies necessary diversity. Whereas a more totalitarian society sees this diversity as a threat and those who want to talk about or film unorthodox realities as dangerous and in need of suppression.

Watching documentaries is often an exercise in experiencing new realties. Even in documentaries about your own society, a documentary can take you into places and let you meet people and share their lives for a while, letting you vicariously experience realities you might otherwise never have known. Indeed documentary film can sometimes be said to bring realities into existence by making them public in this way. In the interview book Kieslowski on Kieslowski (1993), the Polish director's thoughts about the TV documentaries he and his colleagues made during the first Solidarity period very much reinforced this idea of reality confirmation.

Now obviously the people in positions to decide which TV documentaries get made and broadcast will tend to be of a certain types and their experience of and perceptions of reality will be limited. They will tend to be well-educated, urban middle class and, in Norway, often have a journalistic background. Some realities will be very foreign to them.

Some may indeed be so foreign that they do not believe that they exist. They may then claim that the film maker is lying, is faking it.

As part of the course, I used to give a lecture about the French painter Gustave Courbet whose paintings so enraged the art establishment early in his career. Courbet was the first to use the term "realism" and claimed that he was the first "realist". I used his painting "The Stone Breakers" as an example. (I was delighted to learn much later that Richard Raskin had written a monograph about this painting.)

It is hard to understand today why this painting caused such an uproar - why it was so "subversive" to use Paul Watson's term. To us I think it seems like a perfectly legitimate observation of two workers in a stone quarry. In the lecture I asked if the violent rejection of the painting was because the art establishment felt it was not a proper subject for a work of art, or whether it was rejected as reality. My suggestion was that the art critics had never experienced the reality the painting was showing. They may have seen such things, but their perception of them was so coloured by their class, their education - their snobbery perhaps - that they were incapable of seeing them as the painter had seen them. Therefore they rejected them because for them they did not exist. There was no reality in the painting, it was a mere figment of the painter's imagination. His claim that it was a realist work was thus untrue and subversive.

Surely, I said to the students, there will be documentary realities you want to show as film which will be so foreign to the TV commissioners that they do not believe in their existence, do not believe they are "documentary" and thus they will reject your film. In Norwegian TV at that time the commissioner saying that the film was not "objective" or not "true" might be a symptom of this kind of reaction. If you as film makers knew that your documentary was a fair and honest reflection and interpretation of the realities involved then you will know that the commissioner was "wrong".

But equally there may be realities in your documentary which the TV commissioners find so unorthodox that they will reject your film. These will be realties which they feel should not be shown because they are foreign to the consensus about reality to which they, the commissioners, subscribe. Again the Norwegian commissioner then might say the film was not "true", that the film makers was not "objective", perhaps even saying that the audience not want to see it.

So here I think we can come back to what Paul Watson meant by the necessary subversiveness of documentary.

Television documentaries should not only confirm the realities in vogue at the time, the stereotypes realities, the orthodox concepts of how the world works and how it seems to us. They should not just stick to the accepted agendas of subjects and issues that television is used to. They should not only retell the kind of realties, filmed the kind of ways that the people in power in television approve of. They should not only confirm the perceptions and the experience of reality in which television executives live.

If one really believes in the democratic experiment and television's place in it, then one must admit that there are endless realities to be documented. And who is to decide which of these is more deserving?

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