P.O.V. No.22 - On Documentary Film

Jon Bang Carlsen

Richard Raskin

Copyright 2005 from Encyclopedia of Documentary Film edited by Ian Aiken. Reproduced by permission of Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

Best known for his radical approach to the staging of documentaries, Jon Bang Carlsen has played a prominent role on the Danish film scene since about 1980, and remains one of Denmark's most innovative documentarists, with a number of feature films behind him as well.

His documentaries often focus on the daily lives and rituals of people whom viewers would consider either ordinary or marginal. Though firmly rooted in his native Denmark, Carlsen is drawn to other cultures and landscapes, with the result that a number of his films were shot outside of Denmark - in the U.S. (Hotel of the Stars 1981), Germany (Ich bin auch ein Berliner 1990), Ireland (It's Now or Never 1996) and South Africa (Addicted to Solitude 1999 and Portrait of God 2001). Each of his films forcefully evokes a sense of place as an integral part of its storytelling and Carlsen often uses long takes, dwelling on faces and settings as part of a highly controlled visual style.

Carlsen's unconventional views on the staging of documentaries date from the very start of his career and were given their fullest expression in his film-essay How to Invent Reality (1996) in which he outlines his method and explains its underlying logic. Casting as his actors people who essentially play themselves on screen, but speak the lines he has written for them to say, Carlsen deliberately blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction, uninhibitedly transforming the data other documentarists might prefer to record unchanged. But these transformations are not gratuitous: the lines of dialogue he writes are tailor-made to suit the people speaking them, so that their words come across as natural and unrehearsed expressions of their own experience. And at the same time, this staging of reality is an act whereby the filmmaker becomes a part of - and illuminates - what he films. As Carlsen puts it, "My films are not the truth. They are how I sense the world. Nothing more."

In some cases, the viewer is entirely unaware of the degree to which the action has been staged and the dialogue written by the director. This is true for example of Before the Guests Arrive (1986), in which a woman who runs a small seaside hotel explains how she and her one employee prepare the place for the approaching season. She speaks to the camera, and the viewer has every reason to believe that she is spontaneously expressing her own thoughts. On the other hand, with It's Now or Never (1996), the making of which is the basis for How to Invent Reality, the aging Irish bachelor who is searching for a bride seems to be unaware that he is being filmed, and for the observant viewer, rapidly changing camera positions show that the action has been carefully orchestrated and planned as a series of shots, just as if the film were a work of pure fiction.

In Jon Bang Carlsen's own words:

Whether you work with fiction or documentaries, you're telling stories because that is the only way we can approach the world: to fantasize about this mutual stage of ours as it reinvents itself in the sphere between the actual physical world and the way your soul reflects it back onto the world. For me documentaries are no more real than fiction films and fiction films no more invented than documentaries.

His most recent works depart somewhat from the staged documentaries in that his interviewees do in fact tell their own stories, for example with inmates in a South African prison describing how they imagine God (Portrait of God 2001). But the director is just as present here as in his earlier works, in that he tells of his own life in a voice-over, speaking in the first person:

When I was a boy I often lay for hours staring up into the summer sky for a hole into heaven or a lazy angel daydreaming on a cloud who'd forgotten old God's strict orders never to be seen by us people from down on this earth.

In middle age my search for God had taken me all the way to southern Africa, but his trail was as fleeting as the banks of mist that rolled in from the Atlantic to mist up my windowpane as I tried to create a portrait of a person, who might only be a rumour.

In one way or another in all of Jon Bang Carlsen's work, the subjective experience of the filmmaker is deliberately made an integral part of the film, and the director's own doubts and ongoing, tentative explorations are as much the subject of the documentary as are the people whose stories unfold before the camera.

Born September 28, 1950, in Vedbęk, Denmark, Jon Bang Carlsen graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in 1976.

Selected documentaries
1979 A Rich Man
1981 Hotel of the Stars
1984 The Phoenix Bird
1986 Before the Guests Arrive
1990 Ich bin auch ein Berliner
1996 It's Now or Never
1996 How to Invent Reality
1999 Addicted to Solitude
2001 Portrait of God
2002 Zuma the Puma
2004 Confessions of an Old Teddy
2006 Blinded Angels

Further Reading:

Madsen, Mette, "Art versus McBurger dramaturgy: an interview with Jon Bang Carlsen" in p.o.v. - A Danish Journal of Film Studies, no. 12, December 2001, 7-18. http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_12/section_1/artc1A.html

Carlsen, Jon Bang, "How to invent reality. Extracts from a forthcoming book" in p.o.v. - A Danish Journal of Film Studies, no. 16, December 2003, 96-98. http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_16/section_1/artc10A.html

Carlsen, Jon Bang, Locations: essays, Copenhagen: Tiderne Skifter, 2002 .

Hjorth, Mette and Ib Bondebjerg (editors), The Danish Directors: Dialogues on a Contemporary National Cinema, Bristol: Intellect Books, 2001, 195-207.

Nielsen, Allan Berg, "A Modern, Humanist Profession of Faith" in Film, November 2001, no. 19. http://www.dfi.dk/tidsskriftetfilm/19/modernhumanist.htm

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