The State of Documentary

By Michael Chanan

saving-africas-witch-children.jpgSaving Africa’s Witch Children, 2008

Guia de Isora is a small town of 20,000 inhabitants half way up the mountainside in Tenerife, away from the tourist spots, and the site of MiradasDoc, one of the newest documentary film festivals but with a difference – it’s dedicated to documentaries from and about Asia, Africa and Latin America. Here last November you could see one-legged footballers in Sierra Leone – amputees as a result of civil war; farmers who resort to an age-old technique of feeding chickens on creepy-crawlies which thrive in cow-dung, because they can’t afford to buy chicken feed; Chinese workers who lack any kind of protection against the polluting chemicals they work with; the disfigurement of shop-window mannequins in Iran at the orders of the religious police; inmates in an Argentine mental hospital with greater self-knowledge than the sane; and more. In short, the imagery of the everyday condition of the underdeveloped world with or without the crisis of capitalism in the so-called First World – the metropolitan countries of capitalism.

I haven’t researched the figures, but people involved in documentary know well enough that the number of documentary festivals around the world has grown enormously over the last few years, and many of them are small festivals in small towns off the beaten track. Obviously this growth corresponds to the increasing production of documentary over the past ten or fifteen years, which in turn is due to the new technologies of digital video, which reduce production costs and democratise access. But the festivals also answer to a cultural and social need, because very little of this production is taken up into commercial exhibition either in the cinema or on television. This tells us some important stuff about the character of documentary and the desire for it. For one thing, that it isn’t primarily driven by commercial exploitation. For another, that the circulation afforded to documentary through the web, as both a marketing tool and a site for watching and downloading, does not satisfy a demand but awakens one, and audiences are drawn to festivals because they still want to share their experience as only a cinema audience can. These considerations give the lie to the claims of the established film and television business that it doesn’t show more documentaries because it’s only answering to audience demand. Compare the output of one week’s peak viewing hours on Channel 4 the same month. Listed under the category ‘documentary’, you had:

# a narrated documentary on conscientious objectors in WWI
# a concoction called Neil Morrissey’s Risky Business in which a television comedy actor tries to sell beer to supermarkets
# an edition of Wife Swap
# a documentary called Jail Date which according to the blurb, is about why men seeking romance are turning to specialist internet sites to date women in prison in America rather than the girl next door
# in the Cutting Edge slot, an edition called Rich Kid, Poor Kid, exploring the gap between rich and poor through the eyes of two teenage girls who live in the same street in South London but have never met.
# Unreported World on the Dirty War in the Philippines

There were also some programmes with documentary content listed under other categories, like the ‘popular’ archaeology show Time Team (classification: ‘factual’) and the current affairs reportage programme Dispatches, with an edition called Saving Africa’s Witch Children, following the work of an Englishman who has devoted himself to helping youngsters in Nigeria accused of witchcraft and blamed for catastrophes, death and famine.

Every one of these programmes is completely formulaic, even the best intentioned. The formulas, invented by television executives, corresponding for the most part to the shallowest obsessions of consumer culture, are designed to attract the advertisers. The exceptions are the minimal number of items intended to allow the station to claim that it’s fulfilling its public service obligations. This situation is nothing new but has recently reached unprecedented proportions of turpitude. There is even a reality show now with the repulsive title of Pimp My Ride or whatever. I am reminded of Marx’s remarks in the 1844 Manuscripts – the early Marx, before he became a communist – when he wrote – and I make no apology for the long quotation – that:

"Private property does not know how to change crude need into human need. Its idealism is fantasy, caprice and whim; and no eunuch flatters his despot more basely or uses more despicable means to stimulate his dulled capacity for pleasure in order to sneak a favour for himself than does the industrial eunuch – the producer – in order to sneak for himself a few pennies – in order to charm the golden birds out of the pockets of his Christianly beloved neighbours. He puts himself at the service of the other’s most depraved fancies, plays the pimp between him and his need, excites in him morbid appetites, lies in wait for each of his weaknesses – all so that he can then demand the cash for this service of love. Every product is a bait with which to seduce away the other’s very being, his money; every real and possible need is a weakness which will lead the fly to the gluepot. General exploitation of communal human nature, just as every imperfection in man, is a bond with heaven an avenue giving the priest access to his heart; every need is an opportunity to approach one’s neighbour under the guise of the utmost amiability and to say to him: Dear friend, I give you what you need, but you know the conditio sine qua non: in providing for your pleasure, I fleece you."

Pimp My Ride? Nothing more than a shameless admission of what it’s all about. The only critique that is needed of this description by the young Marx is an analysis of the economic process by which television broadcasting does this, because – and again this is hardly new – the economic mechanisms employed by broadcasting did not yet exist in the 1840s, nor yet a few years later when he was writing his magnum opus. But it certainly has a good deal to do with commodity fetishism.

I leave those mechanisms for another time; here I want to say something about the ideological context. To paraphrase the social democrat commentator Will Hutton, writing recently in the New Statesman – we think we are free, whereas we are painfully and excessively influenced by – well, Hutton says, the USA, but here I would say, the perverse forces of a socio-political system which depends on alienating us from ourselves, a system which isn’t just American although that’s where its headquarters are nowadays to be found (although who knows for how long?). And while this alienating condition has been growing throughout the history of capitalism, the rise of neoliberal conservatism, which if Hutton is right, is now just as much in crisis as the brand of capitalism it espouses, has accentuated some of capitalism’s most oppressive traits. The same edition of the political weekly carries an announcement of a panel discussion (and webcast) to be held at the Institute of Directors under the title, ‘Does the free market corrode moral character?’ You bet! This corrosion includes a disdain for the plight of the other, those whose misfortune is the direct result of our own troubled prosperity – and this ought to remind us that the emergence over the last couple of decades of the critical theory of otherness does not signify a greater respect for the other within or beyond our own social reality but more like the opposite.

How then does the other make their appearance in our television documentaries? First, their representation is heavily mediated – which means in the present context that the viewer is never allowed to engage in the subject without the tendentious guidance of the presenter or commentary. Second, they are seen as victims, though it often isn’t clear as victims of what. Third, they are seen as deprived – of wealth, health, education and human rights. This is not to say that they are not victims and not deprived – the problem is the nature of the mediation. A report like Saving Africa’s Witch Children pictures irrationality as if it belonged to underdevelopment. No admission of the different forms of irrationality that lie deep within our own society – the irrationality of consumerism, for example, or of capitalism as a system of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’ – the need to destroy in order to create. Or take the Unreported World episode on the Dirty War in the Philippines, which makes us angry about the 135 families who control the government of the Philippines. As well-intentioned as you could wish, nevertheless, there is no inquiry into what makes it possible for them to maintain their power in this way. In short, despite the reporter’s intrepid pursuit of the evidence, the result is an example, in ideological terms, of dissociation.

saving-africas-witch-children-2.jpgSaving Africa’s Witch Children, 2008

MiradasDoc is a festival with the conscious mission to counter the distortions in the representation of the South and the East by the West and the North. The films on show here all tell us that the dominant media – Western in origin but global in operation – are subject to a reality gap. And this gap, notwithstanding the efforts of Al Jazeera or Venezuela’s TeleSur, and despite the extended traffic in images by means of the web, has grown worse over recent times.

Not only are television and mainstream cinema both dominated by infantilising phantasy, with only a tiny proportion of sober documentary allowed, but the vast majority of the factual output of the media about the countries of the periphery is a further instance of phantasy, or what Edward Said called the imaginary geography with which the West sees the East: an asymmetrical gaze which does not require the barbarians to acknowledge the distinction. Because their mentality is taken to be different, nor can they speak for themselves, they always have to be interpreted. This is also to say, they are reified, reduced to things and objects, instead of fellow human beings. The result, says Said, is a mixture of fascination and fear, attraction and repulsion. This has produced two main documentary subgenres – on the one hand, ‘natural histories’ of exotic fauna and flora, on the other, the tourism of misfortune. Although recently there’s also a third, in which popular comedians try to puncture the over-seriousness of the first two by making foreign trips of their own; but while I’m happy to laugh at Paul Merton making surreal fun of the news every week, the very idea of his antics in India makes me cringe.

Are these programmes even documentaries? We have to discuss them, I think, as if they were, because there is no satisfactory definition of documentary that would exclude them. Indeed there is no definition of documentary which isn’t normative, starting with Grierson, who tried to distinguish between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ forms in his ‘Principles of Documentary’ back in the 1930s, but ended up with a definition - ’the creative treatment of actuality’ – which in truth remains applicable to both, especially given the vague meaning of the word ‘creative’ in an age when advertising copy writers are called ‘creatives’. It’s the same as music – you can’t say that the BeeGees aren’t music just because they don’t achieve, or even aspire to the same concentrated complexity as Beethoven.

Nevertheless we sense a difference, an opposition between what Grierson called ‘the servile accumulation of fact’ and the interpretation of ‘the relationships which hold the facts together’. On the one hand, mere ideological servility. On the other, the attempt, at least, at some kind of independent and critical interpretation. We could easily get bogged down here in a conceptual discussion of epistemology, but the point I want to make is more down-to-earth. I am thinking of an item I have written about previously, the complaint of a columnist in the Guardian back in 2001. Charlotte Raven argued that the account of events provided by the news is too constrained by its own agendas and clichés to be ‘adjusted to the subtlety of real situations’, and ‘the only group of media workers with the patience and inclination to give us a real idea of what foreigners get up to when they’re not under the cosh are the documentary makers’. But television executives, she wrote, have abandoned ‘the unspectacular business of showing us how other people live’, a job which needs no computer animation, or five-year voyages to film the fish that no human being has seen. The result was summed up by the headline. Know Nothing about Afghanistan? Blame the Death of the Documentary. Behind the journalese is a crucial accusation: television documentary is not being allowed to fulfil the potential of its educative and socio-political role of speaking to the public sphere about things that matter in a tone that respects both subject and audience.

The remarkable thing about the films at MiradasDoc was that this role was performed in richly visual form which eschewed the norms of documentary on our television screen. Important to point out is that a high proportion of films at the festival were part funded and/or co-produced by Western NGOs. This also means that some are directed by Westerners working with local teams, and some by local directors working with Western crew members, during and/or after production. How far this makes for films that are conditioned by the expectations of the NGOs remains an open question, but it makes for interesting forms of internationalism in cultural practice.

That said, One Goal (Sergi Agusti) takes us to Sierra Leone, where we discover a team of one-legged footballers, and learn to see the extraordinary athleticism of these disfigured bodies as a powerful assertion of human energy and physical beauty despite and against violence and mutilation. This film took the audience prize.

Again from Africa, Shit and Chicks (Kees van der Geest) is just about the simplest form of film-making you can possibly imagine, the studied observation of a labour process, sans commentary or dialogue, just an explanatory caption at the end. A double model, of pure ethnographic observation on the one hand, and on the other, to use the Latin American term, of cine pobre, cinema of poverty. What makes it especially powerful is a single symbolic element: the tin can which the farmer is using to collect the dung, with USA inscribed on the side, the leftovers of some aid programme, which leaves its recipients no better off than before.

We gave Shit and Chicks a special jury mention, along with a film from China, in a very different register, Under Construction (Zhenchen Liu). This turns out to be an ironic title for the destruction of the old in the booming world city of Shanghai. What distinguishes this film is not only its eschewal of commentary, but the application of sophisticated 3-D photo animation to a simple scenario. This might seem the opposite of the cine pobre of Shit and Chicks, but it would be more appropriate to see it as a critique of the hyperactive graphic style imported into television documentary from commercial advertising.

The top prize for shorts went to Rough Cut (Firouzeh Khosrovani) from Iran. Iran is another country where independent documentary has become a voice from below, and speaks from behind the veil. Focussing on the disfigurement of shop window mannequins serves as a metaphor for the violence which religious rule wields against half the population. One of the very few films at Guia de Isora with a commentary, but it speaks in the first person plural of women’s collective experience.

The prize for feature documentary was shared by two films, one from Argentina and one from Britain, both of which recount untold stories about social exclusion. From Britain, Brian Hill's The Undead, with poetry by Simon Armitage, is a moving portrayal of the plight of British soldiers who have suffered what was once called shell shock and is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, after serving in places like Malaya in the early 50s, the former Yugoslavia, or most recently Iraq. From Argentina, L22 Radio La Colifata (Carlos Larrondo) is about radio programme broadcast from a mental hospital in Buenos Aires which has become a creative form of therapy and dialogue for both the inmates and the wider society because it breaks down the barriers between them, which also means that it questions not only the madness of the insane but also the madness which marks them as insane and sends them to the asylum – all of which made it the most explicitly political film on show at MiradasDoc.

Michael Chanan was President of the International Jury at the MiradasDoc Festival.