Volume 1 - Issue 4 - Editorial

By Margaret Dickinson

"It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresy and end as superstition." – T. H. Huxley

…and of new media ideas to begin as revelation and end as banality.

land-of-counterpane-keith-griffiths-ian-christie.jpgThe Land of Counterpane, an homage to Robert Louis Stevenson, dir. Keith Griffiths/Ian Christie

‘My hell could be their hell tomorrow’ concludes the redundant manager describing his predicament as he sits in a domestic interior beside his personal computer. Slosh, turquoise gunge hits a figure two. Cut to fighter planes rising in a hazy sky while a firm, off-screen voice informs us, ‘NATO gets tough on Bosnian Serbs’.

That transition between Video Nation and Newsnight is emblematic of a widening gulf between two versions of the world: one, offered principally by the news, is located anywhere round the globe where men in charge (occasionally women) talk about money, wars and acts of God; the other is located in private spaces where individuals talk about themselves. This private/public split was always a feature of TV but it used to lie closer to a fact/fiction boundary; now it carves up the compartment known as ‘factual programming.’ The news and main current affairs strands, for the moment, retain a familiar role, but the ground covered by the rest of the documentary output has shifted.

policement-record-and-videotape-demonstrators.jpgPoliceman record and videotape demonstrators at a ‘Mass Trespass’ on Twyford Down

The obvious and much-mentioned reason for the shift is institutional: executives responding to market pressures favour ‘safe,’ high-rating topics like celebrities, travel, crime. But another, more complex, factor is that many of today’s TV executives – especially the more adventurous – are responding to a critique of their predecessors’ work. This revolves round two kinds of complaint: firstly, that TV documentary is too journalistic, relies on formats which ‘tell’ the audience something and excludes others, in particular direct cinema, which aim to show or reveal something; secondly, that TV is authoritarian, elitist and gives no expression to the preoccupations of most of the population.

The TV trend which most overtly addresses these criticisms is exemplified by Video Diaries and Video Nation. Ordinary people record their own lives on camcorder. In this issue of Vertigo, in Real Lives, theorists and practitioners examine variations of the phenomenon and ask what such programmes have to do with demands for a more truthful and democratic media. One contradictory aspect is that the camcorder revolution has coincided with a development pulling production in the opposite direction – the introduction of a digital technology which permits, in theory, unlimited manipulation of the image. In ‘The Broken Trust of the Image’ Dai Vaughan asks whether this technology will change our assumptions about the relationship between images and an assumed reality and, in doing so, negate that whole aspect of video culture which has to do with bearing witness, protection, surveillance and evidence.

"And differing judgements serve but to declare
That truth lies somewhere if we knew but where" – William Cowper

Underlying the enthusiasms or anxieties aroused by the new technologies are questions about subjective and objective truth, authorship and authenticity – questions less concerned with the literal relationship between image and subject than with broader notions of fidelity to a real world. They are central to the discussion of documentary and also of drama in so far as drama claims a similar relationship with the real world. ‘The True Story of…’ is one of the commonest promotional phrases for feature films and critical discussion of ‘true story’ films often revolves round the degree to which events are accurately re-enacted.

bloody-sunday-commemoration.jpg‘Bloody Sunday’ commemoration, Photo: Laurie Sparham

Whether based on real incidents or not, drama is frequently praised for being just like life, for offering characters which are recognisable, events of a kind that happen all the time. Such phrases compliment the film-maker for representing, not something which definitely happened, but something which is typical, or at least common. Much of the discussion around the recent Ken Loach film, Ladybird Ladybird, for instance, hinged on whether or not social workers usually behave like the social worker in the film. Very similar questions are asked of the choice of interviewees in documentaries. Indeed, the controversy about a Panorama on single mothers, which coincided roughly with the release of Ladybird Ladybird, was very similar – in this case, was a particular single mother typical of single mothers in general?

father-son-and-holy-war-anand-patwardhan.jpgFather, Son and Holy War, dir. Anand Patwardhan, 1994

This criticism acknowledges that films can mislead by implying that one story stands for many stories. The row over the ‘Panorama’ drew attention to a common way in which documentaries lie – by exploiting an assumed connection between commentary and image. Often the purpose is to imply unproved causal connections, although images alone will serve this purpose – pictures of working women juxtaposed with scenes of juvenile vandals – or words alone – ‘under the socialist government exports declined’ (when the trend under other governments was much the same).

Such untruths follow patterns which are easy to describe but the patterns cannot be neatly reversed to provide models for truth-telling. The meanings contained in complex arrangements of sound and image may include simple statements amenable to confirmation but will always deal as well in suggestions, judgements, implications which cannot be precisely tested. As in a love affair, infidelity can be uncovered but fidelity never proven. This untestable quality is more obtrusive the more a documentary is concerned with a social rather than an individual world. You cannot show ‘most single mothers’, but only some images which you decide, for reasons which may or may not be sound, will stand for them.

One response, reflecting the view that the late 20th century has no place for grand narratives, is to turn inward, to make purely subjective films and abandon the attempt to interpret or change the public world. But even on a theoretical level this looks unsatisfactory. ‘Subjective’, in the sense of representing someone’s ideas, is a red herring since all representations are subjective in this sense. Personal experience forms the foundation for interpretations of the world as much as for understandings of self. Introspection does not solve the problem of certainty. The discovery that social truths are opaque does not mean that personal ones are transparent. It is quite possible to mis­remember perceptions and as soon as we start to communicate private experience, a new set of deceits and misunderstandings comes into play.

A more pragmatic objection to abandoning the forum of public affairs is that TV and its audience have not done so. News and current affairs continue to grind out their evidently flawed interpretations and the viewers do not boycott them for the doubtful nature of their method, although they do get angry when they spot an identifiable lie. What is enacted between the programme providers and audience is more than communication about the political process – it is part of that process.

If film-makers are to engage with political and social subjects there have to be criteria for judging their work, even though it falls short of a neat test for truth. One issue is selection: what is relevant, what is interesting? Answers are often given which again privilege the quality of being typical or representative. This sounds sensible and democratic but it is not straightforward. Someone elected by people to do something on their behalf is their representative in that context. The selections made by TV producers are not at all like that. They are more like the samples used in market research.

"The great mass of beliefs by which we are supported in our daily life is merely the bodying forth of desire, corrected here and there, at isolated points, by the rude shock of fact." – Bertrand Russell

It is worth remembering that the connection between market research and TV goes back to the years between the two World Wars when the final achievement of universal suffrage made the people, the masses, more interesting than ever before to politicians, while rising incomes made them more interesting than ever before to businessmen. Institutions developed for observing and influencing the masses which reflected those different preoccupations: Mass Observation on the one hand and market research on the other; the BBC and the Documentary Movement on the one hand, advertising on the other. From both points of view there was an obsession with numbers and norms. Behaviour and ideas which many people shared were deemed interesting because governments and advertisers wanted to know about them.

This legacy still haunts us in our tradition of sociological films which observe people as members of social groups. At certain moments it has had radical connotations: by discovering or celebrating sections of the population previously excluded or defamed by the media – as when the Docu­mentary Movement first put working men on the cinema screen – or by demonstrating that problems previously perceived as private were widely shared – as when women began to discuss domestic violence on TV. But the method can easily disintegrate into a conservative process of confirmation: it is reassuring to see yourself as part of a homogeneous group or to see people from a different group doing very much what you expect. In a practical way it is reassuring to see aspects of your behaviour which you thought might be personally or socially destructive confirmed by their normality. Everyone eats mounds of chips and relies on a car, so that’s just what people do.

That example has a jokey ring. But suppose the behaviour being confirmed is attacking your neighbours? The year before last the Disappearing World series made a film about a Bosnian village which gave a moving account of how, after occupation by the Croat army, Croat villagers turned on their Muslim neighbours. The producer chose not to show or refer to one or two Croats who protected Muslim houses. In terms of choosing representative examples this was perfectly fair. But the resulting impression that every single person had leapt on the bandwagon of ethnic hatred made it easy to read the film as evidence that such choices are irresistible, natural or inevitable. In this context – a film about Bosnia being shown in England at a time when domestic ethnic conflict seemed relatively contained – the danger of such an interpretation may have been dismissed as academic. But questions of selection and relevance take on a different significance for film-makers portraying a conflict which involves them. In India film-makers and TV crews are constantly faced with the problem that the way they report a riot may well influence the course of the next riot.

It is easy to recognise such extremes of choice when they occur far away. Thanks to TV priorities, we see elsewhere through a filter which removes the flow of ordinary events and undramatic tensions. The effect is often criticised for making ‘there’ look dangerous and irrational compared with ‘here’. The remedy usually suggested is to show more ordinary life from ‘there’, but it may sometimes be valuable to do the reverse.

Apply a similar filter to England and choices no longer look easy or unimportant. Subject areas stand out where censorship, external and internal, is a major influence. Two examples are treated in this issue: Northern Ireland, discussed by Ronan Bennett, and the activities of the secret service, raised by Allan Francovich’s film on the Lockerbie bombing. Areas of conflict become more visible when no longer swamped by a busy domestic agenda. What might a foreigner associate with Britain in 1994? The continuation of the Windsor soap opera, no doubt, but also the Pergau Dam, other scandals around the arms trade, a riot relating to the Criminal Justice Bill, Ministers with their hands in the till, people sleeping on the streets. This is not a ‘representative’ selection of everything happening in Britain, but it is hardly irrelevant. It offers a version of our reality which cries out for more than passive observation or passing comment. To represent such a world we need more complex criteria of relevance, criteria which acknowledge those areas of imaginative insight explored by Keith Griffiths in ‘Anxious Visions’, which respect intensity of experience and value the revelatory power of the extraordinary.

The unemployed manager in Video Nation preceded his warning, ‘My hell could be their hell tomorrow,’ by saying that he had never imagined that he could find himself redundant. Why not? Documentaries have observed many such cases and the news regularly reports the decisions and policies which make it a common experience.

So, TV pours out information but fails to connect any of it or make it relevant to the viewer. Should we expect anything else? Communication never guarantees enlightenment. But it can encourage or discourage. In life, experiences which affect our thinking usually have a quality of surprise: an event which interrupts a tidy routine, a disturbance to the norm. Within broadcasting there are people who understand this quality but, as an institution, TV is entirely inimical to disturbance. Predictability is the key to all its functions, from rapid production methods to maximising the audience. Hence the rigid schedule and easily repeated formulae. The model held up is of a world where nothing is connected and yet everything is in its place, the chaos of ordinary experience tidied away into neat categories. To change this in any radical way we have to change the institution. But in the meantime we can untidy were we can and celebrate those documentaries, often not backed by TV, which change perceptions of the world. They will be documentaries which make connections, both analytic and intuitive, which enable us to imagine likely futures, to dream of impossible ones and perceive possible alternatives.