Why the Documentary Cinema?

By Henri Storck

Translated from the French by Julian Petley

Even though it is by nature destined to make all of reality an open book, the documentary cinema is forbidden to film the most intense aspects of human life: violence, murder, sadism, love, death, madness. These are all secret acts. At the very most one can conceive of these forbidden aspects being shot for scientific ends, with the films, too, destined to remain secret.

It is doubtless because of this fundamental prohibition that operates within the cinema of reality that these same forbidden aspects are shown in profusion in the cinema of fiction.

For in fiction the roles are reversed: the reality is the film that’s being made: the one true thing is the scene that’s being shot; the camera is master. One can represent everything. The death of a character is not the death of a person, passionate love is not experienced but acted out, violence is simulated. These representations are none the less troubling for that.

However, in the documentary cinema, the feeling of the real is so powerful, proving itself every passing moment with such a mass of evidence, that this image of true life, of a real situation experienced by people who are undertaking or undergoing something instead of artificially acting it out, exercises a kind of fascination on the spectator. This is no less strong than that exercised by the film of fiction which successfully works the miracle of truth.

This cinema is a multiple one; it can be the privileged witness to an extraordinary event which it seizes on the wing and which then gives birth to a document of undeniable, sometimes unbearable, power; or then again, after having studied a particular reality, observed it, understood it, it can organise its ‘capture’ with the help and consent of those who are the characters in this piece of real action, being faithful to their truth, encouraging their spontaneity and avoiding any manipulation. This is what Luc de Heusch has called the participatory camera.

The camera that lacks discretion or respect for the human being perverts the truth; if these principles are respected then there are no objections to the meticulous reconstructions of scenes, to their mise-en-scène. This was Flaherty’s method. What happens is that reconstruction, by its very qualities of truthfulness, brings about a new reality, something which the protagonists will experience as lived and not as acted out.

It remains no less true that documentary narration obeys the same laws a fictional narration. Most of the elements of cinematic language were fully developed by the makers of the first documentaries and, in particular, by Dziga Vertov, be they slow-motion, speeding-up, superimposition, the distortion of the image, rhythmic effects, ellipses, flashbacks, and so on.

One can be certain that reality viewed through the critical spirit of Wiseman teaches us more about American society today than does any contemporary fiction film, and that it will be on his films that future generations will draw for the truth.

But it would be rash to predict that they will not look at the fiction films of Altman or Coppola the better to understand the ideas, the mentality, the behaviour of our contemporaries.

This leads to the conclusion that the two genres complete one another, the one drawing its power from the other.

Each generation has a sensation of reality which is particular to it and this reality will be that of its cinema.