Claiming the Real: The Documentary Film Revisited by Brian Winston

By Margaret Dickinson

Makers and consumers of documentary behave as if hardly touched by the relativism of recent theory. Factual programmes are still scheduled and trailed by broadcasters, written about in the press and praised or complained about by viewers as if they relate to a real world, are, or should be, true and can be influential. Brian Winston’s Claiming the Real is a thoughtful re-examination of such assumptions which goes some way towards bridging the gulf between academic writing and media practice.

Winston’s starting and finishing point is the by now familiar fear that digital technology is undermining a relationship between image and reality which is central to the nature and purpose of documentary. It is to counter this perceived threat that he sets out to dissect a legacy of muddled truth claims and dubious legitimations.

These originate, Winston argues, from the way 19th- and early 20th-century ideas about art on the one hand and science on the other were mobilised to validate aspects of documentary film practice. The two longest sections of the book take up this theme. In the first, Winston traces relationships between 19th-century realist painting, concepts of the art and social improvement and Grierson’s notion of ‘creative treatment of actuality’. With the help of comparisons from 30s official film-making in Germany and the USA and from examples of independent practice, he assembles an attack on the Documentary Movement which goes further that most of its critics in characterising the whole enterprise as: ‘right wing money, left wing kudos, and films of dubious social worth in the middle’. In the second he focuses on the cinema direct and cinéma vérité movements of the 60s, and the way the rationale behind them invoked ideas about scientific method, observation, the collection of evidence and the attempt to construct sociology on the model of the natural sciences.

While these two sections are not rigidly chronological, they are both partly about evolution – a progression from one set of ideas to another, from one kind of technology to another. But they are separated by a shorter discussion of structure and narrative which is different in character. Less concerned with truth claims and their ideological precedents, this considers the general question, can documentary succeed without a narrative framework? and answer with a firm ‘no’.

The shift of focus between these three main sections is characteristic of a constant tension between chronology and theme which I found at times made the thread of argument hard to follow. There are other disorienting factors like sudden switches of scale: from speculative parallels between cultural practices which Winston himself admits were quite dissimilar to detailed accounts of the practical circumstances in which particular films were made. The connections are sometimes not as strong as Winston implies. For instance he suggests that there was a causal connection between the artistic ambitions of Grierson’s associates and the conservatism of Griersonian documentary whereas I think the connection he demonstrates is much looser – only that conservative sponsorship was compatible with the practitioners’ artistic interests. Another difficulty is that the epistemology is largely implicit so that the reader is left to extrapolate a theory from the examples used. In these individuals and personal biography are prominent, institutions much less so: an account of the BBC’s policy towards documentary is focused heavily on the record of Richard Cawston as one head of documentary; Granada is mentioned mainly as one of Roger Graef’s employers. Even the shift from cinema to TV as the principle commercial outlet for documentary receives slight attention. Technology is dealt with ambivalently: photography and today’s digital systems are credited with the potential for determining cultural agenda, whereas in the case of portable 16mm systems, the film-makers’ agenda is represented as determining the technology. In practice Winston explores these relationships between individuals, institutions and technology in some depth in the passages on the Documentary Movement and touches on them elsewhere but the uneven attention given to the issues adds to the sense of disjunction within the argument.

Another difficulty is that the principle of selection is never spelt out. It is clear enough that the intention is theory rather than history or survey but the highly selective map of the subject from which the theory is derived requires more justification than it receives…Winston only says that he is focusing on ‘the realist documentary idea’ because it ‘makes the greatest truth claims’, is the dominant tradition and ‘the preferred variant for television.’ But this begs too many questions. What would it exclude, apart, perhaps, from some of the avant-garde? And the map he actually unfolds is far less inclusive. The reader can only guess from the information in the preface that it is a personal map reflecting the author’s own experiences from working in Britain and America and in mainstream TV current affairs. This would explain why he seems almost obsessed with the Grierson myth; why he only mentions the Soviets, Vertov and Shub in the context of 60s French cinéma vérité; why he looks in detail and keeps returning to the work of Leacock, Wiseman and the American school of direct cinéma but covers Rouch, Marker and French cinéma vérité in a few pages; why he discusses at length questions arising from Western ethnographic film but only mentions in passing the work of one or two film-makers from outside North America and Western Europe. Even taking into account Winston’s own trajectory, some aspects of the selection remain puzzling: why he discusses the British left tradition of the 30s but, except for a dismissive mention of Nightcleaners, hardly refers to the left tradition of the 70s or why he has little to say about British access TV, Open Door, Open Space or Video Diaries.

These last omissions matter because his concluding remarks are about exactly the kind of practice which some of the workshops undertook and which access TV claims to be. For he suggests that the way forward for film-makers is to stop ‘hiding behind science or aesthetics’ and ‘put the relationship with participants on the pedestal where once other concepts were enshrined’. But the last 30 years has seen, in England alone, a variety of practices which claim to do this, some of them inspired by the Challenge for Change example which he cites. The experience they provide has raised too many questions and led to too many arguments for a recommendation of this kind to be have any force without reference to some of these issues.

On the whole the book shares a problem with some of the documentary it criticises, that there is a mismatch between the material and the claims made for it. It does not offer a coherent answer to the broad question posed – what is the future of documentary in the age of digital technology? But it does offer a series of interesting insights into particular practices and the rhetoric surrounding them. They are interesting partly because they reflect the understanding of a practitioner. The material might have made better sense presented more openly as a subjective account based on the questions which arose in connection with the author’s own work. Some of the most useful observations are in the few passages where he refers to his personal experiences in TV and it seems a missed opportunity that he does not write more about the practice he knows best, TV current affairs. Perhaps this was because digital technology seemed less of a threat in that context. For the truth claims of current affairs rely, much as those of newspapers do, on the credibility of journalists. Where the audience is used to having to take on trust stories which are only illustrated, not validated by images, is it such a great step to take on trust the image as well?