Be Ambidextrous! Documentary and the Internet

By Angus Reid

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The internet represents an astounding resource for the documentary filmmaker. And yet, no-one seems to be using it. Every film, every style-conscious film has a website – yes – but these are never more than vehicles for merchandising the film. I can understand this when it comes to the money-spinning games of fiction features, but the wasted opportunity is glaring in the case of documentary. The difference is that when the fiction ends, the credits roll and the commodity wraps itself up. Belief need no longer suspend itself and the whole damn shoot can surrender itself to the market. But the reality that is the basis of documentary cannot be contained in the same way, and continues to wash around the project, interrogating it, demanding more answers, more questions, more answers.

For example. I just made a Q and A with Robert Lakatos, following an excellent screening of his film Moszny. It’s about a man who stubbornly refused to give up his cows after being forcibly evicted in the 80s, in Ceauscescu‘s Romania, to make way for new housing schemes. The film presents the surreal Asiatic image of cows grazing in the dustbins of skyscrapers, and follows the tragi-comedy of an old man’s capitulation to the inevitable. It is a good piece of work, poetic, symbolic, elegiac. He aims to arouse our sympathy. But our sympathy comes at a price – because we want to know what happens next. We care. And this is reality. For all that documentary wriggles and slides, for all that it invents all kinds of artistic smokescreens to limit the reality at which the camera is present, it draws our attention by virtue of the fact that this is reality. What happens next, Robert?

I faced the same problem when I filmed the story of the determined but hopeless search of a Bosnian widow for her husband. It seemed that he was irretrievably lost, and the film presents itself as a substitute for his body, a symbolic act of grief and catharsis. It was tough, but I was satisfied. But then, years later, the man was found. Not alive as we once hoped, but as one of many in a mass grave. This fact belonged to my project even if it contradicted the conclusion of the film. I was, after all, only a guest in their reality, and it would have been perverted to insist that they were only guests in the different reality of my film. But… how to cope with the non-stop intrusion of reality? How to cope with my conscience?

I turned to the internet.

And the internet presented itself to me. I had decided that I would serve the film better if I avoided information. That kind of voiceover would have framed the subjects as victims, and I knew them as friends, confronting facts in their own lives, and not as victims. After a struggle and with some relief I left out all the background information. But that desire to know, and the sheer glee of research came back with a vengeance as soon as I began to explore the net. I could not only provide further developments in the narrative, but I could present the whole background to the stories. And I couldn’t believe what I found: a whole cosmos of fact to fortify the stories.

There are, for example, those who refuse to accept the existence of the camp we explored in Bosnia, but there, at the click of a mouse, was the existence of the camp documented many times over in online documents from The Hague. Here was at last a place to display permanently a series of photographs from the camp that identified both prisoners and guards. And more. Another episode in the film concerned an encounter with a West African gold miner, and beside his image I could show the savage reality of the annual general reports of the Western companies that owned the profit of his labour. Amazing. Scandalous. And so on. And on and on and on.

The site rapidly and happily filled itself up, and I felt that if I had made the film with my left hand, with my intuition and sympathy, then in the net I had discovered a right hand, a connection to fact, to verification and explanation, to all the things that I felt responsible for. At a time when the festival is developing the internet as a permenant online store of quality documentaries – which is an initiative that I, for one, welcome – then we, as filmmakers, can enrich our own involvement in the realities we explore by means of this same magic network. There is no excuse not to.


Angus Reid is a filmmaker. This piece was written after his attendance at the Jihlava Documentary Festival. See also page 28 and visit www.ringfilm.com