Recent documentary clichés

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Documentary, Film reviews

In his new film, The War You Don’t See (UK?, 2010), Australian journalist John Pilger explains that ’embedded’ journalists are often ‘in bed with’ those whose story they are trying to get/represent.

That is to say, journalists are less likely to be impartial when embedded with soldiers in a military conflict zone, a practice that dates back to the First World War, and which in terms of specifically film journalism has happened at least since 1912 when Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa had films made about him from the front line of his rebellion against Victoriano Huerta and others in the burgeoning Mexican democracy.

The reason provided is that one is given access to only that which the unit with which one is embedded wants the journalist to see. Furthermore, Pilger documents as best (?) as he can how journalism in the present day and age is a question of back-scratching. That is, if journalists ‘play ball with’ (i.e. do not criticise or seek to investigate the veracity or otherwise of what is told them by) governmental sources, then they get exclusive interviews with leading politicians, etc. Given that newspapers need to sell stories, stories that are often spun in a patriotic and nationalistic way, it is often (seemingly) in the interests of the news companies and journalists not to question what they are told. That and the fact that investigative journalists are systematically denied access to information and, according to a WikiLeaks document, are a worse threat to contemporary government than spies and terrorists.

Pilger’s film is a critique of journalism in the contemporary age; why did journalists go along with stories concerning non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when even at the time there was some evidence for and people willing to speak about how there were no WMDs. It is also an attack on journalists who privilege only the ‘official’ story – be that in Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere. Although as much is denied by some of Pilger’s interviewees, journalists live in fear for their lives – not simply as a result of being in dangerous places, but because they will actively be targeted, like the Al Jazeera offices in Kabul, if they report on events in a way that does not please those who are trying already to write the history of events.

I shall return (briefly) to The War You Don’t See later, but in many ways the critique of embedded journalists that Pilger’s film offers does bring into question the potentially one-sided nature of the otherwise remarkable Restrepo (Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, USA, 2010).

Restrepo follows a year in the life of a unit of American soldiers in the Korangal valley, and who under the leadership of Captain Dan Kearney manage to secure an outpost that overlooks the valley and which is named after Juan Restrepo, a private and member of the unit who dies in combat.

The outpost comes constantly under fire from an invisible enemy, upon whom the soldiers fire back, although again we barely see their targets. One could easily criticise not the film for what it shows, which on the whole is an extraordinary display of endurance and bonding, but some of the behaviour that is shown. That is, one could easily take the film to be a critique of American attitudes towards locals in Afghanistan when Kearney and his men resort to the kind of foul-mouthed swaggering we expect from the movies when talks break down at one of the regular powwows he organises with the local leaders. One might also be suspicious of the soldiers who claim that they had to put the cow of one of the locals down after it got caught on barbed wire – for it seems that they enjoyed eating the cow as much as they carried out this slaughter for ‘humanitarian’ purposes. Either way, when inevitably that cliché about winning ‘hearts and minds‘ is bandied around by one of the soldiers, it is spoken in such a way that one does not know whether anyone believes in this perhaps meaningless motto anymore. In other words, the film does show us these soldiers not so much in a negative light, but realistically: we see their flaws as well as their admirable coping strategies for being in such a remote and (as the reviews repeatedly tell us) desolate place.

(To butt into the discourse surrounding the Korangal: most mountainous valleys, particularly in that region, are not exactly oases. However, obviously vegetation grows and locals get by – and the region does have a relatively successful timber industry. I appreciate that this is not exactly Beverly Hills and the world of Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2010), but it’s not the middle of the Atacama, either.)

In the light of, and in some respects against, Pilger’s documentary, then, Hetherington and Junger’s film does not necessarily come across as too one-sided. We do not get translated (or even untranslated) interviews with the local population without the presence of the soldiers, in which – perhaps? conceivably? impossibly? – they would speak their mind about the American presence in the valley. Nor do we have investigations into how the Taliban that are in the area – we know this since they shoot at the Americans more or less relentlessly – are supported (but – in a manner akin to Des hommes et des dieux/Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, France, 2010), one wonders that the locals must see the ‘terrorists’ from time to time, since they will need to come to the village for supplies and medicine, even if the locals do not outright support the Taliban). We do not get too much access to the other side of the story, then, but the story that we do see has many sides itself, and by showing the behaviour of the Americans, the film implicitly involves at times its own critique/we see their bad as well as their good points – and if lingering on the bad is what one wants to do with the film, then one can happily do that.

Rather than an embedded reportage of any great victories, then, Restrepo gives us what seems to be a pretty even-sided take on its topic (although how we would ever know if truly it was even is impossible – since, as per another truth turned cliché developed during the Vietnam War, ‘we weren’t there’).

However, while I want to be clear in articulating the strengths of Restrepo, I also do want to criticise the film for perhaps the major scene around which the film is based. And this is a scene in which the soldiers come under heavy fire and are engaged in close combat.

This is the film’s ‘million dollar footage,’ and in some ways I understand how and why the filmmakers need to showcase this material in order for their film to have maximum impact. Besides which, they were not fooling around and this is not Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, USA, 2001), which, although based on a true story, is, after all, a realistic mock-up of events – but not footage from those events themselves.

I also understand how and why the filmmakers would want to build tension prior to this scene – giving us emotional testimony shot after the fact from soldiers including Misha Pemble-Belkin and Brendan O’Byrne. As they come to tears, however, then to ‘drop us’ into the combat situation seems, to someone of my frail sensibility, pornographic.

That is, I am grateful to see the effects of war on the soldiers who have been touched by it; this is knowledge that rationally I can use to understand the world in a better way. I am grateful perhaps to see combat footage for the same reason – to make me understand the true horror of war. But the way in which the testimony is deployed in this film before the combat footage seems exploitative.

We know that this is a manipulation: Hetherington and Junger conducted their interviews with the troops after they had returned home – and so we could easily have seen the footage and then gauged their reactions to what happened in order to understand it. But instead their emotional responses/recall of events is given to us first so as to lead us into understanding these events in the way that the filmmakers think that we should – and not necessarily in a realistic way at all (and by realistic, I hypothesise – admittedly, hypothesising is all I can do – that events happen and we do not understand them at the time, let alone in advance – and it is only in the act of remembering that we can make sense of them, which is the opposite of what Hetherington and Junger do to us here). Junger and Hetherington can hide behind the respect that they are showing to their subjects in privileging their understanding of events, as opposed simply to showing the events themselves. But this would be disingenuous in certain respects – for Junger and Hetherington, without giving us their reactions to events (and it is they who are also they and they who are also filming), show us the combat scenes anyway. If this was about the soldiers’ memories and their attempts to deal with what happened, then we might have seen their reactions after the combat sequences, or not even seen the combat sequences at all.

Where Werner Herzog decides not to play for us the noises of Timothy Treadwell being eaten alive by bears in Grizzly Man (USA, 2005), here we do see the combat sequences. (This is not to overlook Herzog’s strange decision to listen to the noises of Treadwell’s death and then to tell us and his mother that we should not hear them, but the implications of that choice will be left for another time.)

In other words, Restrepo verges on the exploitative and is a poorer film for it. Not only does this ‘objective’ film – which does not engage with the wider politics of the war in Afghanistan, as Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom have in part done in their recent Shock Doctrine (UK, 2009) – thereby reveal something of its allegiances (meaning that in part the film does, perhaps naturally and both for better and for worse, become complicit with the unit with which the filmmakers have been embedded), but it also proves that it is prey to the logic of sensationalism that drives the audiovisual media industry.

Whereas we might criticise The War You Don’t See and Shock Doctrine for being sensational and manipulative in quite obvious ways, since both are making large claims that it is hard to justify without being a bit knowingly one-sided, Restrepo is more subtly sensational perhaps, but sensational it is.

If hearts and minds are truly the object of war – that is, if wars truly are about ideologies, whereby people over there must be convinced of the truth and righteousness of the way of life over here, such that they adopt our ways – then not only does this reveal that war today is absolutely religious (in the sense that it is about convincing people of correct beliefs and codes of conduct), but it also means that cinema is a key ingredient to war. For cinema affects humans in two conjoined and inseparable ways: it makes us think (affecting our minds), and it makes us feel (affecting our hearts). One might say that there is not so much a battle between types of cinema, although this battle has surely been waged, as we have seen through Nazi and Soviet as opposed to Western/American propaganda, but also between those nations that are cinematic and those that are not.

By this I mean to say that it is not so much which cinematic images you believe in that is the root of today’s ideological conflicts (although of course this is the case), but it is whether you believe in cinematic images. In some ways, what I am saying does an enormous dis-service to a massively long history of icons and iconography – that is, the use of pre-cinematic images in order to convey ideas and feelings, in order to exert power, to impose fear, and to indoctrinate. But in other ways, the coincidence of modernity (and now postmodernity) with the advent (and proliferation) of cinema means that this technology, the cinematograph, be it analogue or digital, is the tool through which as much ‘shooting’ has taken place as has been carried out by humans wielding guns.

By making itself suddenly and at the last cinematic, and however perverse this might be in a culture in which that which is ‘cinematic’ is indeed esteemed worthy of the highest praise, Restrepo does itself a dis-service. And my reasons for arguing this will hopefully become clear in my consideration of another recent documentary, which has nothing to do with the contemporary system of warfare that governs the planet, Catfish (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, USA, 2010).

Catfish tells the story of New York photographer Nev Schulman, who receives in the post one day a painting of one of his pictures. The painting is allegedly by an eight-year old girl, Abby, who lives in Michigan. Nev likes the painting and so writes back to Abby – and soon becomes Facebook friends with Abby, her mother Angela, and her sister Megan. In particular, Nev and Megan start to talk online and then on the telephone. The photos of her on Facebook show a hot 19-year old whom Nev obviously fancies, and so they begin something of a long distance relationship.

One night, while photographing/filming some ballet in Colorado, Nev and the two filmmakers, Ariel and Henry, discover that a song posted online by Megan is not – contrary to her claims – by her, but is in fact a sound file taken from a video on YouTube. Nev investigates a bit further: not only are other of Megan and Angela’s songs in fact sound files of performances by other people, but the building that supposedly Angela had bought as a gallery for artist prodigy Abby is in fact a former JC Penney that is still on the market.

As a result of these incongruencies, Nev, Henry and Ariel decide to go to Michigan to investigate – and there [SPOILERS] they discover that Megan does not exist (or at least is estranged from Angela and her family), that Angela looks nothing like the photos she puts of herself online, that Abby does not even know how to draw, let alone paint, and that as many as 14 characters had been invented by Angela to flesh out the world of her Facebook avatars.

As has been said, at a time when The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010) seems to be dominating end of year polls, this is perhaps the ‘real’ Facebook film. But generally positive reviews aside, I want to discuss a key scene from Catfish by way of comparison to Restrepo.

Nev, Ariel and Henry arrive late at night at a farm that is supposed to belong to Megan. They have the address and they have seen the photos of this place – so they recognise it when they arrive. Nev decides that, late though it is, they will drive up to the farmhouse and take a peak at what is there. Naturally, the farmhouse is empty and no one is there.

Trying to describe the creepiness of this moment is difficult, but both I and the friend with whom I saw Catfish discussed afterwards how tense this film made us feel, particularly this moment. And for me, the reason why this moment was so tense was because suddenly, having thought that this was a documentary, I found myself questioning whether I had been the victim of some profound hoax – as if somehow this film was going to become [Rec.] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, Spain, 2007), and be in fact a fiction film that had strung out its documentary appearance for over 45 minutes. That is, I literally wondered whether suddenly a crazy zombie was going to ambush these three from the bushes. Certainly, a 3am arrival at an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of the American countryside is the right setting for such a film.

Interestingly, it felt as if Nev, Ariel and Henry were also prey to this kind of logic. Not only is there a terrifying shot where Ariel (I think) approaches a dark window to see if, as per Megan’s reports, there are some horses within the barn, which is terrifying almost in a metaphysical way, since with the camera we approach the darkness and it is the sheer lack of knowing what we will see that scares us, but also when they go round to Angela’s house the next day, the filmmakers are worried that they are going to meet a bunch of psychopaths who will murder them.

In other words, both Nev, Ariel, Henry and I all felt scared when something that I/we had considered to be real life suddenly become uncanny, something that we did not easily recognise, and what was driving our fear/tension was not our ability for remain calmly rooted in reality, but the invasion into our thoughts of, precisely, images from movies – the psychopathic family of in-breeds that has some weird cult that lures in New Yorkers to feed their vampire children.

In and of itself, this is interesting, but I want to take this further. For while I criticise Restrepo for resorting to ‘cinematic’ tactics, Catfish holds off on the ‘cinema.’ Had zombies or in-breds actually attacked Nev et al, this would have been a jump-making moment to rival any we have seen in cinema, and we might normally have called this a ‘cinematic’ moment. But it is for me the fact that Catfish does not – indeed, it cannot – deliver this ‘punchline’ (because it is a documentary of a world in which zombies do not necessarily exist), that the film takes on its real power.

Angela, it turns out, is not a psycho; nor even, really, a pathological liar. She lies compulsively, yes, but she knows that she is doing so, and the truth, or most of it, does eventually come out. In fact, rather than being a liar, she seems a sweet woman who is far more creative than her lifestyle gives her opportunity to be, and so she paints, creates a kind of Facebook novel (which involves Nev), and more in order to occupy herself apart from looking after her husband’s two retarded and self-abusive children (from another marriage), her husband and, of course, Abby. In fact, Angela turns out to be, in many respects, lovely.

In other words, whereas zombies would have terrified initially, such an ending would, in comparison to the endlessly complex and brilliant weirdness of humanity/Angela, have been ultimately unsatisfactory. The ‘cinematic’ would have, as it does in Restrepo, cheapened the film. Paradoxically, by avoiding the ‘cinematic,’ a better film is made as a result.

And here I can talk about why Restrepo, The War You Don’t See, Shock Doctrine and even (as I shall explain) Catfish disappoint in some respects. And this is because all resort to clichés, by which I mean that they adopt the techniques of other films, the likes of which we have seen over and over again. They give us what we expect them to deliver – and as a result, they do not overwhelm us the way in which reality can and does overwhelm us by never conforming to that which we expect, but instead they deliver precisely what we (are supposed to) expect.

Of course, any fule know that documentary cannot grasp reality in its entirety, and any documentary is always a manipulation of reality. But how that manipulation is put together can be done in a brilliant and original fashion. And while so much of what Restrepo shows us is never before seen and fascinating, the ‘pornographic’ exploitation of the battle seems too hackneyed a device to give it its full power. The War You Don’t See in particular involves too many well-composed talking head shots, complete with non-continuous reverse shots of Pilger, typically nodding in approval of what is being said (why? do we need his approval? for whom does Pilger take himself?), while Shock Doctrine involves that image of napalm being dropped in Vietnam (as well as some dodgy inserts of its own, particularly around Naomi Klein, whose words are definitely manipulated via inserts, such that we cannot be one hundred per cent sure of what she is saying). When Pilger interviews Cynthia McKinney, the camera, sensing that she might well up as she discusses how disappointed she is in Barack Obama’s presidency, begins to close in. And this, too, is the cliché that Catfish finally falls foul of, too: the film does not rest until Angela has had her cry on camera, even though such a ‘redemption’ is entirely unnecessary.

Yes – so the shedding of these tears happened, what we see is ‘real,’ and we have no reason to believe that these are crocodile tears in any of these documentaries (even if they are tears shed with full knowledge of the presence of the cameras). But it is the hackneyed, exploitative and cynical way in which, like a shark closing in on its prey, the camera zooms on McKinney in Pilger’s film even though she does not cry, the way in which Catfish hangs around Angela until she cries, the way in which Restrepo builds the tension up via testimony before its violent ‘money shot,’ that gets me. In other words, it is not the ‘truth’ of the subjects that is disappointing here, but they way in which that truth is captured, edited, actively sought out that is disappointing.

This is what I am calling cliché – the need to simplify through symbols the larger-than-cinema reality that is rendered merely cinematic. I call these symbols, because rather than combat being hard to understand, rather than Angela being unfathomable, rather than McKinney being angry, the filmmakers reduce what they record to what they what it to mean, as opposed to letting tears fall onscreen for what they are. Tears are made symbols of; and given that these are tears from a human, to render them symbols is to demean the complex being from which they came.

Paradoxically, then, the ‘truly’ cinematic – that which exceeds our expectations, that which defies simple understanding because we have seen it all before – is that which avoids conforming to, precisely, the pre-existing cinematic clichés.

In the case of the Pilger and Whitecross/Winterbottom films, we might say that these filmmakers need to use shorthand because they have a bigger story to tell, an argument to put across – and peddling in images and types of images with which we already familiar is an easy way of doing this. But my point would be: why? What are the demands that mean that a film must take short cuts in order to make its point?

Recently, and by way of a final comparison, I was lucky enough recently to see Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall (USA, 1979). This is not a ‘real time’ film, but in some ways it almost could be, because it is a document of a debate in New York involving novelist Norman Mailer, feminist scholar Germaine Greer, writer Jill Johnston, literary critic Diana Trilling, activist Jacqueline Ceballos, and various members of the crowd that attended the event (including the likes of Susan Sontag).

The debate is about the fate of feminism, and the film lasts 85 minutes – while the debate in real life itself probably lasted nearer two hours, maybe more. Given the discrepancy, there are omissions for certain in this film, and Town Bloody Hall is almost certainly manipulative in its own way, not just by shortening the debate to 85 minutes, but by choosing certain shots and angles that pick up on details during the debate that did not necessarily happen at quite the time that the film makes us think that they did.

But what is interesting about Town Bloody Hall, in comparison to Pilger and Whitecross/Winterbottom’s films, is that it is modest in ambition. It depicts a single event that took place and does not try to make an argument concerning an entire generation of foreign policy or journalistic practice. There is perhaps some ‘judgement’ in the film, but it is hard to discern. But in 85 minutes, we run through the philosophical, the political, the emotional, and, in short, the human, without any recourse to the cheap(er) trickery these other filmmakers feel obliged to deliver. No tears, no beautifully staged and lit interviews and slow zooms in when the tears start to flow; Town Bloody Hall is (deliberately) messy in terms of the cinematography. But in some ways this means that the cameras feel less like a trap waiting for a specific and money-making response to come out, and more like something that will emerge as unexpected and human. And in a single debate, rather than a year in the trenches, something remarkable comes out of it.

If we wait long enough or look hard enough, we can find evidence to confirm whatever beliefs we happen to hold. That life is messy, that humans are complex, that reality can be overwhelming are perhaps all the beliefs that I have and I wait patiently for the films (and moments in life) that can deliver confirmation of those things. Town Bloody Hall, meanwhile, despite being 30 years old (because 30 years old?) avoids the clichés that have become the norm of recent documentary practice, and which would have made Restrepo and Catfish the truly remarkable films that for so much of their running time I was convinced that they could be.

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