To Codify or Not> Thoughts on the Documentary Film by Ron Steinman
Lately I have been thinking about filmmaking based on fact. By that, I mean any use of a sequence of moving pictures strung together to make a story that communicates ideas and, yes, emotion though fact based journalists and filmmakers will deny emotion has a role. However, the filmmaker’s vision, even if suspect, always comes into play. As we know, making a film about something real is more a craft than art. It is infinite in its variety but not nearly so much as is the narrative film.
The films that concern me are independent documentaries usually made for theatrical distribution that often only play on the festival circuit. These, if the filmmaker is fortunate, sometimes find a home on television. We must also consider the quasi-fact documentary often replete with re-enactments produced for cable and sometimes even, sadly for PBS. I include, too, the more intimate or classic TV news story as well as the slightly longer magazine piece that has elements of the documentary but falls short because of length. We would not have had the TV news story had not the classic documentary film previously existed. I will also add that it is impossible to create a documentary, a fact film with depth if there is not enough time on the screen. More about that later.
Today, with newspapers in freefall, the migration of video to the Web is proliferating rapidly. Video by itself is everywhere on the Web, along with multi-media presentations that include stills, video, interviews and natural sound. We find these on those sites that produce news where once only still photographs dominated. As an aside, however, I believe the still photograph is the single most powerful way to tell a story, even stronger than words alone. That instantaneous capture of a moment is unmatched by any medium. I know this sounds like heresy for all those who believe video will replace the still, but video should never replace the still. We should not relegate it to the trash heap of creativity because video seems so exciting. There must always be room for the still photograph. In this respect, I think, too, of the new legion of gurus who believe they are re-reinventing the wheel for telling a story with video. Alas, they and we are not so fortunate to have a single template that fits all. In spite of everything, a wheel is a wheel is a wheel.
Contrary to the way some think, video stories for the Web should not have a language or grammar different from visual stories as they once appeared in newsreels and now appear on television. There are really no new techniques in telling a story with moving pictures and sound if clear communication is the goal. Though we can massage technique with quick cuts, slow dissolves, out-of-focus shots, heavy contrast, extra movement with the camera, nothing replaces the story. Classic elements of all story telling, whatever the medium, must remain. That is not a conservative viewpoint. I speak of broadcast TV, the medium in which I grew up where the unspoken mantra was to communicate, communicate. I learned early that if the reporter and producer had to explain their story twice it meant it did not work. Basically, any approach to storytelling fails if it does not communicate its idea. If the idea or message – and by message I do not mean propaganda — is murky or weak, Web video will be a waste of the valuable and shortened time we have in a world increasingly overloaded with more information than any fertile brain can handle.
It is impossible to codify filmmaking, even for the novice, say, in the manner of grammar and how it affects writing. However, there is a grammar of film that is unavoidable but it is unlike the written word. When you think of writing, you must take into consideration, among others, “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, “Fowler’s Modern English Usage,” The Associated Press writers and editors guide, The New York Times stylebook and other disquisitions on writing. Discussions about language used to appear with regularity in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, and, today, in other publications, mostly online. Language evolves through time. Though there are many stylebooks, none exist as the last word. It comes from the individual who puts pen to paper. But certain elements of language should never change. As much as some writers and critics may want language to change, and as much as they might want to throw any stylebook out the window, if the writer expects to communicate with his or her audience they had better stick to some tried and true rules.
James Joyce survives because, among other things, he is a brilliant curiosity. Except for his early work, “Ulysses” remains difficult. With patience it is a great read. In much of Joyce’s later work he is impossible to understand. This is evident in “Finnegan’s Wake,” a book that hardly anyone comprehends. Samuel Beckett uses words simply to make us think hard about meaning that is often mysterious. But Beckett does not play with the rudimentary language of writing. He plays instead with the mystery behind the language he uses in his plays and novels. W.G Seabald, genius that he was, used language and images like no one who is writing today. Despite the way he mixed media, he never strayed from his goal, which was to tell a story using written and visual prompts to make his points. Rules for style and the use of language evolve over time depending on the era, the culture, the subject, and obviously, the audience. Yet, in some instances correct grammar varies little, especially if the writer wishes his sentences to make sense.
Filmmakers sometimes do whatever they want in a documentary because of the infinite plasticity of the medium. However, plasticity does not always make for clarity. There are always attempts to systemize how and why of the documentary film. It is here where I return to whether or not we should codifying art. When one tries to write a set of rules, even for a craft such as film — sometimes credited as an art — and as diverse as is film, the result is often the lose of creativity. Filmmakers have history on their side rather than laws to live by. This history is anecdotal and part of the oral tradition. It exists in every film ever made, or at least those films of quality and, again, good story telling. This is not a set of laws, as we know them. Filmmakers have other films to guide them either as a way to remain on the reservation or to find a path that is uniquely their own. We learned early in the 20th Century how to use images, meaning how to mix them and move them around for effect, from the great Russian directors V.I Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein and their individual but often similar theories about montage in the first heady days of film. Simply put, depending on how the director selects his shots, he changes the emotion in any way he wants despite how he originally composed his scenes.
In all my years in TV as a writer, a producer and also a director and writer of independent documentary films no one I know has ever proscribed a list of what to do and what not to do in the making of a news spot, a magazine piece, a feature, or a documentary film. As men and women in TV, call us broadcast journalists, we learned by doing. We had mentors who had done in the past what we were doing in the present and what we hoped to do in the future. Most of what we did was hands on backed by the time-tested oral tradition as old as mankind. We never tried to rewrite how the creative process works. We felt that was for the avant-garde and after all, we were in the business of communicating ideas based on facts, and the experience of others, those whose stories we were telling.