Documentaries are narrative
. They are always a representation of reality because they involve the usual (artistic) choices of what
to represent. Nothing that involves montage can claim to reality or objective truth. OK, so much for first principles. All this means is that we can appreciate cinematic movies and documentaries on the same grounds, to the extent that some laud docos as the new cinema — which, from these first principles becomes slightly oxymoronic or negated — cinema comes down to, and always will come down to the quality of its craft and directorial vision or sensibility, to its artistic choices. In film and documentary alike.
So when I saw the long rural takes of Être et Avoir
, I knew I was watching pure cinema. But also, immersed in the antics and small dramas of the small country school, with probably the kindest and most devoted teacher ever, I began to sense a further slight difference in documentary styles. Director Nicolas Philibert says he is keen to make a film with
the subject rather than about
it — not to push an agenda or angle but to live with the subject(s) — to meet them equally whilst still consciously making all the choices of representative method. In other words, not making a journalistic or newsy documentary, but an empathetic one. And it’s wonderful to see how long shots, long takes are central to this non-judgemental style: it’s as though observation is sufficient judgement — it’s sufficient to be with to garner an emotional response — the viewer doesn’t have to be lead or compounded or even bludgeoned with a message or point — it’s a subtle equality between director and viewer. A mutual respect. I can’t think of any other precedents in this style, but a doco like The Thin Blue Line explicitly leads the viewer to adopt the reasoning of the narrative, to take on the angle of miscarried justice and thereby invoke sympathy — which is the opposite of empathy. Sympathy usually implies an inequality.
Ultimately though, the subject(s) of Être facilitate this sense of involved empathy: the impatient but well-behaved kids and their immensely patient teacher (patience is probably the drive of the film), the long calm rural shots and settings and changing seasons, the seeming-unobtrusiveness of the camera and the absence of heavy intent; above all the small but moving dramas of the everyday world of children, the calm world of normality.
And so I’m thinking of doing a bit more concerted research into the long take, some more Japanese cinema, maybe some Polish. The humanity of the long take.
Also on screen review: Little Otik
. Not the very best (partial) stop motion or fairy tale rendering, and it’s a little too long in the tooth; but the occasionally sharp, absurd and farcically gratuitous humour obviously gave it a loving home with festival audiences everywhere. At times very mindful of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro — intense food, intense and abrupt close-ups, mental regressions etc. I got the feeling though, that Günter Grass would’ve done it much more justice.