Borders of Reality

in 18th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Anna Bielak

Revolution does not happen in art. But art may be used to portray revolution, family affairs, human journeys, records of memory and views of the world. Art is a great tool for documentary filmmaking and may become apparent via cinematic forms, visual metaphors, attitudes towards shooting and ways of editing. Art incorporates neither fiction nor artificiality into documentaries; it inserts creativity into the process of interpreting factual events. Artistic vision is an essential part of cinematic creation. Yet, surprisingly, it seems like a lot of documentary filmmakers forget that every story of great social, political or cultural importance needs not only a storyline, but also peculiar and cogent composition. Very often it is form that distinguishes reportage from thrilling documentary films. The latter provides viewers with something more than summing-ups of theories and interpretations of facts – and that is cinematic experience.

The 18th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival proves that integrating any sort of artistic vision with pure documentary observation is no mean feat. It requires a sense of rhythm in editing, the ability to maintain a balance between reality and allegories, an original approach to the portrayed characters or topics and great narrative discipline. Call Me Marianna, an intimate portrait of a transsexual woman directed by Karolina Bielawska and a documentary appreciated by many international juries, is one of those films.

Much less known by festival-goers, but equally as interesting and as precisely crafted as Bielawska’s documentary, is Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film What He Did, also screened in Thessaloniki. It is a subtle, yet powerfully engaging story of psychologists and an author, Jens Michael Schau – a passionate lover and a murderer. Rasmussen patiently reveals Schau’s intentions, hopes, fears and feelings during on-camera interviews. To shed light on past events, he merges archival footage with recorded rehearsals of a theater play written by his character. The staged story exposes the ups and downs of Schau’s relationship with Christian Kampmann, which had lead Schau to murder Kampmann. The past is hidden in theater, the present is drowning in guilt, and the future is hazy like the outlines of buildings in a morning fog.

Rasmussen’s doc awakes anxiety in the audience and deepens a feeling of discomfort, because scenes of the theater play combined with Schau’s confession unveil the full picture or – if we prefer – the truth. And this truth has nothing in common with the objective investigation. The Danish director captures what Schau hides in his mind. What He Did, honored with FIPRESCI Award in the International section of the competition, is not like any sensational reportage from a crime scene. It is a portrait of a human who tells the story of his life, his passions, and his crime – and that is a very different kettle of fish. Rasmussen maintains a balance between pure observations and staging.

Arto Halonen was not able to do the same while constructing White Rage – a documentary based on a long and insightful confession of great dramaturgic potential that was heavily overloaded with literally staged events. Whereas, not literal, but modest metaphor is the key that often unveils the truth sought after in docs. How to create it? David Sington, the director of another confession-oriented story, knows perfectly well how to deal with talking heads, allegory, art and reality in documentary. His The Fear of 13, a documentary portrait of Nick Yarris, an innocent man who has spent 23 years on Death Row is another great example of using artistic metaphors to emphasize the emotional significance of events. Lights, colors, sounds, fragments of bodies, repetitions and visual refrains build the rhythm of an enchanting and thrilling one-talking-head story!

Using art in documentary opens up borders often imposed upon filmmakers by reality. And art does not diminish this reality if used prudently. Should then filmmakers start departing from the literalism of reportage in the direction of artistic ways of documenting reality? Is absorption of art forms in documentary process a good idea? Not always and not for all of topics, that is obvious, but still, very often the answer should be: yes, indeed! As in every cinematic form, the driving force of documentary lies in awakening the viewer’s imagination. Shaping the process of filmmaking with original vision is crucial, since the way of giving away information may not only build dramatic effect, but also creates ways of interpretation. Even if we agree that life writes the best scripts, the form of sharing those stories depends on human inventiveness. Therefore, let’s not forget that documentary is an art form if genuine cinematic experience should remain a priority in movie theaters.

Edited by Carmen Gray