Group Portraits and Long Shots: Where Is Documentary Film Going?

in 55th Leipzig International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Marcin Gizycki

In every official selection at a film festival one can notice unexpected and unintentional similarities between some films. Sometimes there is a dog in every second film, or boats, or priests—whatever. A sort of a common ground in most of the feature documentary films at the 55th International Lipzig Documentary and Animation Film Festival was not as much a thing or a being, but rather a certain recipe how to make a movie.  

At the first place, it seemed as if most of the filmmakers competed with each other who would use less shots in longer time. With two exceptions, all films in this category where too long and used extremely long takes. Unfortunately not everybody is Andy Warhol, or Chantal Akerman, not talking about Hitchcock and his Rope. And not everybody can get away with this method not being punished by yawning at the audience.  

It also seems that many directors followed these guidelines: 

1. Find a relatively small, distinct and possibly exotic community or a group of people. (It can be villagers in Bangladesh, or asbestos miners in China, or residents of a retirement home in Chile, a family in Colombia, or a crew of an ambulance in Bulgaria); 

2. Spend with these people as much time as you can: weeks, months, a year; 

3. Film as much material as you can; remember also about rising suns, flying birds, vast landscapes, etc., if your subject allows for this; 

4. Place your camera in one spot for many hours. Something might happen. 

5. Do not bother about getting too deeply into your protagonists lives, do not ask too many questions, stay on the surface of things and events; be distant and indifferent. This will make you look cool. 

6. Edit your material using jump cuts. It adds authenticity to your story; 

7. Discard all scenes with humor; they might spoil the seriousness of your work. 

What one can say? Sometimes it works, more often it does not.

There were some exceptions from this rule, though. The film awarded with the FIPRESCI prize, Another Earth on Night (Otra Noche en la Tierra) by David Muñoz (Spain, 2012), is a good example that a modern documentary can be fast paced, witty and not plagued with too many ‘beautiful’ shots. That it is possible to make a group portrait in which all the characters, although shown only for a few minutes on screen, do not look like shadows but come through as full-bodied  human beings with a lot of stories behind them. That— last but not least—by hiding behind a mask of frivolousness, one can sneak into a film a dose of serious social satire and criticism.  

Of course there were other films that did not fit into the same mould. The Captain and His Pirate (Der Kapitän und sein Pirat) by Andy Wolff  (Germany, 2012) is a fascinating story of a subtle relationship, if not friendship, that developed between a captain of a hijacked German ship and his captor during four long months of negotiations that eventually led to freeing the hostages from the hands of Somali pirates. The filmmakers succeeded in finding the actual leader of the pirates somewhere in Somalia who, despite being illiterate, presents himself as a good psychologist and outspoken commentator of the events. His side of the story intervenes beautifully with the captain’s narration, proving that behind every conflict there are real people, not merely human machines carrying out orders. 

Another example of a film with just a couple of strong characters representing two sides of one story is Entangled (Uwiklani) by Lidia Duda (Poland, 2012). The main difference between this picture and The Captain is that none of the protagonists here is particularly likable. The film features an elderly pedophile, who has served a term for his crime and currently tends his sick aunt, and his victim, now seeking revenge and threatening to kill his abuser. This darkly painted and not-easy-to-watch portrait of two men, whose lives seem to be inextricably intertwined for ever, asks serious questions about hate, forgiveness and redemption.  

Maybe it was not the best year for documentary filmmaking, yet there are still filmmakers who sustain this genre with passion, even if sometimes they get lost a little bit or lose focus.

Edited by Christina Stojanova