Storytelling in Documentary Cinema

in 8th Documentarist - Istanbul Documentary Days

by Arabia Lotfy

The magic of documentary cinema is a fascination with reality when it is presented with cinematic turns and aesthetics. A documentary film that makes do with presenting reality as-it-is is hence reduced to a mere document. Such a document might be rare and special, or simply pedestrian. It might carry within its layers matters that captivate the heart or it might be empty and banal. Either way it remains only a document, outside the realm of cinematic narration, unable to reach the level of a documentary tale.

Sometimes the audiences of documentary cinema mix the importance of the document and that of the documentary work, projecting the importance of the later onto the former. But it is cinematic narration that in the end gives the document its meaning, point of view, and style. It is what gives the film an impression of a storytelling, poetic feeling, or emotional contemplation. It is what sets the act of event reporting apart from contemplating its meaning.

Narration can proceed along many different paths. Done well, allows a film based on simple documents to trigger astonishing stories or tales; done badly, however, it can push a film based on rich material towards reporting events, narrating repetitive stories, or sheer banality.

I would like to use this vantage point for talking about some of the films that I saw in the “Documentarist” film festival in Istanbul. This growing festival is based on evaluating the documentary experiments of outstanding young filmmakers devoted to the creation of unconventional, or even experimental, narration. In so doing the festival seeks to create an environment free from set ideas and a space for serious discussions about the meaning of documentary cinema and the possibilities that it offers for cinematic expression. It also strives to screen films that introduce new ways of narration and alternative narratives. Despite its relatively low budget, this festival has adopted the mission of promoting new, serious experiments that enrich cinematic documentary language and develop its lexicon and style.

Although I was mainly involved in watching the films assigned to the Fipresci section of the festival, I also watched many films in its other sections, among which were some very interesting cinematic experiments. The festival showed a number of daring films that raised intense intellectual and political debates. This was especially the case with the Kurdish film, “Bakur” (North), which introduces the audience to the inner world of Kurdish mountain fighters: their lives, their thoughts, their dreams, away from any propaganda. By showing this film the festival defied the decision of the censorship authorities that had already banned the film during the 34th Istanbul International Film Festival.

The Fipresci section showed a number of interesting films, some of which introduced their subjects in exciting new ways, like the Dutch film, “Those who feel the fire burning,” directed by Morgan Knibbe. Knibbe deployed a contemplative style to bring the audience closer to the feelings and worries that immigrants experience. During the past few years many documentary and feature films have addressed the subject of immigration in the West, an exercise that has been extensively repeated to the extent that many audiences are now able to anticipate how such films unfold. However, Knibbe treats the narration of this repeated story, and the contemplation within it, in an interesting way that makes it impossible to succumb to merely watching the film. Instead, his treatment pushes the viewer to delve deep inside the world of his characters, one of the film’s very strong elements.

The Fipresci prize went to the Turkish-German film, “Remake, Remix, Rip-off,” CemKaya’s second film. His first film was “Arabex,” a film about the Turkish blues,which he co-directed with Gokan Bulut. “Remake, Remix, Rip-off” is full of longing and subtle satire for the naivety, melodramatic crudeness, and primitive action of Turkish cinema in the sixties and seventies: a cinema that was based on cheap, low cost production, and imitating or copying European and American box-office hits. In treating this subject, Kaya surveyed specific films, documented the stories of their makers, and followed the stories and memories of their adventures and experiences in making them. He delved deep into the different problems and suffering that those makers of cinema experienced in order to make such “crude” films.

The strength of this film lies in the dramatic unity that it creates between the bundle of documents that it collects and its characters, adding an emotional dimension that creates sympathy with its heroes and a controversial admiration of their ability to fight for the production of these “crude” films. The film is about the heroism of these film makers; it’s about their sacrifice and the energy and parts of their lives that went into to making this kind of cinema.

They loved cinema with great passion. So even if we are not stunned by their films we are left astonished by the extent of their passion for cinema. The film arouses many contradictory and controversial feelings towards these characters, be they directors, producers or actors; feelings of sympathy with them and mockery of them, admiration and disregard. The director succeeded in telling the story of these people and their works without falling in any moment into the trap of being judgmental. The beauty of this film lies in how it introduces its tale fluently with a lively rhythm and powerfully smooth editing.

The director introduced a historical tale of what Turkish cinema went through. He introduced the factors that affected it as an industry and the way it was influenced by different political moments and the problems that it faced, like censorship, subsidy, and other problems that prevail in most developing cinemas in countries that don’t appreciate this art and don’t consider it part of cultural life.

It’s a simple and deep film. It took the director seven years to gather, arrange, structure and restructure his story to be able to create this interesting documentary about Turkish commercial cinema and the people that made it happen.

Edited by Alison Frank