Imagining Documentary

April 23, 2008

My friend and colleague Genny Baudrillard invited me to speak with her college humanities class on documentary filmmaking. They have recently watched Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, a rich, complex film. So I mostly spoke on photography. A digressive version of the talk follows after the jump.


Early in When the Levees Broke, we meet the star. Instead of Katrina, Mayor Nagin, or the antihero Bush, the camera loves Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, a resident of New Orleans East. She lost her home and then suffered absurdly in FEMA’s care; however, she found a vocation as the human face of the suffering of many. She speaks with such emotion and wit that she has often found herself signing autographs since the film. Spike Lee no doubt coaxed the star out of her. A seasoned director, he knows the importance of a human face. This film needs one to soften its often inhuman images.

These images include still photos, video, and film documenting the devastation, from bloated corpses floating in the water to thousands of survivors abandoned on the highway. Taken largely from CNN and the BBC, Lee uses these images as building blocks to craft both narrative and analysis. Nonetheless, we recall single images most. In particular, I am now carrying a shot of a man in the storm, having appeared from nowhere in an empty street, and one of a corpse come to rest on a porch, with (her? its?) legs stripped to bone from the knee down.


Such painful images make newscasters giddy and viewers numb, as the argument goes. After Katrina, CNN fought a government ban on filming the reclamation of bodies, claiming freedom of the press. Nonetheless, viewers tired of the constant flow of human misery and just changed the channel. Back in the 70s, Susan Sontag predicted as much in her seminal work On Photography:

To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. it can also corrupt them. … Images anesthetize.

She later notes, however, that not just content, but images’ endless proliferation numbs viewers too. In the postmodern cliché, our world now consists of just images, an endless play of signifiers. Photos replace memories, as media does experiences.

Before the fall, when cinema and photography were still fresh, the assumption was that an image could shock and awe. Certainly, Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) does, showing an eyeball slit with a razorblade. The image retains its power, but no longer causes riots. Other filmmakers, like the Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov, aimed for riots of the proletariat. In his reflexive masterpiece Man With the Movie Camera (1929), he pictures the cameraman as an all-seeing truth-teller. The act of seeing and re-presenting all this truth, in a form easy to apprehend, will educate and mobilize the masses against their oppressors. The camera becomes a scientific instrument, used to build the perfect society.


Likewise, Vertov’s colleague Sergei Eisenstein sought to infuriate and inspire. His early films showed intricate montages of destruction. In Battleship Potemkin (1925), the above image predated Bunuel and Dali’s. Eisenstein’s earlier film Strike (1925) put the Kuleshov effect to good use, intercutting the slaughter of striking workers with the flaying of a cow. The sequence is unforgettable. Yet it cannot organize a response, just galvanize one’s resolve until it wears off. Films like When the Levees Broke have the same goals, if different targets. They all want to leave unforgettable images with their viewers, who, the logic goes, will then act to right wrongs. But these films also have the same limitations.

One limitation is inherent in photography. Sontag again: “Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty.” The images of New Orleans flooded have a kind of beauty; people weeping do too. Good photographers tend to compose, to make sure the light is just right. These actions ensure a good print has a distance from the subject. Beautiful photos coax out beautiful emotions, which dissipate when the photo’s put on the shelf.

A more troubling limitation comes from the point-of-view. Ontologically, photography makes a claim to truth. One can be sure that thing happened in that place at some time, but what it means often depends on who gets to write the caption. Usually, rich people photograph poor people, who cannot chose to write their own. As Lee notes in his commentary, Katrina’s news coverage focused on poor black people, often referred to in media as “looters” or “refugees.” The status of “survivor” applied only to whites, who also happened to do most of the reporting.

Most troubling of all, When the Levees Broke and most other contemporary documentaries have their tidy form. Lee’s own politics, his reasoned conclusions, and even his art get subsumed into a package too much like a pleasing fiction. We spend time with “characters” and are rewarded with a good feeling at the end. The closing credits, in which each interviewee speaks through a portrait frame, only reinforces the sense that their sufferings are contained in the film. Yet rebuilding in New Orleans continues slowly.

This limitation of the form drives much of filmmaker Jill Godmilow‘s work. She speaks to it directly in an interview with Ann-Louise Shapiro:

…the traditional documentary enables viewers to have the coherence, manageability, and often the moral order of their lives reaffirmed, while simultaneously allowing them to feel that they’re interested in other classes, other peoples’ tragedies, other countries’ crises. By producing their subjects as heroic and allowing us to be glad for their victories, or by producing them as tragic and allowing us to weep, the audience experiences itself as not implicated, exempt from the responsibility either to act or even to consider the structures of their own situation.

For example, Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story has everything she hates. Flaherty tells the story (which he wrote) of French-speaking Cajuns, in particular a boy. Standard Oil financed the film, which plays as an industrial when the boy is entranced by their high-tech equipment. The film feels like living history, a last document of a lost world. We feel like all’s well at the end. It’s not.

Godmilow’s own films investigate these structures, as well as how films tell truth. Her most provocative work, perhaps, is What Farocki Taught (1996). It is a half-hour film containing a complete recreation of German filmmaker Harun Farocki’s 1968 film Inextinguishable Fire. She follows his shots, his script (English for German), his edits, and even the deadpan performances of his actors. It implies that history, like truth, is always reconstructed, just as she has reconstructed his film.

Both the old and the new version begin with an inquiry into the images in the news, in particular images of the Vietnam War. An actor reads a Vietnamese victim’s account of napalm burns, then notes that viewers will just get their feelings hurt if shown the burns. So the actor reconstructs it, first by burning himself with a cigarette, then by torching a dead rat. He notes that napalm burns at 3000 degrees; no one can understand that abstraction, but we all know how a cigarette, or match, feels as it burns the skin. These new images provide a visceral opening for us to work to understand the old ones.


These new images anticipate Sontag’s own revision of her ideas on such images in her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others. She writes:

…it is not a deficit that we are not seared, that we do not suffer enough, when we see these images. … Such images cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention.

That paying of attention is more than allowing the images to flow past. Rather, it is a job of work. Godmilow has pointed to one way to do so in What Farocki Taught. Her new label for such films also helps to understand them: rather than educational documentaries, she prefers “edifying films.” Kevin Kelly’s own label, “true films,” might also apply. Either way, the call is not to set cameras aside and close one’s eyes, but to gravitate to what the camera loves, with a renewed sense of its limits.

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