Get real with digital documentary

Documentaries have more or less gone digital, and while there are enormous opportunities to serve humanity, humanity had better watch out.

For over 25 years now there has been a frantic murmur that ripples through the crowd the moment the fate of film and cinema is mentioned. An announcement, an assertion, a warning that the Great Digital Revolution is coming. It is coming, they say, as if referring to a threatening storm on the horizon and urging the crew to batten the hatches and take shelter below. And so the world of cinema marches on, as we wait in the near-darkness of its flickering glow for something dramatic to happen, straining our ears for signs of the coming deluge and hearing only the gentle click of celluloid streaming from one reel to another on sturdy old projectors. Or — could that be the distinctive hiss of a running VCR? Is that low hum the sound of a video camera being operated, perhaps part of a closed circuit television system discreetly displayed at a public venue near you? The almost inaudible whirr of a DVD spinning in its player, being shown in the theater via an electronic projector?

Wake up, comrades, because the storm is upon us, and the evidence will be on display at this year's Film South Asia documentary festival in Kathmandu, whose theme presciently centres on the digital revolution. Well, it is not upon us so much as within and amongst us, a revolution that may not have lived up to the emphatic warnings in the sense that it is not blowing into town with bells and whistles, nor accompanied by thunder and lightning. That particular era in the evolving status of digital cinema — a time when the world was overcome with a single minded wonder of the medium, a time of self conscious video art that usually featured video itself as the main attraction – has actually already come and gone. The true revolution has not.

Even in those early stages filmmakers and budding artists were able to move beyond basic video fascination relatively quickly, making 'home videos and other records of daily life that showed an appreciation for the 'ramifications of digital film technology in terms of its convenience and affordability, and setting the stage for current conditions. For, over time, the use of digital equipment became so ubiquitous that it no longer even seemed necessary to reference or acknowledge the medium while working with it, and that is whet a major shift occurred, albeit a subtle one.

The qualities of digital that had instigated the first wave of change in the cinematic world and somewhat rightly earned it a reputation as the technology of the people, a leveller in the art of filmmaking and the non-filmmaker's relationship with the camera, led it into a state of complete integration into our society. We recognise the presence of video-cameras, are aware of the digital editing process, and identify special effects or animation created artificially by computers, but remain largely untroubled by them. Our familiarity with the wonder that was digital film technology has caused it to become an unconsciously accepted presence in the world – even outside filmmaking – and that, really, is radical, and has in turn allowed artists to use the medium with much more freedom, savvy, and flexibility.

Today, the revolution in digital is not the mere presence of the technology and all its trappings, but the fact that this presence is comfortably accepted, even ignored; that something so mechanical can be considered an organic part of modern day life. On a wider level, this technology has become a part of our subconscious map of the world, an understated component of modern architecture and an extension of human limbs and senses.

Intimate portraits

During that old misdirected wait to be overtaken by an army of digital technology in the 20 some odd years after its initial explosion, it has executed this silent but deadly invasion. Staring off in the other direction, anticipating and imagining the lives of the proverbial children of the revolution, we have been reborn as just that. In response to this change, Film South Asia (FSA), the biennial Kathmandu film festival that screens documentary films connected to the region of Southasia, has named the theme for the year "Revolution in Digital — Go Documentary!" In many ways this was an especially appropriate year for the pairing, as FSA (organised by the non-profit Himal Association, with some help from the magazine you hold in your hand) is going through a few changes of its own, and may be in a prime position to appreciate the process of a slow revolution.

One of the most dramatic changes, appropriately enough, is fact that the festival is internally witnessing an ever-increasing number of entries shot and submitted on digital media of some kind. DV CAM, DVC PRO, Mini DV, DVD, and a variety of others that all add up to the same thing; a film culture permanently imbibed with digital technology. Other changes include the venue upgrade from the smaller theatre of the Russian Cultural Center to the much larger holding capacity of the commercial duplex, Kumari Cinema, and the extension of the festival by two days with the addition of a supplementary section to take place after the main competition. Entitled 'The Barrel of the Gun', the purpose of this section is to reflect and address tumultuous times in Southasia through the screening of a small selection of films, both features and documentaries, that deal with conflict, resolution, and rehabilitation in a variety of areas around the world where the people are (or have been) targeted by the gun, whether on the hands of rebels or the state.

The theme of this year's festival, FSA '05, also seems an apt one considering the ways in which the digital medium is and has been particularly well-suited to the documentary form. As alluded to earlier, the two have had a longstanding relationship stemming from some of the earliest days of video. Some of the continued preference for digital on the part of documentary filmmakers is based on characteristics of the medium that were apparent since its inception.

Its legendary affordability made more frequent filming possible, really catering to the need for many documentary filmmakers to shoot large quantities of footage in order to capture spontaneous moments that were the life of their unscripted work, as opposed to costly film which often forced those who employed it to carefully plan and limit their shooting schedules. The relative portability and unfussy handling assists in allowing filmmakers to shoot unplanned because the equipment can be set in motion quickly and they are able to focus on their subjects without being distracted by the gear. Digital editing is likewise a quicker, cheaper option than celluloid splicing, and it allows relatively simple special effects such as video loops, speed changes and colour correction to be easily added without drawing too much attention to itself and distracting from the subject matter. These things have always been true and have become ever more so as advancements in the form of smaller, lighter cameras and more advanced and user-friendly editing programmes are developed, and filmmakers adopt them with a greater sense of refinement, with one eye on the bigger picture.

Part of the documentary's alliance with digital technology, however, lies in the implications of the more recent incarnation of the digital revolution. As a result of our relative comfort, as a society, with digital media, it seems filmmakers can now turn their cameras on human subjects with less worries of intrusion or exploitation. In Dhaka independent filmmaker Yasmine Kabir's 'A Certain Liberation', one of the films that will be screened by FSA this year, the central character profiled in the movie, a woman who has lost her entire family in the Liberation War and now independently wanders her town in a kind of functioning madness, appears to interact with the camera with surprising ease. In the small rural town in which the film is shot, many of her townsmen seem quite comfortable during interviews or as the camera follows them going about their daily business. When speaking to the camera, the subject seems to disregard it as a piece of machinery used for recording, and instead speaks directly to the woman behind it. In doing so she allows the audience to witness some of her most frank confessions and passionate emotional outbursts, and her lack of self-consciousness regarding the media allows filmmaker Kabir to paint a truly intimate portrait.

As a greater portion of the world gradually joins those who are already intimately familiar with digital, as it experiences being filmed or itself films with a video camera, and as it discovers the voyeuristically gruesome pleasures of reality television, even more people will be able to interact with its technology without alarm or even extended acknowledgement. In an age where the rapid spread of technology has made constant surveillance and its subsequent broadcast to millions of viewers a well-accepted form of popular entertainment, the concept of being 'on camera' no longer triggers instant self-consciousness, as obvious from television programmes where common folk are asked to respond to the roving camera. This is leading to more natural results and therefore adding value to documentary cinema.


Interestingly, the revolution seems to spawn filmmakers who use the more natural attitude towards the presence of digital technology to turn not just their fellow human beings into successful documentary subjects, but themselves as well. Even those who are making films about others, groups or environments foreign to them, or for the purpose of trying to raise awareness regarding various social issues seem to note their own presence or their personal experiences while filming. Not for them the traditional approach — still employed quite successfully by some — in which the documentary-maker remains scrupulously outside the frame. Even when tackling a decidedly external issue, they still recognise that they, too, are experiencing the depicted events for the first time, and connect these feelings to the larger framework of the film.

In Biju Toppo's 'Kora Rajee', the filmmaker seeks to call attention to the long-suffering Adivasi tea plantation labourers of Jharkand working in India's Northeast. Simultaneously, the camera captures Toppo uncovering his own ancestral and familial relationships with the community. In 'My Brother, My Enemy', co-directors Masood Khan from Pakistan and Kamaljeet Negi from India explore the wider issue of tense Indian-Pakistani political relations by visiting one another's countries for the first time and experiencing what it is like to by surrounded by the so-called enemy, thus examining the global via the personal. Perhaps filmmakers like these believe in the idea that simply by sharing the environment with the person or location that they are shooting, they have had a valid intellectual participation with the subject and even altered it, and so want to include that in their film in the name of depth and honesty.

This particular trend in documentary filmmaking also arises from an increased comfort with the technology, this time on the part of the filmmaker rather than on the part of the intended subject. If filmmakers see the camera in their hands not as a foreign object or mere recording device, but as an extension of their eyes, the machine becomes inextricably associated with their own consciousness. The technology is the external method of capturing their inner vision, thus they come to see the camera, however inanimate, as absorbing the workings of their mind. When filmmakers become this aware of their thoughts shaping the otherwise neutral process of video-recording, it is natural that they choose to include this content in the finished product, as on some level that content is there already.

This view of digital technology also makes its use open to a greater number of people outside of the 'filmmaking' industry, as the camera can be perceived as a personal rather than solely professional tool. The introduction of such people to the world of documentary film may be part of what is helping to break down old conventions such as the filmmaker's necessary absence from the action. The assimilation of digital machinery into modern life affects filmmaking, especially documentary filmmaking, not only through changes in the technology itself, but also through the creative products that come of the fusion between the evolving technology and the subtler phenomenon of an evolving attitude towards it. Something we have been seeing again and again in this year's submissions to FSA are films that have reached a peak in terms of the medium sublimating into the subject matter. This is something that would have been impossible before the modern digital revolution, as filmmakers and audiences with no internalised relationship with the technology could not make or watch, respectively, a digital film without being struck by the fact that it was indeed a digital film. Now we are so hyperaware of digital that we are beyond awareness. It has become a feature of our subconscious, so constant or mundane that the brain deems it unnecessary to specifically alert us to its presence.

Big Brother, really

Other submissions to FSA '05 this time around (this is the fifth edition of the festival, which began in 1997), even more fascinatingly from the standpoint of the revolution, use digital technology in an obvious or even self-conscious way, but blend its presence so artfully into their work that it no longer feels like an intrusion. Furthermore, they manipulate the technology with such deft and wizened familiarity that, rather than give the work an aesthetic of mechanised distraction, their use of digital technology adds real warmth or emotional poignancy. This is also a result of digital acceptance, as audiences are willing to look past a technique or special effect that they may subconsciously realise was added during post-production with the aid of a computer programme, focussing instead on the overall effect.

One film from the festival line-up that successfully utilises digital technology in the spirit of the revolution is Ali Kazimi's 'Continuous Journey'. The film charts the disastrous voyage of the Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamliner chartered in 1914 carrying 392 Indian immigrant hopefuls (mostly Sikhs) to Vancouver, only to be turned away by the exclusionary policies of the British Columbia authorities. Kazimi's greatest challenge, one that faces many who tackle the subject of a little-known historical event, was the lack of filmic evidence, or footage.

In order to give the tale the dynamic visual substance required of a film, Kazimi relied heavily on still photography and even shots of old written documents, employing digital technology and simple animation to bring them to life, and quite effectively at that. Although unable even to match the faces of the passengers from the few old photographs that he had found to their names, he was able to humanise them for the audience by animating parts of the photograph to have different people move independently of one another, thus creating a three dimensional space where there was none, by zooming in on particular faces during tense or emotional parts of the narrative, or by placing artificial backgrounds such as grey skies with moving clouds behind them. Rather than stand out as fancy video tricks or the cold work of machinery, these technological techniques actually do just the opposite, injecting some humanity back into dead photographs and other historical records.

The best example of a purposeful use of the digital medium, however, is Avinash Deshpande's "The Great Indian School Show", in which the filmmaker subtly uses digital technology to highlight society's takeover by it, a microcosmic embodiment of the phenomenon that is taking place on a global scale. Deshpande quietly profiles what seems like a typical Indian school, whose facade of normalcy is shattered when the audience learns that the administration employs 186 surveillance cameras to keep a constant watch on the students. Here is where we see the darker side of the revolution, where the time for warnings returns. For the audience is able to make some terrifying realisations through Deshpande's careful rendering of just how omnipresent digital technology is and can be in our everyday lives.

It appears that we are so comfortable with the construction of digital architecture, so skilled at adapting to its presence, that no situation is too extreme. The children and teachers of the school seem to now be at ease with the environment that they are in, with constant surveillance and no privacy. They even speak to the camera in order to address their ever-watchful principal, who is shown many times standing proudly in front of his massive wall of television monitors, providing one of the most realistic visualisations of Orwell's infamous Big Brother.

In the final scene of the film, we even see a young boy bobbing up and down in front of one of the cameras to make it move with him, playfully teasing it with an expression of innocent curiosity as if it were for all the world a stray puppy or fellow schoolmate. Furthermore, the thin line between filming for art and filming for surveillance becomes painfully apparent during moments in the film when it is briefly uncertain if the filmmaker is using footage shot from his own cameras or culled from one of those of the school's vast network. The truth is that we cannot grow so comfortable with digital technology that we simply ignore it, cannot stop watching the march of its progress, because as much as it has brought to documentary film and to the cinematic world, it does not stop watching us.

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