The presence of the term document in the word documentary is a contentious matter, though the other nomenclature, non-fiction, is even more problematic. Indeed, the moral insinuation of both of these has been plaguing the genre since its very inception. The former implies proof of authenticity, while the latter asserts the privilege of being factual. These implications, in turn, lead us to a kind of linearity – a fixed text, a representation of ‘the’ truth, which comes from the tendency of treating ‘fact’ or ‘authenticity’ as truth.
In 1895, the Lumiere brothers showed the first cinematic shot in history, of a train entering a station. This was a ‘reality shot’: while there were plenty of theatre, ballet and street performances going on in Paris, the Lumiere brothers chose to film streets, factory gates and the like. George Melies, one of the greatest filmmakers of the silent era, attended a Lumiere brothers’ show, and noticed that the audience became more engaged by the moving foliage, the crushing waves, the flying dust, than by the moving people being shown. The audience had already seen human beings and their actions in theatres, after all, but the animated scenery immediately caught their attention. Since then, proving the authenticity of ‘actuality’ has become a major preoccupation for non-fiction films.
In 1898, two cameramen from the Vitagraph Company of America went to Cuba to shoot the Spanish-American War. When they came back, they realised that they had not filmed the most important part of the war, the Battle of Santiago Bay. Americans were frothing to see the footage, and admitting to having missed this crucial battle would have meant a huge loss of revenue. So, the two hatched a plan. With street vendors selling stills of the Battle of Santiago Bay, the cameramen were able to buy pictures of the battleships. These they then floated in tubs of water, sprinkled a bit of gunpowder on them, attached some strings and tried to make smoke from a cigar. Unfortunately, the person smoking the cigar, the wife of one of the men, was not a smoker, and could not provide a continuous flow of smoke, which made the ‘battlefield’ look less dense than it should have. Undaunted, the men composed the battle scene, shot it, and ran the result in public screenings for months. While this was probably the first instance of special effects in cinema, it was also the first instance of documentary’s uneasy relationship with ‘reality’.
The word ‘documentary’ was used for the first time in 1914, in reference to In the Land of Head Hunters, a film about American Indians. But beyond the realistic was the magical. That same year, a 22-year-old film student from the US named Jessica Brothwick spent a year in the Balkans. “During the cholera rage in Adrianpole, everything connected with that terrible disease was painted black,” she wrote later. She continued:
While the scourge was at its height, I went down into the gypsy quarter to take a film. The people in this part of the city had never seen a camera before, and when they saw me pointing my black box at various objects they thought I was operating some wonderful new instrument for combating the disease which was destroying them. Quickly surrounding me, they came and knelt upon the ground, kissing my feet and clothing, and begging with dreadful pathos that I should cure them.
In 1939, the Second World War began, followed by an era of ideological upheaval: radical nationalism, capitalist imperialism, totalitarian states of socialism, ultra-xenophobia, independence for European colonies in Asia, and, of course, fascism. Documentary filmmaking never had it better. Generous state patronage came flowing in, new technology was developed, and young professionals were encouraged – all to propagate the cause of war through hair-raising footage.
Adolf Hitler’s publicity office discovered the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, which led to the development of a new type of camera to her requirements. In 1936, 60 cinematographers were also made available to her to shoot the Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl subsequently shot some of the most effective military footage ever shown; in so doing, she became the mother of the political documentary. To counter her work, ideology and footage, Russian and East European filmmakers made related attempts, but the grammar book on how to make political documentaries had already been written.
Projecting magnified close-ups of the mundane (the Lumieres’ dust flying); constructing a ‘reality’ according to the audience’s imagination (Vitograph’s bathtub war); discovering and capturing the other (Brothwick in the Balkans); and manufacturing a nationalist brand through spectacles (Riefenstahl’s Reich) – even today, these remain the formal mainstay of documentary filmmaking.
The other India
In the Subcontinent, this phase in the rise of the documentary as a film genre occured during the 1950s. In 1943, the British Raj set up two establishments, the Information Films of India and the India News Parade, with the sole objective of hyping the war. At the end of the conflict, in April 1946, the Central Legislative Council was constituted as a precursor towards eventually handing over power to the Indian government. The Council subsequently demanded the closure of the two production houses, saying that they were tools of British interest.
Soon after Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru realised that the newly formed country needed a mechanism with which to reach out to India’s vast population, which was seen as multi-lingual and multi-cultural, but also mostly illiterate and unaware of the notions of the nation and state. The gaze of the plains of central India thereafter travelled to the remotest corners of the country, recording the ‘other’ people that made up the Indian state. The results were a mix of war and anthropological films, in both style and aesthetic: the vast, top-angle shots of the land made so popular by war films, coupled with the close-up shots detailing alien customs and peoples. To this day, the government of India gives out a national award for best anthropologic/ethnographic film of the year.
This trend was countered during the late 1970s, when the notion of the nation state was significantly challenged by the Naxalite movement and other organised left formations. This led to the birth, in India, of independent political documentaries, covering famine, homelessness, state atrocities, migration, gender, land ownership and more. Gautam Ghosh, Utpalendu Chakravarty, Anand Patwardhan, Meera Nayar, Suhasini Mulay, Tapan Bose and others became the prominent names of that era, all coming from a very particular political background. They knew their subjects, and wanted to make films that would disseminate what they saw as the truth. They also had enough confidence in their arguments in order to hold shots of their interviewees for long minutes – a powerful effect, but one that would soon come to distance their works from the audience.
The myth of the benevolent state was duly shattered. For the first time, instead of ‘exotic’ peoples, the protagonists were hungry and tortured Indians; instead of ritualistic song and dance, the minority peoples of the land were voicing anger, fear and frustration; instead of the plastic gloss of national pride, the basic formation of the modern state was being questioned. Many feature films of the time were also inspired by these documentaries, and some of the documentary filmmakers later shifted to feature filmmaking, albeit of a political kind.
These new films affected the aesthetics of documentaries, as well as the way that people viewed them: they revisited the issue of authenticity. As against the classical anthropology of earlier times, a genre of political anthropology was begun. However, the format and aesthetic remained broadly the same. Indeed, in some sense, this genre depended heavily on the aesthetics of the very ideology that it had set out to oppose, and in fact gave rise to a new genre of anthropological subjects: away from the alien people of the exotic land, the victim of the nation state soon came under the lens. However, the distance between the subject, the filmmaker and the audience remained the same, and the primary agenda of opinion-making with the help of facts had not changed.
There was another problem. The opportunities for private screenings were rare. Furthermore, after the state mandated that a documentary be screened before every feature film, audiences quickly became allergic to the word ‘documentary’. Hence, only an elite, politicised audience viewed the documentaries of the 1970s and 1980s. Even while some filmmakers resolutely continued to travel the country with cameras on their shoulders, most were eventually lost in oblivion. By the 1980s, the film-society movement was becoming increasingly popular in India, but even its members strongly resisted documentary films, considering them overly didactic and poor in aesthetics.
The documentary genre soon found itself in deep trouble, with the most crucial problem being a dependence on fact with an eye to attaining a very particular truth. Embedded US journalists in Iraq, for instance, have been able to record the ‘facts’ from the closest of ranges, but look what happened to that ‘truth’ in the process: American propaganda in support of the Iraq invasion. Yet another problem was an audience inured to stimulus. In Gujarat during the 2002 carnage, television reporters shot the same footage that the independent filmmakers did. But by the time the independent filmmakers finished their films – with whatever deeper understanding of the issue they were able to offer – the audience was in a state of visual fatigue.
For many, the crux of the problem with documentaries was a lack of engagement with the aesthetics of an issue, an inability to look at how to make an argument richer with something more than mere dialogue. The best of this type of engagement is to be able to encourage the audience to participate in the reality of the issue beyond merely absorbing the rhetoric and polemic of the interviewees. The agenda subsequently shifts from opinion-making through facts to experiencing reality by participating in the extraction of meaning. This is more than a mere formal issue: it is a political engagement and a cerebral invitation.
Since the late 1980s, two very interesting phenomena have developed within documentary filmmaking in India: a spectacular rise in biographical films, and an approach that integrates the filmmaker’s personal relationship with the protagonist as part of the text. This latter has been dealt with most basically through the first-person narrative. At a more complex level, however, it has also led to some exciting innovations: novel camera positioning, new editing styles, the use of footage that has little to do with the proclaimed agenda, and more.
There are now distinct attempts to place the ‘ordinariness’ of an ordinary individual directly into the reading of the nation state. The debate and polemic around citizenship are still ongoing, but there is also an attempt to aestheticise these in opposition to the ‘discovery’ and ‘proof’ of earlier anthropological attempts: to make a rounded portrait, and not merely an argument. Many of these are ordinary people, with no tall claims to official history, but these new films strive to make these figures integral architects of the citizenship discourse, rather than merely reducing them to case studies. Sameera Jain’s series Portraits of Belonging (which introduces us to Bhai Miyan, the kite-maker, and Sageera Begum, the artisan) is a fine example of this genre. In post-1992 Delhi, Bhai talks about the special kite set of 150 Indian national flags that he created to celebrate 50 years of Independence. Bhai and Sageera both talk lucidly about memory as part of proactive action in nation-building, quickly obliterating the stereotype of the narrative of the ‘victim’.
Another prominent trend in this genre has been to ‘read’ an artist and his or her memory. There is a candid recognition in documentary films that what the audience is watching is also a kind of performance on the part of the protagonist: the text is not what the protagonist is, but how she wants us to conceive her. The validity of a protagonist and the authenticity of a film do not come from the actuality, but from the essence of these people’s memories and desires. In some sense, this process displaces fact for the sake of the ‘truth’ that emerges through a person’s performance of his or her ‘self’ in front of the camera. Allowing the protagonist to do so, and allowing the audience to see through that attempt, is part of the formal development.
These performances make the biographic film an integral part of the current debate on citizenship. As such, there is a distinct shift from the ‘victim’ narrative to a proactive role in constituting the ‘citizen’ – the citizen who is constantly being made in the interaction between the memory of the past and the desire for the future. Since the process of recording this development is part of the film’s text, the filmmaker and the audience become a crucial part of the exercise of constituting the ‘citizen’.
During the first two decades in cinema, until editing was discovered, the documentary had been more popular than had its fictional counterparts. In the current media explosion, that glory is being revisited. The many ‘infotainment’ shows have made ‘facts’ a coveted commodity. Several European television channels are commissioning works from Asia and Africa that focus largely on just single characters. We have now come interestingly full circle, where the personalised narratives of the commissioned documentaries create a disproportionately voluminous body of inward-looking, de-contextualised and indulgent biographies. The time may have come to place the individual back on the map, and create yet another genre of political documentary.
~ Madhshree Dutta is contributing editor based in Bombay