“Why didn’t you just stick to the truth?”
The word “documentary” was once an elementary school child’s nightmare: time to sit through a black-and-white run-down of depressing facts. This image of the documentary has surely shifted with the advent of phenomena such as Michael Moore’s wildly entertaining forays into capitalism and corruption, which sometimes fudge on facts (purposefully so, he admitted in an earlier Bright Lights interview) but are high on narrative thrill. Indeed, the documentary these days comes in many forms, some verging on adventure fiction films, others adherents to hand-held camera “realism.”
It’s an exciting time for documentaries, one that’s led to charged debate among critics, revealing that the new morphology of the form is as provocative as it is eye-opening. The intensity of the debate was exemplified by the Berlinale premiere of Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure — which divided journalists into two camps: those who hated the film for being unfortunately “too aesthetic” and those who loved the originality of Morris’ method.
Standard Operating Procedure consists of disturbing interviews with five of the young men and women responsible for theÂ three months of torture at Abu Ghraib, the talking heads positioned to the right of a foggy-grey wide screen, as each discusses the infamous photos. While the film won the prestigious Silver Bear Award, more than a few journalists vehemently attacked it, reviling the fiction techniques Morris used in his documentary: the wide-screen Panavision cameras, digitalized images, and special effects. The opening shot is of two floating Aces, featuring photos of Saddam Hussein’s two sons, each spinning in slow motion in a blue background. The talking head narrations are interspersed with video re-enactments of some of the torture scenes, as well as slow-motion panning shots of one soldier’s letters home. One of the most innovative ideas is to have extreme close-up re-enactments of the most banal acts of torture: a camera follows a razor as it shaves the long hairs of an Iraqi’s eyebrows, the skin pulled as the hairs fall to the blade.
Critics for Cineaste and Variety objected that the aesthetics detract from a deeper examination of the chain of command leading to Abu Ghraib, or the history of torture in U.S. policy.
“Why didn’t you just stick to the truth?” protested one irate journalist. “Why did you overwhelm us with music, visuals, and fictional scenes?”
Morris was also criticized for using evocative eerie music, composed by Tim Burton composer Danny Elfman, to bring spectators into the nightmare world of torture. Morris’s comment: “Photographs have a nightmare hallucinogenic quality, the stuff of dreams and nightmares, and Elfman seemed like the perfect person to work on this film.”
Other critics, however, loved Standard Operating Procedure, appreciating how the aesthetics are actually the subject of the film, making us probe our own relationship to the image. The philosopher W. J. T. Mitchell, for example, lauded the director’s visionary approach to the “truth” of images: “Morris is a very original filmmaker and has created a certain genre of documentary. Instead of giving you a frame that prejudges the material, it puts you in the position of having to evaluate and assess.”
The angry discordant reaction to Morris’ film points to the greater worldwide explosion of the documentary form — a wild breakthrough in the genre that is conspicuously apparent in the plethora of new films screened in documentary film festivals, such as the recent doc fest in Thessaloniki, Greece. Here films ranged from playful suspense dramas, such as one about a doctor who drops out to become a surfer (Doug Pray’s Surfwise, right) to music-studded investigations of rock stars (Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell). We sit at the edge of our seats, watching Patricio Henriquez’s journey into torture around the world in Under the Hood, replete with inserts of cartoons about the Inquisition and dramatic interviews with prisoners carted off from Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib.
Similarly, Joe Berlinger’s work, shown in retrospective at the festival, grips viewers with a documentary style reminiscent of Errol Morris. In his Paradise Lost: The Child Murders (1996), we sit through three hours of a courtroom drama about three accused child murderers, getting involved in the inchoate world of arbitrary prejudices (“These boys wore black! They must be guilty!”).
Dmitri Eipides, the bubbly director of the Thessaloniki festival, said he personally preferred films that avoided fiction-film techniques — although evidently he is not immune to their seduction, as among his own favorites, he named some that easily could be feature fictions — Surfwise, for example. Yet he had a political reason for his preference: the fact that low-cost digital cameras (as opposed to high-tech Panavision) are accessible to many, and open up the documentary to a wide range of voices. Involved in the documentary business for 25 years, he said the biggest change has been precisely the accessibility of the form. Now he receives hundreds of submissions for the Greek section of the festival while before he just received dozens. Many more are picking up the camera.
The enthusiasm for documentaries is ultimately a political enthusiasm — and perhaps this explains why the debate is so charged. The impetus for Eipides’ festival was that he, a former ’60s idealist, thought documentaries help make the world smaller — help people communicate problems and perspectives across the planet. What militates against such communication — in an age of astounding technological communicative ease, Eipides noted — is the domination of capitalist media enterprises, such as Reuters and Fox News — that control how we speak to each other.
For example, an insider who works in the marketing division of Reuters, one of the most prominent sources of “news,” confided the company will only assign stories based on the market: no stories on Africa for the United States.
Documentaries are a way of circumventing the media monopoly of “news.” Which is why it is perhaps a good thing that new filmmakers are turning to fiction techniques to draw in mass spectators — to make the form as entertaining as its rival, the Hollywood genre. Indeed, I can attest that the documentary films screened in Thessaloniki were far more gripping, impactful, and entertaining than the majority of films at the classic fiction festivals, such as Cannes or Berlin.
Why are documentaries still, then, an ugly word? Especially since trends show that mass audiences do find “reality,” in whatever form, alluring these days. On television, “reality” tv has replaced scripted dramas, and in publishing, the nonfiction book has replaced the novel as potential bestseller.
Distribution, noted one filmmaker. It’s still in the hands of the major distributors — and for them, documentaries do not make money. So docs are kept out of the theaters. For many documentary filmmakers, Michael Moore is the great commercial success story, and the one to follow.
THESSALONIKI DIRECTORS SPEAK
I. Patricio Henriquez
Patricio Henriquez’ film Under the Hood: A Voyage into the World of Torture stunned the Thessaloniki audience. The film begins with prisoners being hooded and carted off to Abu Ghraib, while voice-overs of former inmates explain why being hooded is the worst torture one can get. “You are terrified. You don’t know where you are, what is happening, you panic.” The camera then follows different victims of torture as they explain their bewildering stories: a French Algerian who was captured in a military training camp in Afghanistan and imprisoned for three years in Guantanamo; an American officer who suffered permanent mental trauma when he underwent the very torture he was supposed to mete out to prisoners; an elderly Afghan — innocent of any charges — who lost the use of his hand in Abu Ghraib. Then the film abruptly turns to Latin America: showing how U.S. policies of torture have been used in Argentina and Guatemala, today and ever since the implementation of the infamous training camp, the School of the Americas in the 1960s. Below, the director comments:
What motivated you to make Under the Hood?
I began in 200l to do a segment on torture for a TV series. Before September 11th, no dictator in the world would admit there was torture in his country. But after Sept 11th, the Americans spoke anonymously to the press and admitted torture as a policy: if we are to avoid another September 11th, we have to, in Cheney’s words, take off the gloves. What if a terrorist has a bomb, the logic went, he won’t admit it unless tortured. Debates started on the subject, with the idea that if we have to torture, we should call on judges to decide how. Worldwide, dictators got inspired by American acceptance of torture. “Now we can do it too.” Then after Abu Ghraib, a face was put on torture, with the photographs. Yet when they were published, people thought it was an isolated incident. I wanted to show Abu Ghraib was not an isolated incident. I wanted to show it was not a new development. It was already a part of the American system. As a Chilean, I think evil was wider than Pinochet, all over Latin America, and supported by the U.S. government. I wanted to show what happened in Guatemala and Argentina and how it connects to Abu Ghraib. One tortures in the name of democracy. The American Congress recently failed: they imposed a law on Bush to not use waterboarding, and Bush imposed a veto on this, so today the CIA can interpret the law in their own way to permit waterboarding as torture. Congress had the majority, but did not have two-thirds of the vote. What is particularly terrible about Guantanamo is that 90 percent of the people interned are innocent. These people had to travel around the world with clandestine CIA planes without knowing where they were going. There was a 104-year-old prisoner at Guantanamo.
How did you find the willing subjects for your film: Specialist Baker, the French Algerian detainee, the man with the “claw” hand, Sister Orte in Guatemala?
I worked with a team of two young cineastes, and we used the Internet to find people. We found three people in England, but Michael Winterbottom had already used them in his film The Road to Guantanamo. Then we found the young Frenchman, and he interested us because he was not entirely innocent. He shook hands with Bin Laden, he was in a camp in Afghanistan. It’s easy to find innocents. But this guy actually did go to Afghanistan and his story of innocence can be doubted, so I wanted to push the logic further. I also liked the case of Sean Baker. He was tortured by his own comrades. I always like to find people for my documentary who surprise with their own stories. I also do not want my film to be seen as anti-American. There are an enormous amount of people in America who are against torture. This is also a way to get more credibility for my film.
Your film focuses on U.S. torture policies. Why not comment on how torture is used by other major nation-states?
The U.S. is the most powerful country in the world, so what it does is most important in the world. Of course, torture happens in small African countries, etc., but it does not have the same impact as in the United States. Americans bring a certain rationality to torture, and this rational discourse puts us 50 years behind in the domain of torture. Of course, I am sure that in Central America, torture exists, but the military personnel responsible in each case — in El Salvador, for example, the Jesuits who were tortured and killed in the 1980s — were all trained by the School of the Americas. They received instruction from the United States. If there is torture in Latin America today, they learned from an American instructor.
What specific hope do you see for changing policies on torture, worldwide, and specifically in the U.S.?
I do not know what will happen in the elections in November. Certainly the Americans will get rid of George Bush. I think there will be an examination of conscience if there is a Democrat. And if McCain wins, he himself was tortured in Vietnam, and he is very critical of Bush, and he too could reorganize the ideas on torture. Last year, the Pentagon commanded a study of specialists who found out that torture is useless; it does not lead to the information they are looking for.
In the documentary field, there seems to be a debate about how strictly one should use “realistic” techniques, and how much leeway one should have with artistry and fiction film techniques (see the controversy about Errol Morris’ new film, Standard Operating Procedure). What is your own opinion on the subject?
I do not believe in dogma. I do not think one should say one should do that, or one should do that. There is also mise-en-scene in a documentary. The fact of placing a camera is already an act of mise-en-scene. I am not against directorial license, only against bad directorial license, for example, if it becomes ridiculous, or too aesthetic. After all, it is the the quality that matters. The Road of Guantanamo, for example, used interesting techniques. I am against the narrow limits of what makes for a documentary, i.e., the imposition of criteria about whether there should be music or not, this kind of camera or that. Reality is so large, how can one can limit how it is filmed?
II. Doug Pray
Doug Pray’s Surfwise is the story of Dorian Paskowitz, a successful Jewish doctor, head of the Medical Association of California, who drops out, becomes a surfer, and goes on to raise nine children in a trailer on the beach, with no education, but each with his or her own little surfboard. To be admired as a passionate Robinson Crusoe or reviled as a child abuser? Director Doug Pray comments:
What was personally intriguing to you about Dorian Paskowitz?
When I was first approached by a producer to make this documentary, I was concerned he might want me to create a simple tribute film about “Doc” Paskowitz, honoring this legendary surfer who has inspired thousands with his philosophies about health and surfing. A worthy subject, but only interesting if you’re a surfer. But as I began meeting the family, I started seeing this as a fascinating case study of a man who gave up a successful medical career to live out his dreams with his new wife and their nine children, all of whom lived in a tiny camper on the beach. The family surfed every day, never went to school, never paid taxes or rent, and they were raised on a very strict diet and exercise regimen patterned after the way wild animals live and eat. What intrigued me as a filmmaker was how the children, now grown, looked back on the experience. How they simultaneously felt that it was the greatest childhood in the world (Swiss Family Robinson on surfboards), but also candidly expressed to me a great deal of anger and torment towards their father for not allowing them to go to school and keeping them in the camper for all those years (“like a bunch of monkeys in a monkey cage,” as Navah, the only daughter, says). These competing views made the story very dynamic and complex. I wasn’t making just a surf film, it was a much more universal story about family and the price one pays for pursuing their ideals. Plus, the personalities of the different family members were simply outstanding on film: funny, passionate, and powerful interviews. They were just great storytellers, all 11 of them.
The film gives a very complex portrait of the man’s decision to raise his family as he did, in such an alternative fashion. What is your own moral take on his decision?
Great leaders in politics, business, religion, and even families are often extremists. They try to live their life according to an uncompromising set of rules and beliefs. This gives them their credibility (words into action), but it also makes them difficult to live with. Personally, I am very inspired by Doc’s philosophies, and I admire him for having the guts to live his life according to his ideals — not many people actually do that. I also agree with most of his beliefs: that we, as a species, are destroying ourselves with bad diet and selfish lifestyles, that we need to get back to a healthier animal state, and that life should be an exciting adventure every day. But no matter how altruistic one wants to be, I don’t think the end justifies the means, and I don’t agree with the way he imposed his will on his family, by being so controlling and extreme in his enforcement of his views. To me, life is often a mix of competing truths, and I wanted the film to show both sides of this family’s story. Ultimately, I hope Surfwise inspires people to pursue their own dreams, but that by seeing the darker, more painful side of this story, too, they might also get a dose of reality.
Your film was wildly entertaining, like a fiction film. What do you think of the new trend to create documentaries that use the narrative structure and film techniques of fiction film?
A feature-length documentary film is a movie, just like any other. If you want audiences to pay to watch it, it needs a structure, a story, a hook, a climax, a conclusion, characters you empathize with and root for. These needs don’t represent a new trend, they go back to Aristotle, but I am excited to be a part of a newer trend that uses more cinematic tools and dynamic editing techniques to tell nonfiction stories. I’m thrilled that more documentary filmmakers are getting away from the ridiculous stereotype that docs have to somehow be these preachy, boring films, filled with talking heads and dull educational or information material. Films should be exciting, regardless of one’s intent. My editor, Lasse Jarvi, and I put just as much time and thought into creating the narrative structure of Surfwise as any screenwriter would on a screenplay, we cut and recut the dialog and the scenes hundreds of times until they felt compelling and true, we carefully sculpted John Dragonetti’s music score together with Dave Homcy’s cinematography in a way that would take the viewer beyond the interviews and scenics to try to create a visceral experience. Fiction or non, all filmmaking is manipulation of creative elements to try to tell a greater truth. I love that process.