Have you ever noticed how someone’s often credited with having written a documentary? Documentaries by their very nature are meant to be documents. We expect films documenting something to come with a level of objectivity in order to be taken seriously as an argument or coverage of a subject, person, issue, event or ideology.
The idea that someone could have written it into existence suggests that there’s a guiding hand. Perhaps the view that documentaries are objective at all is the naive and rose-tinted view that permeates society. While aware of biases, I was of the opinion that most documentary film-makers are trying to capture truth in a bottle… encapsulating the for and against factors of a particular subject or cause. There are enough examples of this to reinforce the point that many documentarians are aiming for this level of purity, however it’s not the norm.
Much like film, gripping documentaries follow a certain pattern and need to hit points along the way to keep a viewer invested. Most documentaries are less than the running time of a feature film, often because to keep a viewer’s interest in a piece of infotainment requires great dexterity and skill. As with almost every creative endeavor whether marketing or film-making, people want to know what the story is… Call it a buzz word of the current age or a thread that connects us with a tradition passed down by our ancestors, there’s great power at the heart of a good story.
Documentarians come at this from a great variety of angles. Sam Soko decided to turn a 5 minute YouTube video into a full-length documentary in Softie spending over 5 years documenting the political awakening of a photographer turned activist who decided to run for government. As he expressed in a recent interview at the Durban Film Mart, there wasn’t a script… Soko started in search of the story.
To this end, Softie is actually one of the most pure examples of a documentary out there. Having accumulated over 600 hours of footage, the editing job was a monstrous as they whittled down years of documenting into a 96 minute runnning time. Without a script, the film-maker found his story through his engagement with the subject. He may have become involved and influential as a documentarian constantly filming these events, but they all happened.
Then you get documentary film-makers like Nicole Schafer whose journalistic coverage of a monastery in Malawi led to her documentary, Buddha in Africa. The strange dichotomy of a Buddhist centre for orphans that was essentially exchanging culutral indoctrination for food and shelter found the film-maker navigating between a rock and a hard place.
Her efforts to represent the balance were noble, giving both sides a great deal of respect and showing that there are no clear answers by following one of their most promising students over several years. Filming as soon as funding would allow, her expedition meant that she formed relationships with her subjects who weren’t simply pawns.
This shines through in the treatment, showing the monastery as it is… presenting the central dilemma and form of colonialism for what it is. While documentarians can plan their production, much of the writing actually happens in the editing room as stories are cobbled together based on the value of the footage and words.
Teboho Edkins took a different slant with Days of Cannibalism. The writer-director says you make the film three times… in the writing process, shooting of footage and finally in the editing room. His films covers the economic integration of Chinese business in Lesotho, a nation whose tradition of wealth has been connected to cattle.
Shooting the documentary with a fly-on-the-wall perspective he crafts a beautiful and even surreal film of many powerful scenes. As he revealed in a recent interview, some of the scenes are entirely in the moment while others were pure fiction. Days of Cannibalism has the feeling that it’s operating at a distance, capturing vivid moments of reality but it’s interspersed with some fictional elements to help it along.
A court room scene that sums up the central dilemma was shot as a piece of fiction because the documentary crew weren’t allowed to film actual court proceedings. It plays out beautifully and in keeping with the quality of the rest of the documentary but demonstrates that documentaries can be written.
Starting with or without a script, documentaries are strange beasts that can evolve over time. Often taking years to complete, constrained by funding or accessibility, they often start as a seedling and sprout into trees before branching out in new directions.
As with Cold Case Hammarskjöld, director Mads Brügger started on one quest and stumbled onto an entirely new conspiracy. Beginning his documentary as a blur between fact and fiction, it’s difficult to know just want to believe as yarn and truth co-exist as a gripping piece of entertainment. Blending fact and fiction, carrying certain viewpoints and trying to expose issues as a type of truth… it seems that one needs to access them based on every facet of the production to formulate the true intention and final destination.