Capturing Reality

The Art of Documentary

by Michael Curtis Nelson

17 November 2009

“Real life is so much more interesting and so much more bizarre than anything you can make up”.
cover art

Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary

Director: Pepita Ferrari
Cast: Werner Herzog, Kevin Macdonald, Errol Morris, Alanis Obomsawin, Jessica Yu

US DVD: 20 Oct 2009

In this excellent exploration of documentary film from the National Film Board of Canada, some of the best practitioners of the form provide thoughtful and enlightening commentary on their own and one another’s art.

Capturing Reality begins with a montage of its documentary filmmaker subjects prior to their interviews: they sit down, try to get comfortable, submit to being miked, drink water nervously. They appear awkward and anxious, concerned perhaps with the prospect of being in front of the camera for a change. We soon learn they have nothing to worry about; the segment stands in sharp contrast to subsequent shots of poised and articulate filmmakers discussing their craft.

By first showing her subjects in a vulnerable position, director Pepita Ferrari colors our reaction to them throughout the rest of the film, and thus cleverly foregrounds the question of how documentary filmmakers convey the truth, one of the most heatedly discussed topics in Capturing Reality.

Consisting of segments of individual interviews edited loosely into short sections focused on a series of topics (“becoming a filmmaker”, “where do ideas come from?”, “planning and preparation”, “the art of the interview”), along with clips from the documentaries subjects have made, Capturing Reality both shows and tells. Even though filmmakers were interviewed separately, editing in this fashion turns the film into a dialog among peers.

Many of the filmmakers admit to a kind of obsession with the topics of their films. For Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger) only a high degree of “personal curiosity” can justify “the very long, enervating process that is making a film”.Turning the banal into something exemplary motivates Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Murder on a Sunday Morning). Jennifer Fox (An American Love Story) recommends embarking on a documentary project only if you “can’t walk away” from the subject, while Nick Broomfield (Biggie and Tupac) finds himself “so intrigued” that he can’t turn back.

Ideas force themselves upon Werner Herzog like “unwanted guests” who leave him no choice but to make them into films. And for Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void), “Real life is so much more interesting and so much more bizarre than anything you can make up”.

Ferrari frequently uses clips from a filmmaker’s documentaries to illustrate her or his assertions, but sometimes illustrates or refutes a point made by one filmmaker with a clip from a documentary made by another, an effective strategy that underscores the impression that the film is a conversation. Paul Cowan (Paris 1919), for example, talks about the role of “serendipity” in finding film topics, how some just “come and land in your lap”. Capturing Reality then cuts from Cowan to a scene from Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance as its director Alanis Obomsawin, in voiceover, describes learning on her car radio about the shooting that led to the standoff documented by the film, driving directly to the scene, and deciding that it was her “duty” to make a film about it.

The filmmakers are at their most provocative when they discuss what counts as the truth in documentary film. In one segment, Nick Broomfield (Biggie and Tupac) cautions against rearranging items in an interviewee’s residence prior to shooting because it destroys important details about the subject’s life, while in the following segment Errol Morris insists that creating an office for a subject in Gates of Heaven, by allowing the subject to play at being the kind of person he wanted to be, augmented rather than diminished the authenticity of the interview.

While Scott Hicks (Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts) argues that “It is all manipulation”, that “anybody who tries to present themselves as telling the truth in some way is perpetrating a fraud”, Barry Stevens (Offspring) insists that documentary filmmakers have an “agreement” with audiences that they are “giving an account of evidence-based reality”, which he illustrates by reference to a scene from Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

After describing Dieter’s habit of opening and closing doors several times in rapid succession to make sure they are unlocked, evidence of the fear of confinement the man has from having been a prisoner in Laos, Stevens reveals that Herzog fabricated the tic and asked Dieter to carry it out. Stevens rather forcefully calls this admittedly “wonderful dramatization” “a lie”.

Observing that some facts are not “up for grabs”, Morris rejects the notion that there’s no objective reality. He nevertheless evinces a postmodern sense of the truth value of documentary film when he notes that “We piece together reality, each one of us, from bits and pieces of stuff. Reality isn’t handed to us whole”. What Morris, Stevens, and others seem to be getting at is a distinction between facts (which must be respected) and truth (the story the filmmaker tells), the result of what Herzog calls a search for more than “just the facts”: “a deeper insight”, “an ecstasy of truth”.

Other filmmakers define the reality of their films more narrowly than Herzog, but most insist that the medium is artistic, not argumentative. “Rather than telling people what to think… we’re taking them through an emotional experience”, says Kim Longinotto (Rough Aunties). “It’s an emotional medium”, according to Hicks; “It’s not a medium of intellect and intellectual discourse. It’s about engagement and emotion”. Searching for analogies to other arts, Peter Wintonick (Manufacturing Consent) compares making documentary film to choosing colors from a palette like a painter, while Serge Guguère (Driven by Dreams) likens his style to jazz composition built on variations on and departures from a theme.

Ferrari ends as she begins, with audio outtakes of subjects—who cough, ask for water, express confusion—that play as the credits roll. While all the filmmakers seemed to enjoy their opportunity to talk about their work, Ferrari leaves us with the feeling that they are all eager to get back behind the camera.

A second DVD offers four hours of additional interviews with the subjects of Capturing Reality, sorted both by filmmaker (each filmmaker’s section is divided into segments identified by topic in a submenu), and also by topics (“getting started”, “the shoot”, “editing”), each of which has its own submenu, featuring several directors discussing the topics. These are not cutting room scraps, but additional insightful commentary from the participants, and are well worth watching.

Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary


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