Breaking the doco mould

Dan Edwards

For a film culture to remain vibrant it needs figures who break the mould, push our buttons and challenge our unconscious ideas of what is and what should be. So it is heartening in these conservative times to see a group of local academics and filmmakers explicitly celebrating non-conformity as an ethical, aesthetic and political choice. The symposium, Documentary: The Non-Conformists, brought together a diverse, passionate group of thinkers and filmmakers to discuss, debate and interrogate the notion of non-conformity in the documentary realm.

In keeping with the theme, the symposium was structured around the work of 2 brazenly original documentary makers whose films are rarely seen in Australia. Britain’s Brian Hill is best known for films which startlingly combine song, music and poetry in their depiction of contemporary social milieux. The second international guest filmmaker was Kazuo Hara, whose small but highly provocative body of work has made him something of a cult figure in his home country of Japan and beyond.

The symposium opened with a screening of Hill’s Drinking for England, which set the tone for the weekend. His work is so original and so different from other documentary forms that it is difficult to describe. Hill’s methodology gives an indication: he selects a topic, such as Britain’s drinking culture, finds a small group of people on whom to focus and conducts a set of videotaped interviews. His collaborator, British poet Simon Armitage, then listens to the subjects’ speech patterns and phrasing, and composes verse that manages to both express and comment upon their views and way of life. After consultation and occasional rewrites, the subjects then perform Armitage’s words as verse or song in sequences that Hill skilfully inter-cuts with his interview material.

It’s an approach that sounds dubious and almost unworkable on paper, yet across 4 films Hill has managed to create an engrossing and stylistically challenging body of contemporary documentary work. Due to the TV-friendly one-hour length of most of his films, symposium attendees were able to see 4 of Hill’s documentary “musicals” and examine the evolution of his style from the relatively straight observational approach of 1996’s Saturday Night, to the confronting subject matter and highly performative story-telling of 2002’s Feltham Sings and last year’s Pornography—The Musical.

In contrast to Hill’s audacious mixing of styles, Hara’s work initially appears more conventional. Over the course of the 2 films screened at the symposium, however, it became apparent that his approach is a kind of cinema verité gone to hell and back. The filmmaker follows his subjects with such unrelenting intensity that the camera’s gaze itself begins to dissolve all notions of an identifiable line between representational truth and fiction, and reality.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1986) proved a fitting introduction to Hara’s style. The filmmaker followed former Private Okuzaki Kenzo as he tracked down and interrogated members of his old army unit which was left surrounded, abandoned and starving in what is now West Papua during the final months of the Second World War. Okuzaki is an infamous figure in Japan, having served 10 years in prison for hurling a set of pachinko balls at the Emperor during the leader’s New Year address to the nation in 1968. His raison d’être is to force the Emperor and former officers of Japan’s Imperial Army to take responsibility for what was done to private soldiers during the war.

However, Hara’s films are anything but journalistic investigations seeking to uncover the “truth” of the past. Rather, they interrogate the nature of memory, illustrating that all recollection is a discourse written in the mind of the individual. In The Emperor’s Naked Army Okuzaki’s haranguing of old soldiers produces a series of sickening accounts of the events that took place in West Papua, including allegations that Japanese privates were shot to provide food for their starving officers. But we have no way of substantiating the veracity of these stories as the former soldiers equivocate, shift blame, refuse to speak or recount events to which they themselves were not witness. Memories falter as they forget, lie and refuse to admit what they did and saw. When they do speak, it is only with the threat of violence from Okuzaki.

Just as the soldiers’ accounts are full of gaps and elisions, the documentary itself has many ellipses: at one point Hara and Okuzaki visit West Papua, but an intertitle explains the Indonesian authorities who now control the area confiscated all the filmmaker’s footage. Similarly, at the end of the film, Okuzaki takes it upon himself to attempt to murder the officer formally in charge of his unit. After Hara hesitates about filming such an act, Okuzaki goes ahead alone, providing a narrative climax the film is only able to sketch through newspaper headlines. In this way the form of The Emperor’s Naked Army embodies the thematic meditation on the mutability of recollection. At the heart of the film is the notion of absence: the absence of certain scenes, of the old soldiers’ unspoken knowledge and the details they have forgotten. And the entire work is haunted by the absence of Japan’s millions of war dead, evoked in shrines, graves and the sepia photographic portraits of deceased comrades that Okuzaki obsessively clutches throughout much of the film.

Hara’s A Dedicated Life (1994) similarly focuses on a subject to the point where all notions of a stable truth are destroyed. The film began as an account of the life of Japanese novelist Mitsuharu Inoue, but in the course of shooting the writer contracted cancer, physically deteriorated and passed away. We watch him reminisce about his early life as he begins to die, only to realise some two-thirds of the way into the film that the interviews with his childhood acquaintances contradict almost everything Inoue has said. Hara commented after the film that he had nearly finished shooting A Dedicated Life before he realised it was not about Inoue’s life story, but the reality of the fictional world in which the writer lived.

Although markedly different on the surface, the works of Hara and Hill share a crucial common element. For both filmmakers the process of investigating and exploring a subject constitutes the final work. They employ an open, porous process in which their interaction with the subject works its way into the film, not necessarily through overtly reflexive devices, but by guiding the very shape and direction of the work as it is made. During one of the weekend’s many panel discussions, local filmmaker Kriv Stenders described a similar approach in making his award-winning 1995 documentary Motherland.

Film for these directors is a medium through which they subjectively interact with the world, rather than a way of recording a pre-established dramatic or documentary “truth.” The approach is non-conformist to the extent that the filmmaker doesn’t know how the finished work will look, or even what it will ultimately be about.

In providing a forum which brought filmmakers and theorists together to debate questions of form, the organisers of The Non-Conformists symposium marked out a space that is sorely lacking in local film culture. All too often debates about the direction of our industry remain centred on funding structures and the market. Just as we need monetary structures to grease the mechanics of production, we need public forums in which we can ask questions and be surprised, intrigued and provoked by what film can do.

Department of Media, Macquarie University and the Centre for Screen Studies, AFTRS, Documentary: The Non-Conformists, Chauvel Cinema and AFTRS, Sydney; September 10-12

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 22

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2004