The personality problems of documentarians

Catherine Gough-Brady talks to Sherine Salama and Wim and Donata Wenders

Sherine Salama, A Wedding in Ramallah

Sherine Salama, A Wedding in Ramallah

Documentary filmmakers are emerging as a distinct character type in popular culture. In society’s continual search for heroes, the documentarian has done badly. Last year in Joanna Murray-Smith’s play Rapture the documentarian was a female, a failure, incompetent, righteous and untalented. The popular English mockumentary series People Like Us featured Roy Mallard (Chris Langham)—the man who bumbled every story and interview he attempted to cover. In many ways the documentarian has taken over the tarnished image of the writer as a poverty-stricken, egocentric, patron-seeking whinger. Move aside Woody Allen, Robert Flaherty’s descendants have come to claim your role.

So what do the documentary makers have to say in their own defence? Do they deserve their tainted image? I spoke to guests of the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) which will be held this year at Byron Bay.

Sherine Salama

Sherine Salama, recent AFI winner, rejects the anti-heroic image: “I think of myself less as a ‘documentary filmmaker’ and more as the person who has made Australia Has No Winter and A Wedding in Ramallah. Rather than any thought of forging a ‘career,’ there was a lot of personal history, chance, idealism and practical expediency that led me to embark on each film. In each case there were stories that reflected themes in my own life such as cultural dislocation and inter-generational conflict, stories that couldn’t be contained by journalism—the career I had forged. In different circumstances I might have chosen to write a novel or a play, but having been exposed to powerful documentaries that struck a chord with me—[Dennis] O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours, David and Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer’s Grey Gardens—documentary seemed an appropriate outlet for my creative urges.”

When I ask who the documentarian is, she says, “I don’t feel the need to construct a character—I think I am pretty transparent. The fact is, if I wasn’t myself, I wouldn’t meet the people who appear in my films, and gain their trust.”

But Salama is not naïve: “At times I also included [the interaction between the subject and myself in A Wedding in Ramallah] because not to do so would be dishonest. I don’t believe in the observational filmmaking that pretends the filmmaker doesn’t exist, that his or her presence isn’t felt. I was therefore quite happy to include Mariam’s comment to Sinora about me—’What a slut this woman is’—although I was advised to remove it.

Maybe the documentarian’s tainted image stems from including those awkward relationships with their characters in their films. You can’t discuss the image, especially [the documentarian’s] appearance in their own films, without mentioning O’Rourke who made The Good Woman of Bangkok and Cannibal Tours—an inspiration to Salama. In his book The Filmmaker and the Prostitute O’Rourke says, “…for it to work, the filming process must be an ordeal of contact with perceived reality—I must place myself within the flux of what I am attempting to film” and “the film includes a character—’the filmmaker’—who reflects me and others of my race and class, gender and profession, but who is not me….”

Unlike Salama, O’Rourke constructs a character or stereotype for himself. We may see him on screen, but we will not ‘know’ the man by the end of the film, though I imagine he hopes we’ll ‘know’ the other characters, his subjects. His intention is, in part, to rail against the image of the documentarian as cultural hero, a knight in shining camera armour. But to do so, he invents a fictional O’Rourke.

Wim Wenders

Does Wim Wenders agree with O’Rourke’s move against the heroic documentarian? Wenders makes both fiction films, for example Paris Texas and documentaries like The Buena Vista Social Club. I asked him what the documentarian would be like if he wrote such a character into a film.

Wenders speculated that, “I would write him or her into my script as some sort of detective, in the best sense of that profession: a searcher of truth, against all of his or her own interests, unconditional in his/her approach.”

I wonder if he’s being polite, as he is about to spend 3 days with documentarians at AIDC. And I’m not sure I agree—documentarians are endlessly searching for story and artifice in the real world, not Truth. They are also endlessly including their own selves and interests in the work, whether as blatantly as O’Rourke, or less overtly like Salama; they have too much at stake in the film—money, reputation etc. Because I believe that documentarians search for story I asked he what relationship he saw between fiction and documentary storytelling.

Wenders replied, “I’m not interested in ‘pure fiction.’ My films are all partly documentary, especially the fictional ones. In the course of a fictional film you always get into situations that you could never have dreamed of when you were sitting behind your typewriter working on the script. I love it when the truth of a situation just carries you far away from what you had first envisioned. And the truth can be so much stranger than fiction…On the other hand, making a documentary, you have to be aware of the fact that you might be witnessing a story, and that that story might sweep you away. Before you know it you’re in the middle of the river with the little boat that is your movie and all that’s left for you to do is not have it sink.”

There it is: he speaks of truth when talking about fiction and story when talking about documentary.

Donata Wenders

Wender’s partner, Donata, also a conference guest, works in the related field of still photography. Unfazed by the word ‘Truth’ which seems to haunt documentarians she says, “I see myself as someone who is trying to learn more and to be a more loving observer. I am not a journalist, and ‘lying’ is not an issue for me. I find cropping legitimate, for example, as I am not interested in ugly surroundings. Which does not mean that I would replace them with a Photoshopped image! That does not make sense for me. I could never produce with Photoshop what I am looking for: the hope of that person, the gentleness, the trust, the self-forgotten attitude…I am looking for a glimpse of the inner mood of a person, his or her attitude towards life, moments that have more to do with the expression of the heart of that person.”

No all-embracing truth, or constructed fiction, just fragments of an ever-changing world. Maybe it isn’t the interface with the real world that brings about documentarians’ struggle with Truth, maybe it’s the search for story.

Wim Wenders says, “editing a documentary is a much more complicated business than editing a feature film. To find the logic of images, and to provide them with a coherent form, all that’s much harder than on a feature.” And he views his camera differently from Donata: “The camera is a weapon against the tragedy of things, against their disappearing.”

A story

Now it’s time to tell a story, make you suffer the interference of my contact with perceived reality, because writing is also a weapon against the tragedy of things. As I write, pelicans wander around their little island as confused as me on the shore. It is 4:05pm and the sky is pink-black. There is no more day—the smoke from the fires in Canberra has put out the sun. Ash is everywhere, even in the sea. And the radio urges me to preserve my freedom by dobbing in my Middle-Eastern neighbours.

The documentarian or the writer could take these fragments and form a story (or find the truth). But it is the half-artist, half-journalist who reminds us of our suspect behaviour and breaks though the cloud of smoke we call society to see that purple has become pink in the red haze. There is some dignity in this role. It is unique. As German writer Albrecht Goes says, “People have forgotten. And things must indeed be forgotten, for how could anyone who cannot forget live? But from time to time there must be someone there who remembers.”

Australian International Documentary Conference, Byron Bay, Feb 16-20, to be followed by the Byron Bay Film Festival

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 16

© Catherine Gough-Brady; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2003