Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Winged Migration: Truth, Lies, and Documentary Somewhere in Between.

Since the beginning of film, documentaries have been inextricably linked to truth. Even in the earliest days of the film medium's infancy, alongside films that told stories, our curiosity for the real world brought us "actualities," the precursor to today's documentaries and reality TV. In fact, cinema's first audiences were for these early docs. Unlike fiction-film, actualities were unstaged, "slices of life," that brought the camera to the subject and watched life as it happened rather than bringing the subject to the camera and making the subject 'perform' in an artificial environment. These actualities were presented with such shocking realism that when the Lumière brothers (the world's first documentarians) screened Train Arriving at a Station, in the late 19th century, the audience shrieked and ducked for fear that the train coming toward them would hit them all.

The early 20th century brought us the predecessors to newsreels, called "kino-pravda" (truth cinema), from Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, and documentaries called "cinéma verité" (also truth cinema) from the French. Already the genre was established as a means of documenting and delivering truth, but by 1898 filmmakers had also already begun to fake and reconstruct life in documentaries.

And so we come to my dislike of the documentary genre. I know, some of you who don't know this are surprised. After all I did work on a doc (10mph), something I am quite proud of. But what I know now is that there are different kinds of docs, and some I like and some I don't.

You might say that I have an overdeveloped sense of right and wrong and lies and deception are a particular subset of this morality that I have always felt very strongly about. I am sure this has something to do with a lie I told as a child that took me several haunted years to finally confess. I am virtually incapable of lying to this day and when I find out I have been deceived, it is intolerable.

Additionally, anything that challenges my concept of truth is difficult for me to handle. For instance, early in my college career I learned that "gravity" in the traditional sense, was just a concept that we tell children because it is easier to grasp than what scientists believe to be true. They say, there is no such force as gravity. In actuality, it has something to do with the way space bends around the planet that keeps us here. Like the dent you create it a mattress when you lie on it - as my genius, science-teaching brother-in-law describes it. And if you dropped a marble on the mattress anywhere near your body, it would roll towards you. Seems simple enough, right?

While the other college kids dozed off in class, my eyes grew wide with anger. How could they do this to me? How could I have been lied to my whole life? No such thing as gravity? This is monumental! This is outrageous! The conspiracy is so widespread! Parents, books, even kindergarten teachers are in on it! But as the pressure grew in my chest, the other kids' eyes stayed vacant and heads continued to bow lower and lower.

When I was a preteen or so, I saw a documentary on TV. Strange that I continued to watch, because I had always found documentaries as tedious as the worst of history classes. But watch I did. The doc was a doc on docs and to what degree many of them are... faked! They showed the extreme cases, such as a doc that tried to expose the horrendous (but ficticious) practices of eskimos who skinned baby seals alive. Do you know this completely despicable crew actually skinned a baby seal alive themselves to make the fakery complete? Their agenda to make the eskimos stop seal-hunting was more important to them than committing a cruel and disgusting act themselves.

The doc I was watching also showed the other end of the spectrum. They showed editors editing video of a cheetah chasing a rabbit. The filmmakers of the nature doc wanted to show the chase, but they didn't have such footage, so they manufactured it themselves by taking footage of a cheetah running and a rabbit running (in two separate locations), adding some voiceover, and some sound effects and hey presto! They had a cheetah chasing a rabbit. This may not seem bad to you, but to me, this was worse than finding out there was no Santa Clause. They were lying to me. Constructing and shaping their story, just like they would with a Hollywood movie, piecing together shots and sounds they liked and presenting a version, their version, of reality but presenting it as if it were absolute and true.

Some of you may be thinking that documentaries need not be so strict in their means of depicting of truth. And for you there are films like Winged Migration. But let's, for a moment, consider the relationship between art and truth a little further.

Since the beginning of art, man (and woman) has struggled between the need to document and the need to create - think cave paintings. These seemingly conflicting needs continued through art history to the development of film. And as technique and technology allowed for further realism, the struggle grew stronger. In fact the innovation in photography by Muybridge that led to the invention of moving pictures was created to settle a bet and record, as proof, the foot patterns of a horse galloping. Without that need to provide absolute proof as motivation, the motion picture may never have been invented. On the other hand, André Bazin (film theorist) said that the perfect synthesis of moving images and sound to record reality as it is was something the human race was destined to create. He believed that there was some kind of need and desire to document fully that precipitated the invention of film, and this "myth of total cinema," as he called it, has been around since the dawn of man.

However, other critics, such as Rudolf Arnheim have argued that film as an artform must strive to do more than merely duplicate. That duplication is something a machine is capable of, whereas art is not. But is this true? Yes, I personally prefer styles that do more than duplicate. But I also believe that film is inherently a creative medium, rather than one of mere reproduction. Because in order to produce a film, even if capturing real life as it is, it must be visually composed and edited. We can minimize the director's effects on a film, by, say, removing the edits, but he (and the director of photography) still decided where, when, and how to point the camera, and he (and the editor) still decided when to begin and end the shot(s). So you see, film cannot be made without having been structured and filtered through someone's perspective.

So, if this is true, why get all bent up about the fact that documentaries are not absolute truth, after all they are told from someone's perspective, right? Right, but I believe that person should either be open about the fact that they are presenting this topic as heavily filtered (this is my story a la Michael Moore, or 10mph), reconstructed (like crime shows that flash "dramatic reenactment" across the screen), or even faked (mocumentaries are usually so over the top that their artifice is clear), or they should do everything in their power to record truth as objectively as possible. Otherwise how can the medium retain credibility? How else can we believe what they tell us?

Enter Winged Migration (Perrin, 2001). The film begins by following a small bird around a french, countryside home. In the barn, by the river, etc.. As I watch it, I smile to myself and think, "I know this bird is actually comprised of different birds that have been edited together to appear as if we are following the story of one bird." But the imagery is so beautiful, the bird is so sweet, and the close ups are so unusual in a nature documentary, that I just delight in the image. Soon we begin to see the remarkable shots of entire flocks of birds in flight, shot from alongside them, up close and personal. These are the shots I rented this film for. This is the truly wondrous sight I had heard about. Wow! I kept saying. I was enthralled with the serene and almost zen sensation I felt watching this marvelous vision. I was taken in by it for about 5 or 10 minutes, until I started to think about the mechanics of the shots. I knew they were using some kind of small flight contraption like a glider plane or something to get the shots, but what about the sound? How so perfect? Yes, even if it is a glider plane it is supposed to be very quiet, but what about the birds, we can hear them. Surely their quacks and honks would be inaudible over the winds whipping by them! Something is amiss here. Initially, I believe that they have some very good audio equipment, as the synching of the birds with their sounds is so convincing. Then I think, no, there is no way no matter how good the equipment, it is too perfect. They have sound effects being added. I sigh and settle again into the bliss of watching these birds as humans have never before seen them. That is until about a third-way through the movie, when I pick up on other tell-tale signs of forgery: Shots are too perfect. Almost choreographed. How did they get the birds flying across the screen so perfectly instead of flying immediately offscreen? Wow! What luck! I coo the first couple of times, but there is only so much luck I can believe. Not only does it appear as if the birds' flights are choreographed, but now and again, I have to wonder if birds (and props) have been planted in unlikely places, since some shots make me ask things like: what are they doing there, and why are they crossing the street?

I know, I know. I am different that most. First, because I sometimes think about the mechanics of shots. Second, because I care about this level of fakery. But doesn't this on some level upset you? Don't you feel deceived in the slightest? This doc, although arguably nearly not a doc as it was nearly all just imagery and nearly no narration, is telling you where and how far the birds migrate, showing you the paths they take. Telling it to you as gospel. But it is not. I was distracted, for this reason, throughout the rest of the film. I quickly jabbed at the buttons on my remote at the film's conclusion. Must check special features, see how this was done! To my dismay, it was even worse than expected. The birds we saw featured in the film were of several flocks of different breeds that had been the subjects of filial imprinting, allowing the filmmakers to be not only close to them at any time, but to also become their "wranglers" and effectively direct them, to some extent. Not only this, but the birds were taken by plane to the shoot locations and released when the camera was ready. They weren't just on their typical migratory path and the filmmakers weren't just along for the ride as the film seemed to have us believe. Furthermore, the director admitted to having included a shot of the birds flying where they wouldn't normally fly (even thought the film was about the migratory paths of the birds) simply because it was a recognizable, French landmark, and the shot was too compelling to omit. So if that shot wasn't accurate or "true", what else wasn't? Do you see what I mean here? Am I all alone?

Honestly I don't care how constructed it is if it isn't presented as though it were the truth of actual reality. This film even stated in the opening titles that "none of the shots of the birds were faked." I suppose, for the most part, that depends on perspective. They did really do something remarkable and groundbreaking in their methods. They really were up there with the birds and didn't rely on CGI to make it all happen, and gosh is it all successful in that regard. Still, it was constructed. And there were at least two shots in the film that are impossible without CGI (involving what seems to be composited images of birds and shots of earth from space). And they showed us how they planted the birds and, indeed, some props, and told us that some shots weren't exactly accurate. Is that not faking?

After all was said and done though, the images were beyond belief, they were just so gorgeous. Even with my intolerance for lies, I still absolutely loved the experience of watching the film. Ultimately the images were so stellar, they made me forgive the deception.

Incidentally, a non-deceptive version of this film would have been possible (and in my mind, arguably better) if they hadn't presented it as a nature doc. They could have just presented it as a collection of amazing shots and let them stand for themselves, instead of pairing them with sparse narration and titles. And in that case, they also could have easily done without the sound effects. The music was fantastic anyway. If they had let us appreciate the film for what it was, it could have been just (if not more) remarkable.

Back to the full blog...


Colleen said...

I just took this movie off of Pierce's amazon wishlist. Is there any documentary that is true anymore?

What about that ballroom dancing doc that everyone is loving right now? Give me the scoop on that one!

Elisabeth said...

Well, I guess what I was trying to say about WM is that it may be faked, and that upsets me to a degree, but it is still worthwhile viewing. Besides, the narration and titling is so sparse that you do forget you are even watching a doc at times.

Is there any documentary that is true anymore? I supposed this depends on what 'true' means to you. To some people, WM is true. To many people, the manufactured cheetah-rabbit chase is true (because it is something that does occur between those two species). And, like I said, this fakery has existed since the very early days of docs. My dislike for the genre is rooted in the fact that it is arguably impossible for it to be unbiased, objective truth. Yet people watch them as if they were receiving gospel. So I guess I just prefer the docs that are highly personal, so that lack of objectivity is put to good use instead of fought.

I once had an assignment to make a short doc in a film class. At the time, not yet realizing that there are different sub-genres, I hated the genre (and all of it) with such passion that I made a film of protest instead. The prof said that, as long as the film functioned as a doc, I could screw up the image and sound as much as I wanted, so I did. What I ended up with was actually one of my best films to date. It was a personal film about my relationship with lies and deceit. And it was really something. The professor was amazed with what I had created. But he said that the sound had so many layers to cover up my speech (part of my protest against the genre), that the original speech was mostly inaudible, and therefore couldn't function as a doc, not even an experimental one. I still got a very good grade. We made it my final video project instead, and I had to do an extra assignment to make up for breaking the rules. Ahhh... I miss having the kind of audacity that kids have and the lack of limits they see.

You know, I didn't care for Mad Hot Ballroom at all. Not because of truth issues, but because it was just poorly made. At the end George and I just looked at each other with blank faces. Sooooo..... were they saying something? I didn't feel like I had learned anything about the dance program they described, and there was no sort of feeling of conclusion. Basically the filmmakers took an interesting topic and then went nowhere with it.

I will have to think of some docs (other than 10mph!) that I can recommend. Though, like I said, I am really more a fan of the experimental subset of the genre. I guess I will have to get back to you.

Teddi said...

"There is no spoon." People make up their own truth pretty much every step of the way...especially in film and photography. Keith and I have had drawn out argu-discussion-ments (lol) about reality tv. He is furious that it isn't really what's happening. It doesn't make me mad at all because it's just so obvious that it isn't complete reality. It's pretty much the same with everything. Why even get upset about it anymore? I don't even believe the news anymore.

Teddi said...

...although the news being false and leading does make me mad.

Colleen said...

See that's the thing - as someone who knows beans about the film industry I always thought a doc was true. Granted it is the filmaker's truth (like Supersize Me), but I still expect the shots and all that to be true.

The Spelling Bee one got a lot of critical acclaim - can't think of the title right now though.

Keep up with this blog Elisabeth - it is great!

Elisabeth said...

Haven't seen that one yet - but it is in the Netflix queue. Also heard Murderball was good.

Teddi - I don't watch the news in part for that reason. I can't even truly trust the stories they do on the death of a neighborhood pet, or whatever, let alone global news. I know that some of reality TV is manufactured. Hell, the situations themselves are totally contrived. But I also don't like it when it is obvious to me that conversations are manufactured. When they piece them together different parts, and put facial expressions in where they didn't originally occur to make it look like something is going on in a conversation that really didn't. I don't care what other editing they do to slant things one way or another, but it does bother me when they put elements together that just don't belong together. Then it also makes me think of the times that they are better at it, and I don't notice.


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