I have been exploring documentaries in the last few years. In this post, I present definitions, characteristics, and seminal examples of avant-garde, poetic, and experimental documentary films as well as my own cinematic works to illustrate the discussion.
The documentary film is a ‘re-presentation of found reality in the recorded document’ (Cowie, 2011, p. 19). Documentary film practice tends to have the following ‘rhetorical/aesthetic functions’ (Renov, 2013, p. 21): ‘(1) to record, reveal, or preserve; (2) to persuade or promote; (3) to analyze or interrogate; (4) to express’ (p. 21). This genre’s common forms are ‘the observational, poetic, essayistic, investigative or explorational’ (Macdonald & Cousins, 1998, p. 311).
John Grierson’s oft-cited definition of the documentary film as the ‘creative treatment of actuality’ (1979, p. 25), which he pronounced in 1929 (Hilderbrand, 2009, p. 2), attests to the creative potential of the genre. Early in the history of film, different sub-genres of documentaries that push the boundaries of the genre have occurred in many places, for example, direct cinema in the US, cinéma vérité in France, the Free Cinema group in England, and the Cinema Novo movement in Brazil (McLane, 2012, pp. 219-20).
In the observational documentary, Green (2013), I used the direct cinema style to re-familiarize myself with my family who immigrated to the United States eight years before the time that I was able to start visiting them. As a result of this process of behavioral study through filmmaking, this documentary intimately portrays a phenomenology of Filipino American experience as well as my personal perspective as an outsider looking in.
… a full-length cinema verite docu, part-travelogue, part memory piece, that is so honest in its rendering, so emotional in its delivery, GREEN stands as a signature work for documenting Filipino immigrant life in America. Bravo!Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr, Filipino American Cine (FACINE) Festival Director
Three sub-genres in documentary epitomize the expressive aesthetic function mentioned above; namely, the poetic documentary, the avant-garde documentary, and the experimental documentary.
The ‘poetic documentary’ (Barnouw, 1983, p. 190) is exemplified by Arne Sucksdorff’s visually poetic nature documentaries, e.g., Gull!/Trut! (1944) – about the ‘ruthless plundering by an egg-stealing species of gull’ (Barnouw, 1983, p. 187) – which was ‘widely interpreted as a parable of Nazism’ (p. 187). Classifiable also as poetic documentaries are the works of Robert Flaherty – e.g., Nanook of the North (1922) – who, most sources agree, was ‘the documentary film’s first poet as well as itinerant ethnographer’ (Renov, 2013, p. 32). These have the ‘ability to unleash the visual epiphany’ (Renov, 2013, p. 34), thus affirming that ‘there need to be no exclusionary relations between documentation and artfulness’ (p. 34).
The poetic documentary Study 14: Academic Oval, a Meditation (2018) features my alma mater, the University of the Philippines-Diliman (BA Psych, MA Film) as a haven for intellectual curiosity. In this film, the walk by the invisible but cinematic experiencer opens a gateway towards a contemplation of meaningful objects and scenes that make up university life. It takes us back to a time when we first learned about the realities of the larger social and human conditions. It was a period of transformation, when everything was possible, when we realized that we could strive for a world that was more equal and just.
The European avant-garde in the late teens and twenties, which ‘rejected art as simple mimetic record’ (Saunders, 2010, p. 39), paved the way for the ‘avant-garde documentary’ (Macdonald & Cousins, 1998, p. 70). An example of this is the cycle of ‘city symphony’ (Renov, 2013, p. 33) films of the 1920s, which ‘declared their allegiance in varying degrees to the powers of expressivity in the service of historical representation’ (p. 33).
The city symphony film Study 15: Transit (2019) portrays commuter life on autopilot. It exhibits co-existing experiences within the city especially through the bus stops that act as tableaus. These momentary frames evoke a sense of yearning for interconnectedness; yet as the vehicle leaves the spot, the film also makes present the difficulty to achieve this resonance amidst the busy-ness of daily life and the business of living.
Within the domain of the avant-garde documentary is the ‘abstract documentary’ (Saunders, 2010, p. 40) as embodied by Ballet Mécanique (Fernand Léger, 1925), a ‘Cubist effort by the French painterly artist’(p. 40).
The abstract documentary Study 16: Morning Waltz (2019) interplays three elements: (1) dash cam footage of an early morning commute; (2) music that elevates the everyday routine into dance; and (3) video clips of space from the NASA Archives. It speaks to our occasional experience of transcendence when we do repetitive tasks. This trance-like state opens up possibilities for genuinely creative inspiration in both our inner and outer worlds.
The ‘experimental documentary’ (Hilderbrand, 2009, p. 3) is at the intersection of documentary and experimental practices – this ‘duality of actuality and creativity energizes artists to make work that is radically beautiful’ (p. 3). The element of experimentation in the experimental documentary ‘suggests, at the very least, a concern with form and mediation . . . something medium-specific and innovative in experimental documentary that relies upon visuality’ (Hilderbrand, 2009, p. 5).
Examples of experimental documentaries (Hilderbrand, 2009) are Black and White Trypps Number Three (Ben Russel 2007), Blue (Derek Jarman, 1993), Isle of Flowers (Jorge Furtado, 1989), Lost Book Found (Jem Cohen, 1996), My Life in Five Minutes (Allyson Mitchell, 2000), Sad Disco Fantasia (Steve Reinke, 2001), and The Third Memory (Pierre Huyghe, 2000) (p. 7).
Maya Deren’s A Study in Choreography for Camera (1946) and Stan Brackhage’s Mothlight (1963) can also be classified as experimental documentaries that offer ‘creative treatments of experience’ (Hilderbrand, 2009, p. 2) – an extension of Grierson’s ‘creative treatment of actuality’ description of the documentary film. Experimental documentaries like these actively engage the film spectators by letting them think and draw their ‘own conclusions, rather than explicitly suggesting the “right” answer’ (Hilderbrand, 2009, p. 10).
The experimental documentary Study 13: Classes Suspended (2017) portrays the experience of attending a protest as a universe in itself. The film organically intermingles constellations of realities – students, workers, children, street food vendors, activists, bystanders, artists, freethinkers, musicians, bicyclists, dogs, performers, priests and nuns, etc. – that compose the spirit of the political rally. Interweaving with this candid visuality are emotive public speech (e.g., chants, slogans, personal testimonies, instructions, hashtags, jokes) and music (e.g., protest songs, the national anthem, ethnic instrumentals). Ultimately, this film distills the insight that protest is a form of universal engagement with our fellow living beings whose hearts resonate hope for a more compassionate world.
In the experimental film, Twelve Hundred Miles (2015), I juxtapose scenes of Hong Kong and Beijing shot in 2014. It exhibits my perspective as a foreign postgraduate student who is faced with a strong need to understand the intricacies within Hong Kong and mainland China relations. Interacting with the poetry of Kristian Agustin, the HK-Beijing binary is made complex and nuanced by an interspersion of thematic photo-montages from Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Macau, Zhongshan, and Suzhou. The film consciously suspends an adversarial attitude between the two to allow the collective unconscious – invoked by cinematic visualizations of culture and history – to present alternative and more inspired ways of understanding.
- Barnouw, E. (1983). Documentary: A history of the non-fiction film, revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Cowie, E. (2011). Recording reality, desiring the real. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Grierson, J. (1979). Flaherty’s poetic Moana. In L. Jacobs, The documentary tradition (pp. 25-6). New York: Norton.
- Hilderbrand, L. (2009). Experiments in documentary: Contradiction, uncertainty, change. Millennium Film Journal, Spring 2009(51), 2-10.
- Macdonald, K., & Cousins, M. (1998). Imagining reality: The Faber book of documentary. London: Faber and Faber.
- McLane, B. A. (2012). A new history of documentary film. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.
- Renov, M. (2013). Art, documentary as art. In B. Winston, The documentary film book (pp. 346-52). London: British Film Institute.
- Saunders, D. (2010). Documentary. Oxon and New York: Routledge.