If I had to pick an overall feeling for this year’s CPH:DOX I’d have to call it skepticism. Apply that towards gov’t (Citizenfour) or creative convention (the works of Oppemheimer) or industry practice (any damn forum this year), and you can feel the restlessness in the room.
I have to say that J. Oppenheimer’s masterclass was refreshing, if only because he makes a point of addressing the artifice of filmmaking no matter the genre, and the “contract” that exists between audience and filmmakers that implicitly allow suspension of disbelief. Of course folks are aware of a camera in the room. Of course they’ll behave differently than they normally would. And it’s absurd to assume otherwise.
What’s amazing and ultimately controversial about the Act of Killing is that Oppenheimer amps up the artifice. Somewhere down the line he made the decision to push reality into self-described “fever dream” territory, to try and bring the viewer into the emotionally vulnerable state that would be more elusive using straight up, fly on the wall documentary techniques.
But I’m doing a disservice to a far more involved description of his process. Instead get a taste of his articulate discourse here.
So what’s the message? Get the audience where you want them to go by whatever means necessary? Conventions are limited so forget ‘em?
I think it’s more about never forgetting that documentary, no matter how activist in nature, no matter how grave the subject, is ultimately an act of creative expression. And by extension, the tools need to be as flexible as an individual’s creativity.
There’s a reason why so much of the conference at the festival revolves around technology, platforms, and, as Tribeca guru and industry big wig Ingrid Kopp puts it, the “participants formerly known as the audience.” Ms Kopp assaulted our brains the other night in a talk about the sandbox that currently exists, in part shared by both creators and participants, and the innovation that’s both driving and being driven by that collaboration. (tech-geekoid-long distance folks check out their Hackpad workspace for samples of what Tribeca works with)
Tribeca’s viewfinder is pointed solidly forward, but not at the expense of what’s driving it that way. Every leap that’s come before, every restless urge that birthed the moving image, the radio, print, the internetwhatever, is firmly represented in everything that’s come since, and very little of it is altogether gone. It’s been absorbed into the fold and used to forge something new. What the hell is the internet? It’s a huge hybrid thingy with insane potential. Bearing that in mind should act as a soothing balm to whomsoever is terrified at the prospect of “losing” an art form.
Especially storytellers. The problem (or my problem anyway) when I think about new platforms or evolving media is that I spent a long time perfecting a craft. Now I have to throw that away? Learn some new stuff that just might be a flash in the pan? “No way!”
So when I figure on the evolution of film artistry itself, I feel a lot better. I wouldn’t want to see Grey Gardens made today, but nor could it have been made with the same panache even ten years earlier than it was. We’re talking about 1975. There was a zeitgeist not just in doc, but in film in general, auteur voices being found in what I consider a golden age of craft. If I try and imagine what it would look like as a doc made now, I shudder.
Unless maybe it was made as something other than a traditional film.
Could it be a web series? A home movie style collection that delves deeper as they get more comfortable? How much more flamboyant might they become if they were getting the regular feedback not just from filmmakers, but from the audience?
Maybe it’s something else.
That’s just one example off the top of my head, but the point is, especially in doc, there’s a tendency I’ve noticed to fall back on “purity” tropes, or some nonsense attitude that truth needs to be reflected in a naturalistic approach. I’m skeptical.
Listening to a panel on audience and empathy, I was struck by the choice of speakers. There was Brian Chirls, deep tech guru from POV. Closer to earth was Kerstin Uberlacker from We have a Plan, from Malmo, talking about the trials and tribulations of audience building for her project Ghost Rockets. And then there were the guys from Copenhagen’s Wooloo. Still wrapping my head around what they do, but short version: these dudes recruit their audience from the streets an turn the collaborations that come from it into art installations. “Art that costs nothing,” as they put it, and it’s hard not to get interested in that. So a full spectrum, from the peaks of binary right down to bubble gum on the soles of your shoes. What’s the connection? They’re trying new stuff. They’re not only telling the stories they see, but they’re involving folks in the process, affecting not only how many people see what they do, but what they actually do.
And that’s probably what I think is most interesting. The fact that the audience, users, whatever the hell you want to call them, actually play a role in what we put out. I appreciate the unexpected a lot, part of the reason why I love documentary. You’d have to decide the limits of how participatory you want your story to be, but the options are out there, and the truth is it’s a great way to boost your audience.
Ingrid Kopp scared the hell out of me by saying something that I already knew: there is no way for the market to support the volume of documentaries that we’re making. Take a look at any festival catalogue and it’s clear as day. Despair, or use the occasion as an opportunity to reinvent yourself. Maybe both.
I’ve spent lots of time alone in editing rooms. Too goddamn much of it really. I’ve gotten stuck sometimes on that “purity” angle of storytelling. But I’m jazzed by the potential of what this new sandbox can achieve. Don’t get me wrong, I’m terrified by the financial models, or absence of, for the time being, but that’s the thing with sandboxes; they’re for playing in. And the skeptics: they keep the sandbox real, so welcome.