Steps toward new strategies

(I’ll rapidly refer to another example drawn from teaching practice, although I am not able to show a clip of images.)

I had another opportunity to confirm this idea with a group of almost absolute beginners in documentary filmmaking. They decided to film the work of trimmers chainsawing sycamore tree branches. I had asked them (again) to make ten-minute long shots with no camera movement. As they repeatedly tended to frame the workers balancing high in the trees with their chainsaws, I suggested they might shoot instead what happened on the ground below. I also asked them to delimit a reasonably narrow field. In their film, the frame was empty at first, then boughs started falling and banging down while the chainsaw’s sound remained off-screen; some other men entered the frame now and again to collect the timber. These events were indeed expectable, but the result was undoubtedly better. The most striking, and unexpected, event happened when a big limb fell out and rolled toward the camera, stopping dramatically not far from us in the image’s foreground.

In such a process, selecting a frame implies a twofold displacement, in space and time, so as to benefit the scene’s potential development. The camera person does not select what he or she immediately perceives, but rather anticipates in what place and at what moment something more may happen.

I want to borrow my last example from an Iranian short film: The Candidate (Mohammad Shirvani, 1999)—a provocative, hybrid treatment in which an old lady walks up to young women in the streets of Teheran with a photograph of her son, urging the women to marry him. The old lady is an actress, in league with the filmmaker. She wears a wireless microphone and makes her fictitious offer to “real,” unwary passers-by. At the end the scene suggest that her (supposed) son has in fact died in the war. The film’s first shot shows the following:

•In the background, the old breathless lady toils up some stairs, sits down for a pause then walks toward the camera.

•In the foreground, a couple formed by a soldier and a young woman enters the field. Due to the camera position and focal length, we first see their legs only, before they go across and down the stairs in the back.

The shot condenses and summarises the film argument. When I showed the film to a group of students, most declared that such a shot was “obviously staged.” Although I cannot pretend that this is “life caught unawares,” I am convinced it does not just result from mise en scène either. It rather comes about as a combination of accurately selecting the place, space and moment. Then the camerapeople had to wait for the secondary characters to appear (it may have been a stroke of luck that a soldier and a young woman came), and perhaps the shot entailed someone off-screen waving to the older woman to stand up and move on at the proper moment. A device, in other words, can be well adapted to seizing elements that are counted on, but not controlled—and mixing them with controlled events.

Filming the real implies creating opportunities by which it can enter the frame. In a more dialectical view of the hackneyed dilemmas of documentary—candidness, spontaneity, and veracity, versus staging, mastery, and expressivity—filming the real may require setting up formal, sometimes strict constraints that allow the upsurge of the unexpected, the variable, the unsettled within a concrete and symbolic frame which organizes and orders spontaneity’s meaning. The documentarist does not pretend to capture the unpredictable ingenuously. At the same time, there is no need to claim that everything is staged, that everything is fiction from the moment an artist intends to seize something of the real. From the point of view of the documentarist, things are less simple but richer. In this case, a documentary modus operandi can favour a dialectics of the spontaneous and the arranged.

The most fruitful documentary strategies consist of establishing protocols within which the real can befall.


1. This paper is based on (and developed from) a chapter of the author's book, A l'enseigne du réel - penser le documentaire, Publications de l'Université de Provence, 2004.

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