WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE LIBERAL DOCUMENTARY, Jill Godmilow
I'm a documentary filmmaker and a teacher. I've been making films independently since 1967 and I've been teaching filmmaking at a university since 1989. Recently, I've become a self-styled amateur theorist of the documentary film.
I've been thinking for a long time that what is commonly understood as the progressive or liberal documentary is an inadequate form -- a relatively useless cultural product, especially for political change. Its basic strategy is description and it makes its argument by organizing visual evidence, expressive local testimony and sometimes expert technical testimony into a satisfying emotional form.
We understand "our" documentary films as residing outside the dirty domain of propaganda -- inhabiting instead a non-ideological, pure information space. The unscripted feel of the footage is its pedigree of "truth", its guaranteed claim that there are no hidden agendas, political or otherwise, buried in its text. By utilizing descriptive footage as evidential proof of social or historical situations; by substituting personal memory for historical analysis; by the use of sentiment to produce audience compassion; by avoiding analysis of the limitations of its own materials; by repressing demonstrations of how audiences are implicated in the situations described, or propositions of how audiences could intervene in such situations -- by all these things, the liberal documentary can be accepted (and enjoyed) as educational at the least, and at the most, inspirational. As audience, we are mesmerized by the tract of pure evidence and its claim to have made of us mental activists. We are consoled by our own willingness to consider (in the cinema, at least) other peoples' problems, simply by seeing and hearing them thoughtfully described in the motion picture medium.
Though the liberal documentary takes the stance of a sober, non-fiction vehicle for edification about the real world, it is trapped in the same matrix of obligations as the fiction film -- to entertain its audience; to produce fascination with its materials; to achieve closure; to satisfy. Certainly it is a vehicle for compassion. My question is: is that of any political use? Further, is not the production of compassion, perhaps, subversive of progressive political change? For one very recent example: does "Hoop Dreams" produce an audience that is progressively involved in the problem of inner-city black youth? Does it ever ask the question, why is it that only through excellence in sports that a young black male can heft himself out of poverty? No, it is too busy telling its saga of two beautiful black boys, whose struggle to escape lives of poverty is desperately connected to the arc of a basketball into, or not into, a net.
"Hoop Dreams", like other documentaries, offer viewers synthetic intimacy, an illusion of collaboration with "the other". Who is "the other" -- those distressed social actors (a term borrowed from Brian Winston) who have been asked to speak and perform their particular situations and dilemmas, on camera, for our benefit. There is something corrupt about this arrangement: "they" perform a kind of healing service for "us", through their distress.
For the most part, documentaries address and entertain educated middle and upper-middle class audiences -- audiences of persons who come to the documentary cinema to learn about the world and, perhaps, to get fired up about something. It ends up confirming and making comfortable the class status of that middle class audience, by providing an opportunity for compassion, for up-lift, for hope, and finally, for self-satisfaction -- and perhaps complacency. There is nothing to learn about ourselves and our activities here. There is everything to learn about the other. We and they are not linked other than by feelings, like caring, concern, sometimes outrage. But the connections or links are momentary. We leave the theater filled up with our best feelings about ourselves, and the next day go about the same business as the day before, in the same way. This produces not useful knowledge, but desire -- for a better, fairer world -- but not the self-knowledge to begin to change anything. It makes no structural analysis of the problems described and rarely proposes solutions. When it does indicate where hope may lie, it is usually in the form of new legislation for new social programs, something over which we have only the illusion of control. Never does it implicate the class activities of its audience as central, or even contributing to the situation depicted in the film.
I will leave it to others to theorize how this soft form developed and became dominant, and will start from the premise that it is inadequate, especially in our present condition, to produce social change. New, probably more radical, forms are necessary to address political and economic problems, especially today in a trans-national economy, where the problems of the poor and oppressed, the racialized and the brutalized, are at once local and international. It's my conviction that to escape the voyeurism and false consciousness produced by current forms, we filmmakers would have to give up certain documentary habits, such as "pure description", truth claims, intimacy, and satisfying forms.
In 1991, I saw a film by the Harun Farocki, INEXTINGUISHABLE FIRE, which challenges this traditional form and proposes at least one way out. (Surely there are others, but the circulation of serious progressive film in this country is so limited that I have found few contemporary films that push through to provocative political forms.) Farocki's 22 minute, black and white film was made in Germany, in German, in 1969, for very little money. I've just finished a stubborn, 30 minute film called WHAT FAROCKI TAUGHT, which contains a perfect replica, shot for shot (in English and in color) of INEXTINGUISHABLE FIRE. Because Farocki's FIRE was never distributed in the U.S. at the time of its making and even today is unavailable to American audiences, my "copy" was conceived as a gesture of distribution and pedagogy -- both a provocation and a teaching tool, to challenge American independent filmmakers to rethink our pedigreed, non-fiction representational strategies for offering information, history, political ideas, and real human experience.
Farocki's FIRE analyzes the development process of Napalm B by the Dow Chemical Company for use in the war in Vietnam. FIRE aims to reach beyond the specific terrors of napalm and provoke baseline questions about who is responsible for the ethical use of one's labor. Farocki's techniques here are unique, taking up one of the hottest of political questions -- the production of terror -- and cooling it down to frank, rational substance through the strategy of "under-representation" . To under-represent, he eschews the technology of documentary "evidence". There are no shots in FIRE of Vietnamese children running down the road aflame. Instead of "evidence", Farocki substitutes Brechtian reconstruction and demonstration, to make an analysis of how the human labor that produces a substance like napalm is structured, encouraged, and camouflaged. In an epilog to my film, I take up the notion of Farocki's film as "agit-prop", a term I attempt to re-define (away from its fearsome Cold War usage), back toward Lenin's formulation: "to keep stirring the pot; to keep the issues from going dead, and then, yes, to propagandize, to renegotiate the terms of the discussion and redirect it, toward the cold facts of hard reality".
What exactly is Farocki's FIRE and what alternative strategies does it suggest?
INEXTINGUISHABLE FIRE is a film about napalm, yes, but not only, or not really. Farocki uses the problem of the Vietnam war, particularly the weapons developed for that war, to interrogate what I call "the big question" - or the question/answer sequence:
Q: How can we stop war?
A: Refuse to develop and produce the weapons of war
Q: Why DON'T we do that?
Or, in Freud's terms, roughly -- why, after 2,000 years, have we not produced our own happiness? What is happiness? It is peace.
For an answer, Farocki recapitulates the development of napalm B at the Dow Chemical Corporation in 1969 -- not to single out or trash Dow in particular, or even to produce DOW as the enemy (though along with Monsanto, it is the most prolific producer of dangerous commodities on the planet). He is interested in exploring how it is that "good American citizens", those who raise families, coach little league teams, pray on Sunday and give at the office -- or even those of us who don't do any of that but who think of ourselves as ethical citizens --how is it that they, or we, also make napalm?
INEXTINGUISHABLE FIRE begins like this:
The filmmaker, Farocki, in suit and tie, sits at a small, wood desk, reading aloud from a sheaf of papers.
A statement given at the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal,
in Stockholm. "My name is Thai Bihn Dahn, a Vietnamese,
born in 1949. I want to register crimes that the United States
imperialists committed against me and my village."
Farocki glances to camera, then continues reading.
"While washing dishes on March 31st, 1966 at 7 pm,
I heard planes approaching. I rushed to the underground
shelter, but was surprised by an exploding napalm
bomb very close to me. The flames and unbearable heat
engulfed me and I lost consciousness. Napalm burned
my face, both arms and both legs. My house was burned
as well. For thirteen days I was unconscious, then I
awoke in a bed in an FLN hospital."
Farocki looks up and speaks directly to camera:
How can we show you napalm in action? And how can
we show you the damage caused by napalm? If we show
you pictures of napalm damage, you'll close your eyes.
First you'll close your eyes to the pictures; then you'll
close your eyes to the memory; then you'll close your eyes
to the facts; then you'll close your eyes to the connections
between the facts. If we show you a person with napalm
burns, we'll hurt your feelings. If we hurt your feelings,
you'll feel as if we've tried out napalm on you, at your
expense. We can give you only a weak demonstration of
how napalm works.
DOLLY IN to Farocki's left arm, resting on the table, as his right hand reaches off-screen for a lit cigarette. He extinguishes the cigarette on the back of his left arm, just above the wrist. (This takes about 4 seconds.)
A cigarette burns at 400 degrees. Napalm burns at 3,000
degrees. (Pause) If viewers want no responsibility for
napalm's effects, what responsibility will they take for the
explanations of its use?
The critic, Francizka Buch, writes, "the heat which comes from napalm becomes representable, imaginable, through something much weaker, which the filmmaker abruptly and unexpectedly puts in front of the camera -- a burning cigarette."
The film suddenly cuts to a medium close-up shot of a dead laboratory rat. A Bunsen burner enters from frame left, a flame appears, then poof, the rat is engulfed in fire. (Although the rat clearly feels no pain, the audience flinches.) Again, a weak model stands in for the horror of the Vietnamese girl on the road -- the one in our minds. The gap between the two is where the experience lies. Napalm is made actual and material.
Next a scenario is launched which re-enacts and synthesizes the research process at Dow Chemical as it developed napalm B for the Department of Defense in 1969. Through a series of formal scenes, we watch the process of decision-making, discovery, and tests. Again, weak models of objects, personnel, dialogue and locations are used to re-produce and make material, this process. In close-up, thirty flies drop dead when a certain pesticide is tested. Instead of a shot of a plane spraying Agent Orange on Vietnamese rice paddies, a small house plant wilts in front of our eyes with the application of an herbicide.
What happened at DOW in 1969 is proposed as a model for what Farocki calls capitalism's "building block" industries -- multi-national research companies, where groups of scientists and technicians labor to invent new substances (building blocks of some future product) without any knowledge of how those substances might eventually be combined and deployed. In FIRE, each scientist earnestly promotes his or her division's products on their useful (and seemingly harmless) merits. As the CEO of Dow Chemical explains, "Later, we put to blocks together to make whatever our clients request."
Simply put, napalm is a jellied gasoline, dropped from airplanes to set villages and villagers on fire -- a weapon not of military usefulness, but of civilian terror. When the Department of Defense came to DOW to ask for better napalm, they were looking for a napalm that would be inextinguishable and capable of sticking to human skin. In the end, the ingredient that accomplished the stickiness was a polystyrene that had been developed for rubber shoe heels -- a "building block". Everyone at DOW was working on a "building block". No one was making a better napalm. How is war possible? Because we agree to produce it. But how is our agreement sought? It isn't sought -- it's organized into the patterns of our labor -- into our status as building blocks.
Farocki uses a relentless, industrial rhythm, with abrupt movement from one scene to the next, producing intellectual, not emotional excitement. The film has a flat, sober tone, which is where the horror-show lies -- in the logical, almost industrial arrangements of objects and speech. He speaks in direct address -- not to a fantasy community of compassionate, freedom-loving, citizen-observers -- but an abrupt, perhaps utopian address to middle class individuals, as if they are part of the problem, and the solution. FIRE is not a narrative, nor an argument with evidence and proofs -- rather a tight, formal demonstration of certain functional arrangements and relationships of labor.
One way to comprehend Farocki's strategies is to give a name to what he does, or makes. I call FIRE a post-realist documentary -- a form designed to delineate the structure of reality, as opposed to the surface of reality. The post-realist documentary disengages "the spectacle" from the real, in order to produce knowledge -- in the case of FIRE, the knowledge of how we are constituted by our own labor, and the consequences of that. At the center of his work is the practice of reading and intervening in the institutional formation of knowledge. FIRE disrupts those "mourning" opportunities for the Vietnam war which are periodically offered us by mainstream media.
I chose to re-circulate Farocki's film through mine, not to insist that Farocki's techniques are the only useful ones, but to begin a dialog about form and use. WHAT FAROCKI TAUGHT was also motivated by a certain anger which I mention in the film -- the perhaps irrational anger of "why hadn't I seen this film before?" I think it would have changed my own non-fiction film practice for the last thirty years -- that is, my slow search for strategies to solve basic dilemmas of the political non-fiction film, just a few of which I'll cite below.
First there is my distress with what I call the dual problem of the "pornography of the real" and "the pedigree of the real". The "pornography of the real" involves the highly suspect, psychic pleasure of viewing "the moving picture real" ... a powerful pornographic interest in real people, real death, real destruction and real suffering, especially of "others", commodities in film. These "pleasures" are not brought to our attention. The pornographic aspect is masked in the documentary by assurances that the film delivers only the actually existing real -- thus sincere truths that we need to know about.
Then there is the "pedigree of the real" -- that implicit claim that this "truth", derived solely from "the actual", then organized and delivered to us by a serious, well-meaning filmmaker (whose status as a truth teller is itself authenticated by reality footage) legitimizes the representations of the filmmaker's text as objective. "Because I went to Poland and interviewed Lech Walesa in front of the Polish Parliament, I am pedigreed to speak about the Solidarity movement". This pedigree has no actual validity. A non-fiction text is as "written" as the text of a dramatic film or an animated cartoon.
FIRE refuses both the pornography and pedigree of the real, by self-consciously undercutting and under-representing the real. The "real" executive office of Dow's CEO is nowhere represented in the film. There is instead a borrowed living room, replete, however, with the requisite signs of a CEO's office: a boardroom table, comfortable chairs, an expensive cigarette lighter, and the red, trapezoidal DOW logo, plastered onto the wall above the executive secretary's head. Everything is a little too small, too tacky, and slightly "unreal".
In the 1986 book, "Into the Dark Chamber: The Writer and the South African State", the writer J. M. Coetzee speaks of novelists in South Africa being "drawn to the torture room" in search of novelistic fantasy. He writes, "Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer, the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or to produce representations of them. The true challenge is: how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one's own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one's own terms."
Farocki refuses to be "drawn to the torture room", or to craft, out of rescripted documentary footage, a false memorial to the war. He won't make a "memory". He wants to show the actuality of what happened there -- not with newsreel footage of burned flesh, but through confrontation with flies, dead rats, corporate aircraft, typewriters, and a few facts about napalm.
Farocki's use of friends and colleagues to stand in for real "social actors" is likewise a serviceable technique. It sidesteps the problematic of induced performances of social actors, performances that sometimes present filmmakers with squeamish ethical dilemmas -- dilemmas that traditional documentary practice almost always erases from the text. (I am thinking, for instance, of the humiliated tenants in Grierson's 1932 film 'Housing Problems', who are asked to point to the rats and other vermin that run around their living spaces.) Real social actors are here replaced by a kind of substitute performance: cast members speak in an in-authentic way: They are not asked to act out a text, or make it their own -- just to speak it. The inauthenticity achieves an authentic encounter between text and speaker, making possible a "spark" at the point where the speaking itself reveals the contradiction between a text and the living breathing body necessary to produce the words. In the CEO's office, the Project Director says, in flat even tones, "Mr. Doan, you know I don't approve of war, but since we started the war in Vietnam, I'll do anything within my power to end it quickly."
Then there is Farocki's use of the visible "thinking/speaking author". In classical documentary representation, the author is hidden, or all-but-hidden, under the mask of the unmediated real. Often enough, the author pretends not to speak at all - just to "organize reality into an explanation of itself" (to borrow a term from Trinh t Minh ha). How can the author speak then, other than by selection and ordering -- a clumsy strategy of voice? Farocki, at first on camera in direct address, then with voice-over, then with inter-titles, makes an analysis and claims it as his own. You can call this agit-prop, and I do.
Though it was made by a German filmmaker about an American weapon and an American war, the film addresses "not Germans" and "not Americans". FIRE speaks to everyone in every industrialized country; but also with everyone in the non-industrialized world. This is what I call "freedom from a national address". Fiction films usually have this freedom and circulate very widely because they pretend to address nobody in particular. Documentary films rarely share this. They are almost always calling to task their own people, their own government, and at the same time, flattering their "national" audiences, fabricating new cultural memories that screen out more difficult memories that we like to keep at bay.
Farocki refuses the traditional address to the already self-constituted "compassionate audience", and the contract, perhaps unconsciously proffered by the liberal filmmaker, which provides audience exemption from complicity in the depicted political, social, and economic situations, by dint of having met the "other", understood their problems and suffered their losses, in the cinema. His post-realism also refuses the parallel organization of that audience into an imaginary community, by dint of their newly shared knowledge and experience. The last thing Farocki wants to do is knit his audience into deep horizontal comradeship, through shared grief, shame or guilt -- shared through the mechanism of a film projector.
Buried in Farocki's film there is what I call for lack of a better term, a profound generosity of gesture. The war in Vietnam (and the production and use of napalm) wasn't really Farocki's problem. It was and is my problem, as an American. Yet he spoke about it... in the middle of a long war that was not his war. Though he is angry in this film, he is not angry at the scientists and engineers at DOW. He treats them with respect, employing them as a model protagonists in a dilemma that faces everyone with a job and a salary. This suggests that if any of us were trained as chemical engineers, we could easily find ourselves at Dow, making pesticides, yes, and also making napalm. This generosity -- truly compassionate -- is a useful political tool, capable of producing allies instead of defensive enemies. And it projects the analysis outward: if one works as a professor at a university, one might ask, "how is the building block of my labor utilized - and in the production of what?"
Morality, based in Christian ethics, seems to produce good guys and bad guys, enemies and friends, guilt and shame, in the cinema. Farocki chooses logic over morality. Logic poses the same questions to all of us. I can't do much of anything about the real CEO of Dow Chemical - so why be angry at Mr. Doan for 30 minutes in a dark room. I can rethink where my labor goes. The central moment of most Farocki films is the reflection on the functioning principles of capitalism and on its incredible stability. A German critique, Klaus Kreimeier, writes that after the failed revolt of 1968, Farocki still maintains "with a flexible stubbornness, that the old questions remain the right ones, they only need to be posed in a new and different manner".