Documentary Cinema in the Making
Recently three film-makers met to talk about documentary film-making. Each was at a differing stage with their project. Gregor Nicholas had just completed Every Dancer's Dream, an intimate portrait of two of the top New Zealand ballroom dancing couples. Shereen Maloney was midway through a film about her father, titled Doc: a fifteen-minute portrait-documentary to accompany Irene 59, the film about her mother. Peter Wells was beginning a half-hour documentary about the art deco architecture of Napier. Both Wells's and Nicholas's documentaries had been funded by TVNZ, and a lot of the discussion centred around the demands of making a television programme within a commercial parameter. Nicholas had suggested that a more personal style of film, such as all three had been making up until that time, would mean 'you'd never get any funding from TV to make another film'.
Gregor Nicholas, Peter Wells and Shereen Maloney Photographed by Anne Noble, July 1984
Nicholas: I wanted to make a picture which people would watch, so you just have to compromise your own kind of idiosyncracies ... the kind of special things that you like ... because they're going to change channel if it isn't sustaining their interest ... or if it's too difficult ... they'll turn it off... I mean you can make a picture which is so personal TV won't even screen it. My attitude to creative work is that the more subjective and more highly personal, the more it reflects one's attitudes to the world, the better it is ... the better a product. People like McCahon are a vindication of that ... but film is a completely different thing ... it's a business ... it's capitalism ... you have to make money to make a film ... The budget for Nicholas's film was $45,000. This is not a large sum of money. As he says, his film once on television will have to compete with advertisements almost any one of which would cost more - even though they only last thirty seconds. And the subliminal message of these highly-priced, smoothly packaged ads is to make the content in between seem slower, less consumerable. On the other hand, making a film for something as demanding, time-wise, as television has benefits. Trying to reach a wider audience 'really forces you to try and articulate ideas as clearly and quickly as possible, and dynamically, with impact'. (Nicholas). Nicholas: At the beginning of a documentary you have to be very lucid, you have to establish things very quickly ... within the first few minutes... otherwise, it you don't have that foundation, your narrative is really going to suffer ... and the opening of your film is probably the best part of it ... it has to have impetus ... clarity ... get personalities established quite clearly ... In Every Dancer's Dream you're trying to provide an intimate picture of four personalities but you're also showing a little microcosm of a subculture, so you have to provide those little details like - how much dresses cost, how long they took to make, how many hours spent practising ... you've got to fill in all that information in a very news-like way. Maloney found, doing Irene 59, 'that one anecdote would evoke much more strongly the state of Irene's marriage than telling someone about the marriage for ages ... that's an element you work with all the time in documentaries, where you evoke something from the audience ... maybe inadvertently ... maybe on purpose. The particular problem with documentaries comes from the audience's idea that what they are seeing is true in a very literal sense. Maloney: You're interpreting all the time ... but you have a responsibility to your audience to make that signature apparent, they have to clearly understand your stance ... Wells: I think to most people, however, documentary means reality - real - true. Maloney: Fact - fact ... Wells: I find that quite a heavy obligation ... like with this Napier thing there's a whole factual thing which nobody knows about so there's an obligation ... Maloney: Do you have an obligation to tell? Wells: The historian in me feels people should know it. The film-maker, the creative side, feels ... I don't really want to! Wells went on to talk about the recent showing of Hitler, A Film From Germany, a seven-hour experimental documentary. Originally produced for non-commercial German television, the film was theatrically flamboyant in its diversion of documentary realities down the pathways of opera, innuendo and fiction. Wells himself was hoping for a kind of looser framework in which to make his Napier documentary. Classing it as a 'personal obsessive type thing', he went on 'my whole interest in doing the Napier thing is my family arrived there in 1848 ... so far as I've got any roots in New Zealand ... I've always felt they were there.. . all my life it's been an absolute interest ... this particular place ... so that's why I find it really difficult to do a 24 1/2 minute documentary on four architects who built art deco buildings...' Nicholas: You have a much more metaphorical point of view? Wells: One of things I hate about New Zealand is the case with which things get destroyed ... and rebuilt ... it's a real cultural expression of our living here ... everything comes, goes, comes, goes ... a sense of impermanence ... it's something that really interests me ... and the quake was the first time people realised they were building structures not suitable to the land we live in ... up till that time it had been either jerry-built or grandiosely Victorian colonial background ... the problem was Britain doesn't have earthquakes ... so it was this mad cultural displacement ... which the earthquake shook ... literally to bits ... and then they rebuilt in reinforced concrete ... at that time the States had the most advanced technology ... which Napier quickly borrowed ... for me it's a metaphor for our culture ... because Napier was very British-identified ... and suddenly, in 1931, it had to change ... and it's ended up looking quite American ... There's not enough time to go through the whole town interviewing everyone like that wonderful French script (Ophuls's The Sorrow and The Pity) ... there are architects still alive who I can interview... I don't know why I'm resisting it... Nicholas: I think you're going to have to. You've got to select protagonists... Maloney: You have to decide what it's about. . . Nicholas: If you don't have people relating ... on camera ... you're restricting your audience's participation in the event by just keeping it ... Maloney: You have to decide whether it's the town or its people's experience of it ... otherwise you get a very watered down version of both ... Wells: My feeling about it at the moment is that, selfishly, I'd love to do my evocation of what Napier is ... Nicholas: How do you think you're going to do that? Wells: I anticipate having a kind of poetic voice-over... Nicholas: 'A narrator ... ? Wells: Yes. Definitely. I was going to say earlier that the voice-over seems to be the crux of a documentary about how objectively the information is being presented to the audience ... Nicholas: So have you any idea of a shape, a storyboard ... ? Wells: It worries me ... it's so inclusive ... of everything ... because it's me making the voice-over I can choose the period ... whether it's just Napier ... how Napier relates to other places ... really it's Birth of a Nation in 24 1/2 minutes and it drives me crazy with anxiety when I think of it ... because I know there's an easy way out ... you go to all the old architects ... and have a very traditional documentary ... The crux here, then, is whether a documentary about an apparently objective event, the earthquake in Napier and subsequent rebuilding, can be adequately covered in a subjective manner. Using a poetic narrator, a sliding time - scale and collage techniques all break down a sense of an authoritative, factual world. It emphasises documentary as interpretation. The problem from here becomes whether TV will, one, show it and two, ever give money to a film-maker again. As Shereen says: 'then your funding sources start influencing your choice of subject matter right from the start'. This is a hidden factor, persuasive yet ideological, in our so-called open and free television system.
SHEREEN MALONEY Doc 1984
These particular problems don't face Shereen Maloney as she makes the Arts Council-funded Doc (and hence one sees the important role of an Arts Council in the health of a pluralistic society). As she says, the subjective/objective dichotomy does not operate in the same way: 'There is no subjectivity or objectivity in film-making ... there's only subjectivity . . . the sort of documentaries that I make are so personal ... I have to go for the essence of what something is ... not facts , . ' But essence can be a very fluid substance, difficult to catch on the mercurial and sometimes peculiarly flat monitor of film. Spontaneous emotion, in particular, is a rare thing for a film-maker to catch. It becomes even more difficult when the economics of film-making dictate, at the outset, a crisp script, preferably storyboarded. This cuts down the perils of the kind of film-making which is essentially running round with a camera whirring, covering a subject endlessly from many points of view. This kind of documentary comes together in an editing room - or doesn't. As Shereen says, it creates its own problems. The editor ends up with the Borgesian nightmare of a room packed wall-to-wall, ceiling to floor, with cans of film all of which have to be combed through for a hoped-for end-product: a coherent whole. Nicholas had a strong structure worked out before shooting Every Dancer's Dream. However, today, in the immediate hindsight of completing the project, he regrets what he sees as 'an absence of spontaneous emotion ... the result is a really quiet little picture'. . . (Wells and Maloney object)... 'Some film-makers have said that it is beautifully crafted, well constructed ... all the shots were beautiful and that put a kind of sugar coating on the film ... like the amount of work that's involved wasn't really articulated as they felt it should have been ... and maybe unpleasant aspects of the subculture were kind of swept under the carpet'. Today he says: 'I think it's something I learnt ... that when you're filming, you have to let yourself go wide open to intuitive feelings because if you don't, you lose potentially wonderful things that you don't capture ... if I was to do something like, where I followed people round, for six months basically, I would keep in constant touch with them and anything which looked like being important was happening, I would get a film crew round there...' Shereen has her own particular problems in capturing the spontaneous. Her film is a portrait documentary of her father, an 84 year-old Kiwi with all the taciturn qualities, the dislike of eloquent talk, inherent in such a person. The problem here of trying to get through to spontaneous emotion hinges on interview techniques. The way Shereen has shot the film has been to work out quite formal shots, playing these against the sense of a private interior you get from interview material. But arriving at the interior can present immense problems. Even, or maybe particularly, when it is your father. Maloney: I started off doing it myself because I thought he'd open up much more to me and the first session was pretty disastrous really, his whole style of delivery had changed ... there wasn't the colour at all in his language ... so the next session Stephen, my mate, came along ... so that meant I could look after the tape recorder and Doe had someone to talk to while I was glancing sideways at the tape recorder to make sure it was still turning round ... and also he related better having a man there ... he could kind of ignore me and talk to Stephen in the way he normally talks ... which is using fairly colourful language, swearing - it made a hell of a difference. Interviewing requires particular skills - involvement, discretion and, at the same time, a certain amount of courage in dealing with sensitive issues. Maloney: You have to have a killer instinct. . . go for the jugular ... if you like ... at the time ... and not hope that it will be there later ... because it won't ... you have to really feel it at the time ... Wells: If you have quite a formed idea in your own mind ... you can direct the conversation ... you can let a person open up, then you suddenly pounce a little question on them ... Nicholas: Not only that, you can cut out all the preceding material! That's the power you have ... it's a very dangerous power and you have to remain true to the subject. Maloney: It can be a negative or positive thing ... you can either push someone to tell you something ... or you can allow them to go into it ... like often people will want to tell you something and you can stop them and your instinct is to withdraw from that situation because it's painful for them ... and by association, at that time, painful for you ... it's very easy actually to stop people telling you things. Wells: Did he (Doc) seem closed? Maloney: No ... you might recognise it ... it's an aspect of his generation, he talks quite openly about death but I suspect there's a whole range of feelings he doesn't talk about ... Nicholas: And it's those things which have extraordinary power ... like when people expose their innermost feelings, secrets ... on film ... it has incredible power ... Maloney: I know I haven't got those things from him and if I want to evoke that power in the film, which I do, then I'm going to have to do it another way ... by, maybe, contrasting images ... Nicholas: juxtapositions ... Maloney: You can get it ... Nicholas: Using irony ... Maloney: Pathos, that sort of thing, if he doesn't give it to you straight ... You're taking enormous risks doing that sort of thing ... Nicholas: You were talking earlier about how people open up ... I discovered during the dance film ... like film, TV has this mystique ... Wells: The objective eye ... Nicholas: Not only that, it has glamour ... people want to be involved ... want to see themselves on film ... it makes them vulnerable ... and that is also something you have to keep in check ... Wells: But it's everybody's connotations of Hollywood, the movies, glamour, everything's larger than life, magic ... Nicholas: it's something you develop ... this incredible affection for your subject and that becomes the over-riding factor in your representation, it's your respect for them as human beings and so often that's denigrated in things that I see, people are spat upon ... Maloney: You have to have enormous humility ... I know that contrasts with what I said earlier about having a killer instinct ... but in practice I don't think it's necessarily a contradiction ... Nicholas: You were using that as a metaphorical statement ... Maloney: I don't know. You feel like a killer sometimes ... Wells: You've really got me worried now! What do you think of having recreation and fiction in a film ... it really worries me. Nicholas: Like the changing room scene in Every Dancer's Dream where you reconstruct reality? Wells.. Was some of that reconstructed ... ? Nicholas: Some of it. Wells: Hey! Hey! That's fascinating!! Nicholas: And you didn't realise? Wells: No of course not. Nicholas: Oh well that's good ... Wells: I thought it was real Gregor Nicholas! Maloney: But if you thought about it as a film-maker you would have realised it was impossible. Wells: I was just watching it as a film. Nicholas: As it is, that sequence is so dense with information you don't even think about it... but when Shereen and I cut that sequence it was trying to marry a posed reality ... with reality. Wells: You were presumably intercutting them? Nicholas: But it was like these two different styles ... Maloney: So clunk! Wells: It's something which worries me. Maloney: In my films I'm working in that area all the time. In Doc most of the sequences are very set up ... a couple are very cinema-verité ... I try and follow what Del King said to me when I was making Irene 59, having troubles with it... 'you've got to turn your weaknesses into strengths', it sounds silly ... Wells: What does that mean, though? Maloney: Like cutting that sequence of the changing room, one of the weaknesses was that they were in two distinct styles ... that were awkward together ... you have to turn it around and make it work ... Nicholas: You have to make it work. Maloney: You're stuck with an awful lot of weaknesses once you've got it on your editing table ... with Doc I have to work the cinema-verité in with the stylisation so they say something ... not just go clunk!
GREGOR NICHOLAS Every Dancer's Dream 1984
Did you find anything unexpected when you were editing Every Dancer's Dream from when you were making it? Nicholas: Well it's two different kinds of creative buzzes. Like, when you're filming it's very ... easy to be ... to be carried away by the situation, specially the big event we filmed, it's very hard to maintain what to and how to cover it ... but to maintain a clear mind, it's very difficult. Wells: It is a contradiction because here you're saying about following your intuitions ... Nicholas: Yeah, sure, it's not so much a contradiction ... when I say that I mean ... actually I find it exciting, quite exciting work ... because nothing is predictable ... because you are relying on your intuitions ... but instead of relying on actual content the actual process itself... the excitement of it can supercede the concentration required on the subject ... you have to really keep yourself in check. Wells: Do you think the case of people filming a krillion feet of film is a case of intuition running wild ... or there being no intuition? Nicholas: If you don't have clarity ... that to me sounds like you don't know what to say. Maloney: You've got to have the confidence to say I've got enough ... Wells: How come we're all making documentaries at present? Do you think it's a particular need of the hour? NZ seems at such an interesting stage at the moment, actually evolving an identity, breaking out ... Maloney: Basically it's an exploration of our identity as a culture. Maybe we need to do it fairly directly, by immersing ourselves in the culture rather than reconstructing it in a dramatic form .. Nicholas: Be directly involved with the real thing ... Wells: For me, the Napier thing is definitely all about us recognising and valuing what we have... Nicholas: Recognising an identity and feeling good about it ... That's what's so good whenever I'm in Australia ... there's this wonderful feeling of vivacity ... Wells: joy ... Nicholas: In their own history ... even though some of it is definitely spoiled ... Wells: I think you is something we've almost been persuaded to forget ... by the grandfathers ... their power during the Muldoon years ... Nicholas: It's something I've tried to infuse into Every Dancer's Dream ... I've tried deliberately to work against that condescension towards a working-class art-form ... Maloney: I think it's one of the reasons I make films.
Reporter and participant: Peter Wells