A collection of video projects screening at the French Cultural Centre examines the murky line between art and journalism in documentary
DANISH filmmaker Anders Østergaard’s 2008 documentary Burma VJ begins with a disclaimer that reads: “Some elements of the film have been reconstructed in close cooperation with the actual persons involved.”
Much of the film consists of footage shot in the streets of Yangon by undercover reporters during antigovernment protests in September 2007, but as the disclaimer suggests, a substantial portion of Burma VJ is also made up of “dramatised” scenes shot outside the country.
While the film has been widely acclaimed – it was nominated this year for an Oscar – it has also been criticised for mixing “real” and “simulated” footage without clearly delineating which is which. Writer Andrew Marshall said the use of dramatised footage “undermin[es] the film’s credibility and dishonour[s] the very profession its subjects risk their lives to pursue”.
It’s not unusual, however, for documentary makers to reject attempts to pigeonhole their work as journalism, striving instead to tell sharper, more artful stories that straddle the categories of fact and fiction. And while Burma VJ endeavours to tell a coherent narrative about “real” events, some documentary filmmakers are happy to stray farther into the realm of metaphor, with the aim of revealing a “reality” that lies beyond what is visible on the screen.
Filmmaker Jill Godmilow has defined documentary as encompassing “everything but scripted drama” and whose goal should be not so much to educate, but to edify – to change people’s minds and ways of seeing.
I am really interested by documentary ... and also by documentarians who try to create a new language.
This wide definition is what interests Daniel Perrier, an artist and instructor at the School of Fine Arts in Nantes, and curator of Virtual Geometry, a collection of video projects by nearly 50 students representing seven art schools in France and Cambodia, on display at the French Cultural Centre (CCF) through March 13.
“I am really interested by documentary … and also by documentarians who try to create a new language,” Perrier said. “For example, when the filmmaker uses fiction for speaking to the real, and many times it gives us some idea of the reality but in a new language.”
Perrier first came to Cambodia in 2008 as an artist in residence sponsored by the program Villa Medicis hors les Murs. “When I arrived, the first question for me was, ‘You are a stranger, everything around you is exotic’,” he said.
Rather than play the role of a tourist, he explored Phnom Penh as an artist, taking photographs and making sound recordings in different parts of the city. During later visits to Cambodia, Perrier shot footage for a documentary film that will be presented next month at CCF.
Describing his approach to documentary filmmaking, he said: “I introduce some metaphoric element, as I don’t want to be spectacular.
Sometimes you can have a five-minute shot, which is really long, because my idea is wait, wait, wait ... If you don’t wait and go straight to the event, it becomes spectacular.”
He admits that his approach would not appeal to most viewers of broadcast television, and his choice of videos for Virtual Geometry reflects his lack of interest in undemanding viewing.
The filmmakers each negotiated their own relationships with the concept of documentary. The Cambodian contributions come from students at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh who attended a two-week video workshop in January run by Swiss artist Anna Katharina Scheidegger. With the first-time directors focusing on mastering the technical aspects of video, the results tend more straightforward than the French projects.
“Making the film was very difficult because I have no background,” said one student, Hong Bun Kak. “I wanted to achieve the goals of the project, but I didn’t have enough time, so the result didn’t satisfy me.”
Among all the films in the show, his project titled Fleuve (2010) comes closest to a National Geographic documentary style, with no-frills footage of everyday life along a river in Cambodia.
Students Chan Samonn and Tum Sakiny teamed up to create Le Touriste (2010), which follows a Cambodian villager as he arrives in Phnom Penh to visit Wat Phnom. The video illustrates how students interpreted their topics through a Cambodian point of view: Chan Samonn said Scheidegger was surprised that they chose to follow a Khmer subject, rather than a foreigner, in a film about tourism.
The French students indulge in more subjective definitions of documentary that explore the murky boundaries between fact and fiction. Nias Van Laer’s Luna (2009) shows preparations for a carnival on the outskirts of Lyon. Scenes of workers setting up the carnival, as well as of prostitutes that have moved into the area to offer their services to the workers, are shot from afar.
The video has the feel of an undercover investigative news report, until a close-up shot of one of the working girls smiling and posing for the camera destroys the illusion of a clandestine operation.
Les Briques (2007-2008) by Wen Yang Liu likewise blurs the line between art and journalism. The video starts with shots of a vacant lot beyond the edge of an urban area, but soon the camera settles on a group of manual labourers collecting concrete blocks that litter the ground.
There is an unnaturalness about the labourers’ actions, as if they are real people made nervous by the presence of the camera, or actors trying to appear like labourers.
Whichever the case, the presence of concrete blocks in an overgrown lot, and the act of collecting them and throwing them into the back of a truck, raises issues about urban decay, poverty and the resilience of nature. While a traditional documentarian would feel the need to pursue answers to these questions, Wen Yang Liu instead evokes the mystery but leaves it for the viewer to ponder.
Virtual Geometry is on view at the French Cultural Centre (218 Street 184) until this Saturday.