Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

Experiments with Truth: The Documentary Crisis

16.11.2017 BY Rahul Roy

Documentaries are like birds, with feathers and wings. They fly, they cross borders, they migrate, they rest in strange places. These are particularly exciting times for docs with wings when images are being produced by just about everyone and let loose at a scale that was unimaginable two decades back when Film South Asia was born. And these are challenging times too for documentary film makers because everyone is a film maker today. Images that made films, that made heroes and heroines of film makers are now being made by everyone.

Two decades back, travelling deep into their respective countries the South Asian film maker brought images that made us smile, cry or be horror struck. They now come live, made by the people who are the story. Some of it is ugly when it comes coloured with blood and made by reporters who are participants and chroniclers of the attacks on Dalits and Muslims in India. Most often however the images come as life affirming. They are about people’s everyday, their little joys and pleasures, pain and suffering, achievements and failures. They are sometimes witness to inhumanity, at others to compassion.

Images are bringing us together, creating a community of a shared aesthetics and the sensory. It is also a community with a sense of immediacy, a temporality that is of now and of the past at the same time. This has never happened at the scale at which it is happening today. The image makers are creating and foraging personal archives of lives, events and the emotive that are marked by memory as also change by a mapping of the present. The documentary as an instrument that has at its core an unwavering relationship with the factual, with evidence, with the real is now the most gripping story that has everyone hooked across media and across countries.

Besides capital it is the documentary image which is seamlessly connecting people in a world wide web of sensory responses to the ordinary and the extraordinary that make human lives. Each and every technology that can produce images is being deployed by millions across the globe to tell their stories. They are seeking a connection, an entry into a sensory network of the emotive that is travelling across borders, across cultures, across languages, across nations, across enmities in multiple directions. The documentary today truly has vast wings and it is flying as it has never flown in the past. Is this a crisis for the art form and the professional documentarist?

All art forms are perpetually in a crisis. There would be no art if there wasn’t a crisis to be overcome. These crisis come gift wrapped in lurid and mocking cellophane paper, they come in the form of technology, they arrive as paucity of funds, they drive in as the industry, they come dressed in the uniform of authority or they simply knock at your door as the censor. But they always do arrive, unfailingly and repeatedly. They also fly in as challenge of form, of aesthetics, of the grammar of story telling.

The documentary arguably is the most difficult art form to experiment with because of its intrinsic and etymological relationship with time, with that which is now, that which is the ‘truth’, with that which is the ‘real’. This is a crisis that the documentary form has grappled with since its inception and will continue to do so till it survives as a form of story telling. However the current crisis is unique in the sense that it threatens to make the form redundant as art, as a form of self conscious story telling through images that are in dialogue with its own history and grammar. The brave new documentarists come with no baggage, they simply reduce the form to its core objectives, a form that allows images to be created from that moment that can never be recreated, time that gets trapped in an image for posterity.

This crisis though rapid in its appearance didn’t come unnoticed. The documentary filmmakers have been responding to it even as it was unfolding. The response until now has been two fold. At one end, there has been a re-description and re-presentation of the documentary in spaces that until now were denied to it, the art museums. The documentary in the last decade has slowly inched itself inside museum spaces, facilitated both by experiments with form and the deployment of writing on it by the academic world which strengthen its case as an artistic response to the world. Art museums struggling to respond to the challenges posed by the cataclysmic changes in media and communication have been redefining what construes art and simultaneously creating and even discovering new art forms. The documentary is one such new art form. At the other end, the story telling is becoming more and more grand and vast in its ambition and in its scale. The documentary now has to mimic the large heart of the fiction film, it has to carry us through momentous events, it has to lock us into an emotive response that until now was the preserve of the fiction film. The documentary art practice of everyday no longer hides in its mundane details the churning of life with its insignificant moments and stories, but it has to be imbued with the allegorical, the potential of being more than what it can be, the confluence of a temporality and aesthetics that locates itself outside the form.

In a strange twist to the tale of the documentary, it is people armed with a range of electronic equipment capable of transforming what they see into images who have become the most ardent protectors of the form even as the professional documentarist is withdrawing into another world. The documentary it was always argued has a limited audience and today when the documentary image is the most visible image across the globe, the documentarist is facing her toughest ever battle for survival.

The film space was a secret tryst between the director, cinematographer, the sound engineer and the editor. It was a space to be experienced as a sensuous collective intervention that hid in its underbelly myriad sound tracks, colour/light strategies and multiple narratives that came together in ways that were inseparable when seen as a moving image, a story, a film. It was a truth that was manufactured as truth.

The same shades of truth are now being manufactured by people at large and it is no longer a secret tryst but part of a hyper reality that can be fake, fractured, omni present or dressed but with the same documentary zeal for the real and for the now. The obsession with the real and the present and the documentary is at an all time high and that is the crisis that the form faces today. Everyone has the capacity and the capability of producing their real, their present, their narrative and more importantly a community out there to accept it and make it their own.

As a practitioner what has surprised me is the reams that have been written on realism and the documentary while there is almost an intriguing silence on magic realism and the documentary. The word was almost invented for the documentary but has not even skimmed the practice and its understanding. The hyper reality of the documentary form, its commonly used phrases like – the magical documentary moment, the fantastic in the mundane everyday, all point towards a certain discomfort both by practitioners as well as film theorists to acknowledge that disjunction which is the key to magic realism is structurally present in the form. If at all the experiments and moves in the documentary art form have been more with surrealism rather than experimenting with magic realism, which is grounded in hard material reality. The reasons are somewhat obvious. The surreal does not take the documentary away from its pretence of realism and at the same time allows it to psychologize the inner world of the object to archive the inexpressible, the unconscious, etc while magic realism would subvert its truth claims in fundamental ways. The documentary has to learn to unlearn the relationship between truth and evidence, it has to move away from forensics and see truth as disaggregated, as hard and yet slippery, the narratives have to drive truth and not the other way around. I think the future for the documentary practice especially in the non west context lies in opening a new register of magic realism. There lies the brave new documentary.

– Rahul Roy is an independent documentary film maker from India and an FSA alumini.

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