Pavel Branko


Being in my eighties, it is perhaps natural to come up with an axiom that  the grass used to be greener in my youth and generally everything was nicer. The documentary too. I am not alone in such apocalyptic tones – think about Godard's sigh: “Film, as I know it, won’t survive the 20th century. Television has transformed it to something quite different. We shall die together.”

Since then some decades have passed, Godard is still alive, but the documentary film as art has been turned already by television into an endangered species. This might not be obvious at first sight when looking at what we generally call non-fiction film. The time allotted to non-fiction on most TV channels is enormous and some of them, like Spektrum, Discovery Channel or Deutsche Welle, don’t present anything else. The rub of it is that not every non-fiction film is a documentary as a work of art – not in the sense of quality, but of internal structure, and let this be my point of departure.

By film of fact I understand all kinds and genres of non-fiction audio-visual production en bloc, from author's documentary to mere records. The common denominator is the fact that it is not a live performance, which forms such an important compound of TV programs, whereas its specificity excludes it from our reflections. Non-fiction production defined in such broad terms has with few exceptions proven the rule, experiencing a great boom since it moved from cinemas onto TV screens and from film reel to magnetic record or combinations thereof, with archive footage. It is enough to have a look at the programming of any TV channel and on the broad coverage given to documentaries or educational series adding up to many hours in overall length, such as the German Hitler’s Accomplices, the American Water Planet, the British Wildlife Horizons, and so on.

Among Czech productions we have to mention evergreens by Febio Film and other TV Centers, such as Jak se žije (The Way We Live), Cestomanie (Travelmania), Oko (Eye), or Nevyjasnĕná úmrtí (Unsolved Deaths); in the field of Slovak production we might point to Historická panoráma (History Panorama), Ako to vidím (How I See It), Variácie (Variations), Ženy o ženách (Women on Women), Kaktus (Cactus), Eko ďalej (Whither EKO?) from public Slovak Television (STV), but also to the private TV channel Markíza with its Tucet (Dozen). These series, made up of films ranging in length from 15 minutes to up to more than one hour, form globally an important part of  programming. This reflects a thirst for education, information and for the guides explicitly leading spectators into the secrets of nature, history, the earth or the universe. This sets the TV channels under pressure to satisfy that thirst both by their own production – if they can afford  it – and/or by way of import. The time span that needs to be filled demands a constant input day by day, which incites TV management to prefer longer pieces and series, straight-lined structure and long-windedness rather than imagination, conciseness, compactness, brevity and metaphorics. At the same time, they press the directors to work in possibly the shortest of time limits and with possibly low budgets. Thus the situation of high and constant demand for non-fiction films turns into a trap, which sets back its most ambitious form, the author's documentary. All this because such a picture entails not only a far higher degree of creative input, but longer production limits and higher budgets too, especially with ample time for the author's finalization.

If we take a closer look at these pieces and series, as far as their frequency is concerned, we find that from the broad range of author's documentaries, essays, footage-archival films, pieces of journalism in mono-thematic as well as magazine form, reports, chronicles, surveys, etc., only a very small part falls into the category of the documentary as art sui generis, and this regardless of quality and the author's ambitions. This said, I’m of course fully aware that there are no strict borders between the categories mentioned, only broad frontier areas where extensive osmosis takes place.

Thus the majority of the non-fiction pictures do not comply with the category of documentary as art because they miss the spice defined by John Grierson as “creative treatment of actuality” and by Joris Ivens as “emotional presentation of facts” and which, in my opinion, is present in a concentrated way in the third distinguishing feature – the predominance of the visual component over voice-over. 

All the forms mentioned, regardless of whether they represent in their respective category the top, the average or merely trash, have usually quite the opposite in common. That is to say, their fundamental thread, structure or outline is mainly based on voice-over, whereas the visual part, regardless of whether it is archival, reconstructive or inquiring, gets only strung on this thread. The most common option thus is to supplement reportage (or rather: reporting), retake and archival (or photographic) film materials by accounts of witnesses and experts. Structurally, it is logic and/or ratio they have in common, not emotion springing from the joint effect of visual and sound components. Doubtless, they can evoke strong emotions; nevertheless those emotions come from the presented material itself, not from its specific creative approach and form.

It is time to characterize now the source of terminological misunderstandings, as in the West the terms are already in the process of specification, whereas hereabouts they stay still interchangeable. Let us take the French-German TV channel Arte as an example which provides the largest coverage of the films in  question among all available public TV channels in Slovakia, at least if we leave aside such highly specialized channels as Spektrum or Discovery. Nevertheless, we rarely find pictures in its program which would be referred to as a documentary – usually they are called documentation, report, docu-phantasy, docu-soap, etc.; i.e. the forms and genres are strictly differentiated. Hereabouts practically all non-fiction films are labeled documentary although documentaries sensu stricto make up only a fragment of the TV program offered while a substantial part of non-fiction falls into the sphere of documentation or factuals.
This means to mix apples with pears. In order to present an object lesson, I try to be as sacrilegious as possible. There are two outstanding factual pictures dedicated to the persecution of Jews in Slovakia – Mezi zaslepenými blázny (Amongst Blind Fools) by Martin Šmok (Shmok) and Petr Bok, and Šiesty prápor (The Sixth Battalion) by Mirek Pazdera and Dušan Šimko (Dushan Shimko).  Hardly anybody would question that they represent the top in their category, an impressive and convincing outcome of minute investigative fieldwork and archival research. However, neither of them applies the instruments of artistic form-giving or shaping. The authors probably did not feel any ambitions in this direction; specific formal shaping apparently has not been the line of their approach, though it is hard to say why. What I mean by that type of ambition I would like to demonstrate by means of another typical factual film from the cycle Historická panoráma (History Panorama), realized by public Slovak TV production (STV) which overwhelmingly does not reveal such ambitions, either. In the sequel dedicated to Karol Šmidke (Shmidke), the director Rudolf Urc (Urtz) on the one hand resorts to staging, rather dubious in case of a documentary, by showing an illegal border crossing which definitely wasn’t shot on scene when the real thing occurred and which therefore belongs to creative non-fiction (where an event is reconstructed either with original partakers or with “actors”). But, on the other hand, he closes the picture by an effective counter-point – the concluding sentence “and history went on” is sounded parallel with a stoptrick bringing the marching troops to a standstill, which provides the statement with a double bottom and gives it a deeper meaning.

In my opinion, non-fiction filmmakers should work this way principally, not only in the moment of happy inspiration. Why is it that these aesthetic, emotionally effective devices practically do not occur in most factual films?   That's the question of questions for me. And this because full-blooded documentaries which intentionally form their substance in such a way remain rare exceptions in the sphere of professional production: in Slovakia, Dušan Hanák’s (Dushan Hanak) Papierové hlavy (Paper Heads) and Času je málo a voda stúpa (So Little Time and the Water Rises) by Dezider Ursíny and Ivo Brachtl (Brakhtl). By the way, the standard TV environment does not seem to welcome such pictures, either – see the on-the-air-fate of the latter.

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This brings us to the brink of a paradox in the development history of two audio-visual media. About fifty years ago, technical development contributed greatly to an updating of two crucial audiovisual tools and made come true the experimenters' dreams dreamt by filmmakers of the Dziga Vertov sort. The former mastodon camera which considerably interfered with the authenticity of shot surroundings, thus practically torpedoing spontaneous reactions, was discharged by the camera-pen – as French pioneers of cinéma vérité dubbed the new visual and acoustic recorders. And the expensive celluloid film, endangered on its way to the final form by so many snares, was replaced by the magnetic record, soon to be once more replaced by the even more flexible digital one. In contrast to the classical film, the latter makes it possible to fine-tune even further  the final editing process and in theory it offers far greater dynamics with respect to the visual and acoustic orchestration than the classic celluloid film possibly could. Thus the purely technical parameters could lead to the assumption that the documentary as art is entering a golden age.

Nonetheless, in the standard television production environment the reverse is true – universally true. Thus, in the area of non-fiction there prevail rectilinear documentations lacking any ambitions with regard to subtext or orchestration  while being constructed according to the predominance of sound-image parallelity as well as  the preponderance of voice-over over other components. This is hardly to be ascribed to the character of the authors’ ambitions.  For it is indeed possible to say that viewing the hotbeds of future professionals, we see every promising director behaving in a non-commercial environment as an author with creative ambitions. At least in Slovakia. Suffice it to mention in this regard last year’s festival Tri dni dokumentu (Three Days of Documentaries). Here we find the top examples throughout sophisticatedly orchestrated, richly differentiated in terms of stylistics and greatly varying in genre – from sociological research or fiery pamphlet to powerful mystification. Personally, I found most impressive the documentary Som preč (I’m Away) by Kristína Kúdelová (Christine Kudel). As a whole, it represents a pure grand metaphor; in its parts, the author succeeded to give opposite subtexts even to an authentic public inquiry. How often do we come across such a method hereabouts? (As for foreign productions, Chris Marker’s and Walter Heynowski’s style comes to mind, at home we may think of the early Dušan Trančík's (Dushan Trantshik) methods, in the Czech area we might mention Jan (Ian) Gogola jr. and the latest innovative probes by Roman Vávra, Miroslav Janek (Yanek) and Vít Janeček (Yanetshek).

A special section brought top achievements of the middle generation in the last decade, represented by names like Ľubomír Štecko (Ljubomir Shtetsko), Ján (Ian) Oparty, Dušan Trančík (Dushan Trantshik), Vladimír Balco (Baltso), Dezider Ursíny, Ján (Ian) Piroh, and Mário Homolka.
Their's are achievements significant in terms of ambition, relevant and diverse both in approach and style. Even more distinctive seems to be the creative boom amongst saplings and graduates from the Academy of Music and Drama in Bratislava. Names such as Ladislav Gašpar (Gashpar), Peter Kerekes (Kerekesh), Robert Kirchhof (Kirkhhof), Ivan Kočner (Kotshner), Zuzana Kočnerová (Susan Kotshner), Marek Kuboš (Kubosh), Juraj Lehotský (George Lehotsky), Lenka Moravčíková (Helen Moravtshik), Marko Škop (Shkop), Jaroslav Vojtek (Yaroslav Voytek) and surely some others represent a broad basis with the dynamic potential of creative ambitions. During their undergraduate studies they manifested their abilities as well as an interest to carry on in this direction too, though surely not exclusively.

Another typical feature of such productions is that although they are produced in academia, that is to say under greenhouse conditions, nearly in all cases they get support and co-operation from official Slovak television. This proves that this institution does not a priori oppose such creative ambitions, in spite of deteriorating financial and structural conditions. How to explain, then, the fact that such ambitions only rarely find support on television’s own ground whereas the bulk gravitates to the previously described documentations? And how to explain that the same is true of channels by far wealthier and more active in this sphere, such as Czech television, and even BBC, Arte etc.?  There must be something, then, which is inherently and almost genetically present in and structurally coded into the nature of electronic media, and this something does not depend only and first of all on financial resources but also and mainly on their infrastructure and foundation.
Or does it only reflect an objectively ascertained fact that the mass audience is not interested in an aesthetically more complex, orchestrated non-fiction film, which is also true with regard to feature films? This is, as I see it, the question, and everybody concerned with the future of the documentary as art should look for an answer to it, or eventually for stimuli that would help bring about a change for the better.

I do not exclude the possibility that it might amount to love's labour's lost. My scepticism is confirmed by the opinion of a filmmaker familiar with both sides of the problem due to his long dual experience which urged him to deal with the question confronting him. Fero Fenič (Fenitsh), both filmmaker and producer whose Febio Company practically deals only with non-fiction, holds the opinion that “the classic documentary has gone together with the celluloid it was recorded on and with the cinemas it was shown in. The author, as long as he had to be economical with material, had to consider more carefully what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it... It was a more creative process. Now, with the help of the video camera, you can shoot from any place, ...the film takes shape in the editing room. There is no pressure to be concise in terms of expression; on the contrary, video technique seduces to luxury and long-windedness...” (Týdeník rozhlas 12/2000).

In my opinion the video technique itself does not seduce anybody to take this way. On the contrary, it offers creative possibilities unheard of before. What seduces a filmmaker to take this way or, at least, pushes in that direction, is the infrastructure of the audio-visual media, and that's something different. Nevertheless, Fenič, both a producer and author, seems to have come to terms with the present situation and feels reconciled with the state of things.  He yielded to it, or gave up. The worst about it is that the present state of things is regarded this way by a man of practice who knows the media situation and the production business far better than I do. And this man involved in the business of film production, doubtlessly concerned with the problem as much as I am, has reconciled himself to the fact that technical progress which theoretically increases the chances of authorship of the documentary filmmaker and extends them into areas formerly inaccessible both with regard to shooting and finalization, has to capitulate in the face of the specific structural and economic characteristics of the electronic medium, resigning even in areas already conquered during its cinematographic stage of development.

Is this really the case? Does it have to stay like this? Can it be reversed? Is the ideal of the documentary as an independent type of art production worth fighting for? And is this at all within the power of the filmmakers? Or are cultural-tectonic powers involved which cannot be successfully confronted? These are the questions to which I challenge anyone interested to provide answers, both on the theoretical and the practical level.

                                           Translated by Blanka Szeghy
                                                 (with subsequent revisions by PB and AW)

Originally published under the title Dokumentárny film ako umenie a dokumentácia vo veku masmédií in: Kino-Ikon, Bratislava, 1/2001, pp. 166-173.
An English translation appeared in MOVEAST, Budapest, No 7/2002, pp. 47-53.

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