Europäischer Autorenkreis für Film und Video e. V.
European Film & Video Makers Circle

Eurofilmer report

The Charm of a good Documentary

Experienced amateur filmmakers and experienced jurors often recognise in the first moments whether a film has quality or not. How is that possible? It is the magic of first sight that works in encounters with people. It is the first sentence of a novel, it is the first words of an actor and it is the first picture of a film - and also of a documentary. The viewer must, without realizing it, be emotionally touched by the opening, his interest must be awakened, he must want to see more. And how do you do that? The opening of a documentary is often a long shot. That's all right, but it has to be one that elicits a " glamour "; spectacular scenery, a great, effective, thematically unifying frame work. But it doesn't always have to be a long shot. It can also start with a close-up, a drop, a detail on the subsequent theme of the film, an image whose content and meaning cannot be explained at first, something surprising, an acoustic curtain (the street noise of a film about a big city) – there are many possibilities, but it must not be boring.

It has to be something that appeals to the eye, the ear, feelings and the mind. The possibilities for the artistic design of a documentary film are no less diverse than those of a fiction film. Everything that is necessary to make a sophisticated fiction film is also a prerequisite for the production of a documentary: commitment, curiosity and empathy for a theme and imagination in design.

To document an event, one would think, is basically nothing more than to put the filmed scenes into an assembled sequence that is credible, not manipulated and reproduces nothing else than reality. Wrong! Documentaries are not the reproduction of reality, but the design of the material according to all the rules of art. Berthold Brecht said that "the simple reproduction of reality does not necessarily say anything about reality". And there are many reasons for this.

First of all, every documentary is a selection from the various possibilities of looking at the object or subject of our film. Let a person look at a landscape, a building, a group of people or a single person. Perception is different for everyone. But what is the truth, what is reality? They don't exist. Don't even look for it. And if you think you've found it, keep it to yourself. It's your truth, not somebody else's. Don't dwell on the enthusiastic descriptions of "magnificent landscape", "the incomparable architecture", "the unique experience".

The challenge of documentary film is to present people, events, statements and feelings as truthfully as possible. Technical errors, a shaky pan, a slip of the tongue, a microphone protruding into the picture do not necessarily disturb, because the viewer does not always expect perfection; he even perceives the occasional slip-ups as more authentic. However, these errors can only be excused under very specific conditions. Blurred scenes will only be forgiven if the situation clearly indicates to the viewer the difficulty of making the recording.

Documentaries are comparable to portraits. They are talking about people, cities, landscapes. But portraiture always also means interpreting, stylising, reducing or even exaggerating in order to clarify the content of a topic that one wants to convey.

And how do I do this effectively on film? What is important is the correct assembly of the material that is available to me. An iron basic rule is that one sets the cuts during the assembly in such a way that one hardly feels them; this means e.g. a movement continues in the following scene, a direction of view is followed, conspicuous colours also occur in the next picture. Also acoustic characteristics, like mysterious noises, can be introduced if necessary before the scene to which they actually belong (trailers). This creates expectation and tension, it connects and accelerates. The same technique is also effective for dialogue.

A good documentary filmmaker knows how to make his subjects forget the camera. Documentaries can also contain scenes that do not require editing. They're often the best. Moving stories can be unravelled by inserts in which what has been said is visually deepened. They do not feel so painful as a "cut", but maintain continuity. Inserts that have no relation to the topic and are only placed to conceal a picture jump should be avoided.

The raw material of the documentary filmmaker is generally chaotic. There are no connections, no entry or exit possibilities, scenes suddenly break off and intermediate cuts have to be laboriously selected from the material later during editing. This is by no means always the result of bad camera work, but lies in the nature of documentary filming.

Nevertheless, it is possible and also advisable, instead of simply "keeping on top of it", to shoot it "on cut". Here one pays attention to possible connections, follows movements and gestures, reacts to the content of a conversation and then, either afterwards or beforehand, shoots selected cuts, i.e. pictures that illustrate what has been said. Camera positions (not always front light, but also side light or even back light) and setting sizes should also be considered.

Documentary films are staged. We put people we interview in the right light, position them in front of effective backdrops, encourage monologues, make decisions about what we want to show and what not in landscape scenes, architectural shots and any other shooting situation - a conscious selection with the simultaneous permanent danger of manipulation. As we can see, Bertholt Brecht's reference to the fact that "the simple reproduction of reality" does not necessarily reflect reality applies here as well.

Documentaries always present a location and point-of-view, which set values and share sympathies and antipathies. There are numerous possibilities and also necessities for the reorganization, new structure and emphasis of the filmed material. It is important to work out all original contents, actions and sounds from the raw material and to prioritise them. A story with the original sound, with natural flowing speech, full of feeling and temperament is more authentic and effective for the viewer than texts spoken as voice-over commentary.

Music also has the function of strengthening feelings and moods in documentaries. It should reflect the basic idea, the theme of the film. Less appropriate, however, is the accompaniment of dialogue passages with dramatic music, as is usual with fiction films. However, making what is said reverberate in suitable music reinforces the message and impact of a documentary.

That's all I wanted to suggest. Maybe there was something about it that some of you didn't know or something that slipped your mind during a long film career. In any case, I feel that I always need suggestions in order not to fall into routine. And if we make an effort and we are lucky that the Muse kisses us, then we may be rewarded by the charm of a successful documentary.


Peter Klüver