What is documentary culture? Hunter College’s Integrated Media Arts MFA Program held the conference Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture the last weekend to unwrap that question. On my mind a lot these days is the question of art vs. social impact – can they exist simultaneously? Do they need to? Why are they expected to? So I was interested to see the panel Documentary Film: Art or Agenda? Competing Paradigms in the World of Non-Fiction Film. Panels have been tackling the same question at film festivals and industry conferences, but this academic approach enlisted filmmakers and producers instead of funders. The panel included Whitney Dow (filmmaker, Two Towns of Jasper, Unfinished Country, the Whiteness Project), Jennie Livingston (filmmaker, Paris is Burning, Earth Camp One), Joslyn Barnes (producer, Bamako, Trouble the Water, Black Power Mixtape) and Jonathan Oppenheim (editor, Paris is Burning, Children Underground, William and the Windmill) and was moderated by Julia Haslett (assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, filmmaker, An Encounter with Simone Weil).
There’s never really enough time to deal deeply with this core question (or answer it…but is there even an answer?), but a lot of very interesting thoughts were posed.
So what is documentary?
Livingston agrees with Michael Moore that she doesn’t like the word “documentary,” and prefers “non-fiction.” She sees it as taking reality and making a structure around it. “We’re not dealing with real life; we’re dealing with fragments that are shaped by someone’s mind.” When thinking about reality, she notes that when you watch a really good fiction film, it feels real but ironically, when we think of documentary, we think of documenting reality, when filmmakers are really just taking real life and creating a fake structure around it.
Oppenheim agreed and sees himself as taking fragments of real life to create a tableau of human experience.
Whitney Dow sees documentary as the process of understanding his place in the world that he’s observing. “I don’t have answers when I start, I don’t have an agenda. I start out with a set of questions.” Continue reading