Unreal Nature

October 8, 2015

Stepping Out of That Comfortable Space Behind the Lens

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… You know this is part of a bigger problem; how do you address it? Do you address it?

This is from the author’s interview with Ed Pincus and Lucia Small (and Jane Pincus) in Avant-Doc: Intersections of Documentary and Avant-Garde Cinema by Scott MacDonald (2015):

[ … ]

Lucia Small: … Personal documentary is one of the most challenging forms, at least for me; you’re constantly considering how much you can reveal about your family and about yourself. I’ve produced and directed other, more traditional cinéma-vérité films, but The Axe in the Attic created an unusual mix of the public and the personal, and was one of the most challenging things I’ve done.

Ed Pincus: We tried to have two viewpoints in the film and to create a sense that these viewpoints were not those of experts, but of people with the same complex relationship to life that viewers have.

Small: When you’re working in observational cinema, you usually understand what the filmmaker feels and how you should feel while watching the film. We wanted to challenge that safe space in a social documentary. Of course, tackling the subject of Hurricane Katrina and the diaspora it created, by inserting ourselves into our film about the disaster, was very risky. We met a hundred and fifty people, many of whom were in an acute state of crisis. But we felt that within this context it was important to look closely at the relationship between filmmakers and subjects. We wondered if you could get to a greater truth by stepping out of that comfortable space behind the lens.

[ … ]

MacDonald: I assume some viewers thought you were self-indulgently making this tragedy into your personal problem.

Small: Yes, some people have been really angry about it. I’ve gone through a range of emotions about this, often questioning myself, but in many ways the discourse the film created is exactly the kind of thing you hope for with this kind of film. We wanted to engender questions about our responsibility as filmmakers and as citizens of the world, both within the filming situation and in relation to the systemic problems in our country that Katrina was/is a microcosm of.

We wanted to evoke that feeling of uncomfortableness that you have when you’re on a subway and someone is asking you for money: do you give or not? You know this is part of a bigger problem; how do you address it? Do you address it?

The next is from a separate, earlier interview with Ed Pincus:

[ … ]

Pincus: … I remember getting into a big argument with Stan Brakhage at a conference on autobiographical film … [in 1973]. Robert Frank was there and a group of New York experimental filmmakers. I felt totally out of place. Brakhage had said, “Everything you see on the screen is exactly what happened” — and I think he was talking about Scenes from Under Childhood [1967-70]. I argued that understanding the world has to do with other senses, and in particular sound.

Granted, most of the things that people say are stupid. During the editing of Diaries, I would think, “God, did I really say that? Did she really say that? But stupid or not, what we say is an essential part of who we are, and to pretend that you’re capturing reality in a silent film is a fantasy.

[ … ]

Pincus: I think of some of my documentaries as experimental films. In fact, experimentation has been more important to me than any traditional sense of documentary. When I was growing up, the practical function of documentary was to interrupt the boredom of public school, but the documentaries we saw in school created another kind of boredom. I hated those documentaries, and even once I was older, it didn’t seem to me that some of the famous documentaries were from life.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Even in The Plow that Broke the Plains [1936] there seemed little connection between what you saw and heard and people’s real lives. WPA* photography was much more influential on my thinking and my films that the 1930s documentaries. Even though some of the same people who did those documentaries were WPA* photographers, there seemed to be a difference in how they were imaging life in photographs and how their imagery was used in the films.

Ricky used to love to quote a line from Jean Renoir about the change in film brought about by sync-sound shooting. Renoir said that traditionally the camera has been this altar that you had to bring reality to; and now all of a sudden, you had a camera that could go into reality itself. I thought that was a perfect metaphor.

[*I think he meant FSA not WPA]

My previous post from MacDonald’s book is here.




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