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Looking back to the future

Film historian William Uricchio (MIT) examines the historical roots of the documentary innovations gathered together in the IDFA DocLab 2010 program.

Written by William Uricchio

If we stand back and consider the documentary projects that populate this year’s IDFA DocLab – for all of their newness and difference – they clearly resonate with earlier moments in documentary history. One way to think about the documentaries in this year’s DocLab selection is through the lens of the “city symphony”: a documentary form made popular by Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927).

Like the many films that followed in its wake, this film without characters, dialogue or story was loosely organized around the flow of a day in the city, its choice of shots and editing rhythms reflecting the city’s activities and tempos. Built on an associative logic, it joined clusters of shots together on the basis of shared activities, gestures and even graphic components, thereby forming self-contained episodes. The film devotes equal time to machines, animals and people, offering a cross-section of experiences rather than a character’s point of view.

The organizational logic of the city symphony was radical in a medium increasingly given over to traditional storytelling in both fictional and non-fictional domains. And it stands as an organizational style clearly reflected in some of this year’s DocLab projects.

In some instances – Les communes de Paris, Welcome to Pine Point, Soul Patron – the logic is spatial. A map or a single geographical location helps to orient viewers and give thematic coherence to individual minidocumentaries. Other projects, such as iRock, rely on events for their coherence, broadly framing episodes within an overarching structure. At the same time, the divergences among the individual units within these projects and their sometimes impressionistic character can be disaggregated from the whole and read in a very different light as a series of portraits and even visual experiments.

Exploiting the medium’s physical properties

If Ruttmann’s Berlin triggered a new approach to documentary, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) pushed this approach to its limits. Using many of the same techniques, this film intercut multiple cities, different forms of labor and even the various phases of the filmmaking process. As the title suggests, the filmmaker was central, the agent binding together different locations and activities and making these into something coherent and whole.

Something similar takes place in Katerina Cizek’s global webdocumentary HIGHRISE/Out My Window, albeit that in this case, the binding agent is not a city or the filmmaker, but the concept of the highrise building. Within a 360 ̊ visual storyspace, Out My Window connects the lives of unrelated highrise inhabitants in 13 different cities.

Another Vertov project that harkens back to something of great relevance to this year’s DocLab is Kino-Pravda, one of cinema’s most radical experiments. It was a multi-year, multi-part documentary project linking city and country, industrial sectors and, more broadly, the activities of production and consumption, including filmmaking. The very circulation of these films in factories and workers’ clubs physically bound together and connected these diverse activities.

Although the surviving films are justly famous for their experimental character, their networked status sets them apart. Rather than thinking of these productions as “mere” newsreels, showing what happened, Vertov imagined them as something closer to a neural network, focusing on their connective potential. The connections forged by physically distributing and exhibiting the films and binding together different social groups were every bit as important as the images themselves. Bits of celluloid traveled to and fro, helping to reveal the unseen processes and dependencies that made up early Soviet life, and exploiting the medium’s physical properties – from production, through distribution, to exhibition – in the interests of creating new links, and ultimately a new society.

Participation has become an everyday activity

The literally networked productions in this year’s DocLab are the conceptual heirs of Vertov’s project, with their attention to multiplicities of experience, ever-changing connections and the desire to push our understanding of the medium beyond representation of something tangible and tactile. Consider Soul of Athens, Sparrow Songs and California Is a Place: we might justifiably read these as portals to small clusters of individual documentaries – in other words, a mere packaging strategy. But the thematic resonance among the individual films – explorations of life in particular locations – and their effect as a composite evokes Kino-Pravda’s radical agenda of providing divergent entry points to the same reality. These productions – as well as HIGHRISE/Out My Window and others – demonstrate that the power of the image and the story to extend vision, share experiences and build bridges remains unparalleled.

Some of the documentary makers and storytellers whose works feature in DocLab have also taken up Vertov’s challenge in terms of his plans to connect various groups of people by having them shoot and edit their own films, and distribute them to one another. Today’s buzz phrases, such as “the digital turn” and “participatory culture,” speak to our very different cultural condition – one in which an ever-increasing section of the public is not only connected, but also actively engaged as media producers and curators.

Image taken from Guardian article on citizen journalism

From tweeting and blogging to using mobile phones as cameras and posting videos on YouTube, participation in media production is an increasingly everyday activity. Whereas Vertov had limited equipment and a public largely unversed in the means of production, today’s public is generally well-equipped with multi-media devices, and knows how to use them. This condition, as well as the robust communications networks at our disposal, offer today’s documentary producers the means to realize and extend Vertov’s vision. Any citizen with a mobile phone that has a half-decent video camera is now a potential collaborator in the documentary effort.

More often than not, this year’s DocLab projects solicit user involvement: from simply navigating interactive narratives like Welcome to Pine Point to answering a direct question in The Test Tube with David Suzuki; from sharing personal photos with the online audience of Awkward Family Photos to reenacting old photos for Ze Frank’s participatory Young Me/Now Me project. In its most extreme form, user involvement becomes co-authorship, as is currently being explored in several global collaborative filmmaking projects such as One Day on Earth.

Complex realities

This year’s DocLab productions offer ample opportunity to navigate and co-author experiences, pursuing connections or interests, and in the process generating a custom-made sequence of images and ideas. The result is not so much a denial of authorship as its radical expansion to include the interests and contributions of the entity once known as the audience.

Ours is a complex world. Perhaps it has always been so, but our exponentially increased access to information and conflicting points of view has made that complexity seem more urgent than ever. For some, this has resulted in a nostalgic longing for simple, clear truths; for others, in a full embrace of choices, challenges and contradictions. The projects presented in the DocLab program offer a way for the latter group to explore and make sense of (parts of) the world, without ever losing sight of its complexities. The use of multiple platforms, screens large and small, different media forms, all speak to the strategies of pursuing this mission.

As new digital media and new demands of the world combine into unfamiliar and even challenging documentary forms, the vision – and the pleasures – of seeing with new eyes will continue. Long live the future of documentary!

William Uricchio is professor and director of Comparative Media Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and professor of Media and Cultural Studies at Utrecht University.