the documentary exchange


According to geographers, two things describe a city: its natural setting and its place in the interplay of exchanges. Similarly, documentaries define their space at the junction between a location and a link; the landscape they display is weaved from the transactions carried out around of the lens, which senses what is shared and what is not. Documentary ethics are a human geography.

In Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman, a title card serves as a prologue to the story proper: “When acclaiming our modern heroes, let’s not forget The News Reel Cameraman...the daredevil who defies death to give us pictures of the world’s happenings.” A few shots follow, showing a reporter and soldiers on the same battlefield—he only armed with a camera on a tripod, used mostly as a shield. A few scenes later, the novice cameraman played by Keaton is in Chinatown at a Tong War incident. At first he provokes a battle in spite of himself, but then he gets into it. He arms one belligerent just to keep the show going, beats up another one so that he can film a body on the ground, he takes refuge on scaffolding that is collapsing from the shock of an explosion, and he ends up becoming the man to bring down. From the prologue to the Chinatown scene, from the archetypal hero to his comic counterpart, there are the two ends of a spectrum. On one side there is a strict division of tasks between soldier and filmmaker—they may incur similar dangers, but they still do not quite occupy the same space: it is to “us”, the title card says, that the “pictures of the world” are addressed. On the other side, a confusion of genres and a loyal exchange of favours. Is it a documentary goodwill on one side, and its potential perversion on the other? It’s obviously more than that, and not only because the next sequence is so irresistible. The Tong War incident was only a first attempt, which will be transformed by what follows. Originally, Buster only became a cameraman because of his desire for a pretty secretary from the MGM newsreel department he met my chance. Pressed against her thanks to the movement of a crowd cheering on a sports star, he’s blind to what he’s supposed to be watching, to what the other reporters are filming, because he only sees her. From that moment he will not rest until he becomes a cameraman, near to her, because now she is his only true subject. As Gilles Sausier recalls (méditation documentaire), he ends up saving her from drowning after leaving his camera on the beach. A clever monkey that accompanies Keaton takes over and films the scene. “The best camera work seen in years” is in the can, and Buster joins the pantheon of reporters acclaimed by the initial title card. There is nothing heroic about Buster’s war but the fiction that orders it is clearer; the documentary offers the prospect of saving what has just been filmed.

But there’s more: on the reel containing the drowning, we also find images of the Tong War. The “best camera work” could just as well refer to one or the other, or to the conjunction of the two, which just happened to be filmed on the same reel. In the war, should Buster be transgressing the documentarian’s rules of conduct? On the sea, should he be doing the good deed that saves the day? You have to think of the two questions together, and consider that the ethical significance of images of reality depends primarily on the quality of the shared space that the film creates between the documentary maker and his object. Now an overview.

West of the Rails (Tiexi Qu), Wang Bing, 2004

We have been following Wang Bing for eight hours already, as he surveys a district of Shenyang, once China’s largest industrial centre. Before 1990, a million workers laboured there. Since then it has been closing. It has been eight hours, then, between “rust” and “remnants”, as indicated by the titles of the first two parts of the film—ruin’s progression, and the men’s obstinate will to stay there. It has also been eight hours that Wang Bing has been following workers who now count him as one of their own in their everyday lives and conversation. One person after another says “since you’re there, film this, film that, for when nothing’s left.” An agreement links the filmmaker to those he films. He will safeguard a memory, print the remnants on celluloid, produce an archive.

Now the film focuses on a character, old Du. Du is blind in one eye, and lives out of the way in a makeshift shed. He survives as well as he can by pilfering carbon. One night he’s arrested. “It was bound to happen” the others joke. Waiting for old Du are his son Du Yang, and Wang Bing. It takes a week, and thirty minutes of the film; they smoke cigarettes, and kill time by looking at photos. They go out and follow the snow-covered railway line on foot. They arrive at the police station, and Du has been freed. We find ourselves in a cheap restaurant. “I really missed you,” the father says. “Not as much as I missed you,” the son replies. Now a calming of nerves and rice alcohol; the son rolls on the ground and kneels at his father’ feet. Du yells at him because a man shouldn’t blubber like a girl. “Stand up, people are looking at you.” What “people”? Wang Bing, us. The son stands up, hits his father and rolls onto the floor. The father drags him outside. “I’m going to have to carry you, at my age.” We can already see a long shot coming, of the son on his father’s back, on their way to the shed. But no; we immediately find them at home, the son sleeping off the alcohol, the father telling him he loves him. Between the two scenes, there is a narrative leap that is unusual for Wang Bing. We are given to understand that he needed to stop filming because there was something more important to do: sharing the work with old Du of carrying the son on his shoulders and getting back to the house. Here there’s no circus monkey to operate the DV, no “best camera work seen in years”, just a gesture to imagine, but one that evinces the purpose of Wang Bing’s work, his sense of urgency and priorities, and also what is transpiring on both sides of the camera.

The Sugar Bowls of Colleville (Les Sucriers de Colleville), Ariane Doublet, 2004 / West of the Rails (Tiexi Qu), Wang Bing, 2004

There are plenty of films documenting disappearance. This is, after all, one of the classic tasks of the documentary: to conserve last vestiges before it’s too late, to record a reality at the moment of its collapse. Ariane Doublet went to the Pays de Caux to film workers at a beet processing plant that was due to be closed, and was therefore ready to be captured one last time. Here are the last days of the working class, the last gestures of a workforce that encompasses the history of a century. Goodbye to machines, to the beauty of the industrial landscape. The film also attests to the sensitivity of its author, to the trust she was able to earn from those she filmed. But what she offers in return for their confidence is a tribute at best; the world the camera surveys already seems to be populated by ghosts, and the archive she produces turns into a fable of powerlessness.

So why is it that west of the rails they like the same thing that practically mortifies those in the Pays de Caux? No doubt it has to do with how Wang Bing’s film presents not so much a dissolution as a redistribution of energy, not so much a desertion as a change of play. The blast furnaces are empty and work is scarce, but a disused factory has been turned into a tea house. And there is non-stop bustling activity in houses that have been transformed into provisional workshops. An unshakable vitality, if only for its own sake. This is exemplified by an astonishing sequence in the second part of the film (“Remnants”) in which we watch a worker who’s been ordered to vacate his house tear it down with a pickaxe before the bulldozers can. This kind of resistance is necessary to keep from blowing a fuse. Wang Bing builds a monument on the factories’ ruins, but there is nothing funereal about it. Whereas Ariane Doublet cultivates an unsettling gap between the film work and the end of work she’s filming, West of the Rails fosters equality, and gives the spectator as much as it offers to the people it follows, without ever pretending to be one of them (in the fallacious sense that they are united by a “common destiny”). It is more of a real exchange than a tribute.

Darwin’s Nightmare (Le Cauchemar de Darwin), Hubert Sauper, 2004

Let us apply the question of the filmmaker/subject exchange to Darwin’s Nightmare, if only to shift the focus of the debate that has dogged its vision ever since historian François Garçon criticised its credibility, the naivety of its viewers and that of its commentators. The film examines the Nile sea perch culture on the Tanzanian banks of Lake Victoria. It is costing the area its native species, suffocating a population that can no longer reap its benefits; it’s a tale of globalised capitalism’s disasters. And yet, even if Darwin’s Nightmare makes its ideological leaning clear, it never aims at the soundness of a historical proof, so clearly does it assert the limits of its field of vision. The area visited by the film never extends beyond Mwanza and the surrounding area. Sauper bonds with a few unfortunates, who rarely testify to anything more than the precariousness of their own existence. The apocalyptic images—of street kids melting scraps of plastic fish-wrapping to inhale the smoke, of a woman with an eye burned by the ammonia given off by carcasses—these are treated in a segment that, advancing mainly through visual rhyme, should have forestalled the temptation to look at it as something claiming to present a serious investigation. In that sense, the film can’t help looking slapdash to those who prefer to see it conform to a structure it manifestly declines - that of a trial, the structure of choice for the majority of today’s television reporting, owing to an exclusively legal conception of the construction of meaning. The fact remains that the device chosen by Sauper represents Tanzania as a purely mental space—a nightmare—where all events are immediately subsumed to the allegory, every person encountered promptly assigned a symbolic place, every reality instantly identified with his fable. Elisa, a pretty prostitute, sings the praises of her country’s beauty while she waits for a European “boyfriend”, a fish cargo-pilot. Of course, this must be Tanzania; and that she should be murdered during filming by an occidental client serves to confirm the intuition. Sauper finds material for a new scene in this event. He shows Elisa’s prostitute friends the images he recorded of her, and films them crying as they watch his film. The scene seems like an evil portent, and at the same time highlights the political impact of Darwin’s Nightmare: behind the curtain of allegory and the dignity that it is supposed to confer upon people who normally count for nothing, a tomb awaits.

Land Without Bread (Terre Sans Pain), Luis Buñuel, 1933

Jean-Louis Comolli found the lost rushes for Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread. This film was intended to capture Spain at its most miserable and abandoned. The people of Las Hurdes—a group of hamlets perched on the mountains of Extremadura—lent themselves to the cause. “There are dwarves and cretins in large numbers”, the commentator says. The film was censored in 1933, then reclaimed in 1937 by Republicans struggling against the Francists.

The rushes Comolli exhumed at the Toulouse Cinematheque show scenes of communal solidarity. Buñuel cut them out because they were incompatible with the violence and desolation he intended to show. Comolli: “Misery is intolerable? I hope someday sensationalising it will be too. Because the filmmaker always faces the same question (and it’s a political one): how do you awaken the doubts and crises in each viewer that it is a spectacle’s mission is to repress and drive away?” On the occasion of a projection of Land Without Bread at the Pompidou Centre, Comolli recalled how, without even having to see the rejected scenes, the film’s “secret” was staring him in the face. There were enough excesses for him to detect the irony. Faced with this show of authority over reality, he was able to put up a resistance and confront it freely. What is at stake in the film from a purely political standpoint would reside here as well.

From Buñuel’s film to its exegesis, there is the same need to consider the documentary act’s political efficacy, but placing its centre of gravity in front of the film, in the space that opens up between the artist and the spectator, even if it means leaving a question—also political—unasked and unconsidered, that of the documentary agreement between the filmmaker and those he films. The people of Las Hurdes, who give their very selves to Land Without Bread, are as if dissolved in the speech that describes them and the editing that influences the way they are represented. In 2000, the Dutch filmmaker Ramon Gieling shot a film in Las Hurdes called Buñuel’s Prisoners.

S21,The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, Rithy Panh, 2003

At the beginning of S21, we see Houy, a former assistant to the head of a centre where 17,000 people were executed between 1975 and 1979. He tells his parents that he can’t sleep, that he feels haunted. They encourage him to “tell the truth” and to “hold a ceremony” so that he will never “see those men again”, to appease the dead and “become a new man”. Placing this scene at the opening of the film—when there has been nothing to indicate that it was filmed before the scenes that are to follow—enables Rithy Pahn to make it clear from the outset that everyone who appears in his film has a stake in it. The surviving victims are still waiting for a public reckoning of the Khmer regime’s atrocities, but then there are also the executioners, who throughout the film offer staggering “demonstrations” in situ of the everyday tasks they carried out at the time. However, for each of them, what is at stake differs markedly. Whereas Houy and his parents are counting on a liberation through speech, Rithy Pahn and the painter Nath—who is also a survivor of the camp—are betting on a liberation from speech. Wheras Houy and his comrades form the centre persist in claiming to be victims of a regime they say set them up and separated them from their true selves, the others on the contrary put their hope in hearing the executioners recognise the division between the torturers and their victims.

For the executioners, all of the movement of S21 is in a progressive passage, from liberation through speech, to liberation from speech. And yet the film does not conduct a trial that would fill the legal void in today’s Cambodia; it is never a question of trapping the torturers in order to make them admit the truth. Its purpose is at once more modest and grander. It is to produce, through the experience it offers to S21’s old henchmen, a double separation—of the past from the present, without which the genocide cannot become an object of knowledge; of the criminals and their victims, which has to be recognised before a common space is possible. If that can’t be Cambodia itself, at least such a common space gets constructed within the film, by and for those who appear in it.