In Conversation

Documentary Ethics and Aesthetics: In Conversation with Tom Jackson


Yesterday, I spoke to Tom Jackson about a few documentaries that we’ve enjoyed in the past few years. Here’s the transcript of our recorded conversation:

Tom Draper: I think we can agree that we are here today to talk about three films that we not only find interesting but would say are experimenting with the form of documentary or perhaps reassessing the definition of what documentary is; films which could be described as revitalising and reinterpreting past methods of documentary practice. Our three films are The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012), Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008) and Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, 2012). These films were released quite recently, emerging in the last seven or eight years and I would say they are doing interesting things with the form of documentary.

Tom Jackson: I think, from the position of aesthetics, these films are critical of documentary, as they work to unmask the limitations of the form and to expose the chasm between film, as inherently fictional or constructed, and documentary, as purporting to represent the world itself. I would say these films are important because they show the fallacy of documentary’s claim to truth.

TD: And that’s a good place to come in with the other two films we planned on talking about today, films which are classic examples of documentary, and offer styles which have been formalised and standardised throughout the history of cinema, and these will be used as counterweights to our discussion of the three contemporary films mentioned earlier. These films are securely placed in the centre of famous schools of documentary filmmaking: with Night Mail (Harry Watt and Basil Wright, 1936) on the one hand, located firmly in, what is referred to as the Griersonian tradition, of John Grierson, producer of the film, and Primary (Robert Drew, 1960) on the other, a documentary commonly regarded as the first direct cinema film. Would you like to start with Night Mail?

TJ: Yeah, sure. So it is clear that Night Mail was created by many of the big names of British cinema of the period, from directors Harry Watt and Basil Wright to producer John Grierson, with the sound by Alberto Cavalcanti, who became a massive figure in the documentary movement and within Ealing films. And this was the heyday of the General Post Office Film Unit, which later became quite important during the Second World War with the creation of propaganda films. Amongst critical circles, these films are generally regarded as offering poetic realism; as documentaries which indulge in the aesthetics of cinema and work to offer something more than your standard information film. Grierson’s famous quote on documentary is that it is the ‘creative treatment of actuality’ and this can be seen within his films. He very much believed in the truth claim that the photographic image puts forward, but conversely believed that truth could be expressed through the aesthetics of cinema, and you can see this coming through Night Mail and his various other films.


TD: It interesting that you’ve began talking about Night Mail in relation to this question of cinematic truth. Direct cinema, really stems from the cinema vérité film movement in France, with the name of this movement literally translating as ‘cinema truth’. But direct cinema has a different way of doing things. Robert Drew’s film, Primary, makes much use of the ‘fly on the wall’ aesthetic. Here Drew stands back, doesn’t attempt to push the material or the subject of his film, and instead seeks the ‘truth’, or at least the moments that you would not normally see or be exposed to in the world of American politics. Drew’s subject is the 1960 Wisconsin Primary, a contest between the two Democratic frontrunners, John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, who are each hoping to be elected as the Democratic Presidential candidate of 1960, in the race to the White House. The film focuses on the dead time of the Primary, the moments which would not be characteristically included in media sound-bites, with the filmmakers perpetually searching for something ‘real’, or at least, this is how it appears. I find the choice of using politicians for this first foray into direct cinema interesting, as politicians usually – or at least attempt to – appear as impervious to the will of the media, with journalists struggling to catch them off guard. In Primary, Robert Drew attempts to sit back, with the hope that Kennedy and Humphrey will forget that he is actually there recording them.


TJ: And I was going to ask you about that because for me there seems to be a link between direct cinema and this idea of performers and performance. In films like Primary, politicians are performers, they perpetuate a persona, but also in films such as Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970) and Don’t Look Back Back (D. A. Pennebaker, 1967), the documentarians of time who endorse this movement, are again interested in performers, musicians to be exact. Why do you think this is?

TD: Well, that’s quite an interesting question which I’m not sure I have the answer to. In Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker is obviously trying to reveal something about Bob Dylan, something which is unobtainable in his media and musical performances, something inexplicable. It’s about approaching these big enigmatic figures and gaining some small insight into who they really are. What do you think about this?

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TJ: For me, it’s hard to say, I think a large part of it is what you said earlier about trying to find something beneath the performance, the off-moments, capturing the performers when they are off-guard and willing to expose themselves. But a lot of the time this is idealistic. While it can look to us that the camera is invisible and unobtrusive, of course in reality, this is not the case. The camera is always on them and they behave accordingly. This leads me to ask the point, whether you think this truth claim is insidious, as this attempt to erase themselves, this self-effacing method of documenting can feel almost duplicitous, as we’re being presented an unfettered, undressed-up reality, while this of course can’t be true.

TD: I think that’s one of key responses to the cinema vérité and direct cinema film movements and also its downfall. Although it’s clear from many of interviews with filmmakers like Robert Drew, that they never believed – or maybe they just say so now – in the absolute quality of the purported truth depicted on screen; at least in the popular imagination, it is believed that these filmmakers did trust in the objectivity of what was captured during the filmmaking process. And we may ask why nobody makes cinema vérité films anymore, why the aesthetic has been exhausted. The only place where cinema vérité and direct cinema aesthetics are still being used is within fiction, on television and in fiction film, where the shaky camera equals realism, with ‘fly on the wall’ styles influential in mockumentaries such as The Office and the films of Christopher Guest and the ever popular genre of docudrama.

TJ: Despite the fact that the whole notion itself is idealistic you can definitely see the vitality of the form. With the direct cinema movement, one of the reasons it came about, is through technological advancement. Primary was the first film in which the sync-sound camera moved freely. So you can see the excitement, vitality and fluidity of these cameras, which are rushing around following everything. But it is far too idealistic to say that this equates truth, or the uncluttered presentation of objective reality. Something I picked up on while watching Primary, is that it is not just following two politicians; the filmmakers set up these two pointed contrasts. In the scenes with Kennedy, there are shots of screaming teenage girls, acting as if they are at a rock concert. Kennedy is presented as the young, hip, cool guy but then the film cuts to Humphrey, who is seen greeting elderly people and farmers, and is presented as the crusty, old Democrat. If you look a lot closer, you can find that there is in fact an agenda in the filmmaking.

TD: Definitely. Do you have any thoughts on Night Mail before we move on to The Act of Killing?

TJ: Yeah, if you don’t mind. There’s a big question in documentary on the ethics of reconstruction. And a lot of Night Mail’s scenes were reconstructed; in fact, some of the scenes in the sorting office were shot in studios. On the one hand, this reconstruction is a disingenuous false reality, but then again, what else is life in front of a camera? Where is the line? If you see what I mean.

TD: A film like Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922) [one of the first feature length documentaries] may allow us a way in here. The film purports to be is a semi-anthropological documentary with the intentions of exploring and explaining to audiences in the West, the life and experience of Inuit people in Northern Canada. In this film Flaherty creates a reality which arguably doesn’t exist, or at least one which is a heavily romanticised reflection of what Inuit culture was maybe hundreds of years ago. Flaherty set up all these different scenes in order to give this falsified picture, reconstructions of events which have no basis in objective reality. Whereas in Night Mail, the film is a lot closer to propaganda, one which has political motives, and wants to show how great the nationalised postal service is.


TJ: Do you think it is disingenuous, that there is something ethically incorrect about reconstruction in documentary?

TD: I think it’s a good question, and in the case of Flaherty probably, but in respect to Grierson, I’m not sure. I guess I don’t really have an answer to this question, I’ll have to have a think and come back! What do you think of this question of ethics?

TJ: Reconstruction, is quite poorly regarded by scholars of documentary, and it is seen as something very antiquated and something that can’t really happen anymore. What is the difference between a talking head interview where the participants are prompted – they know what their answers are going to be – and a scene in a sorting office where they are reconstructing an everyday event?

TD: I guess Claude Lanzmann, for example, would say that you can’t reconstruct, or at least that reconstruction has less power than the spoken word, in the case of his film Shoah (1985) [his nine-hour film about the Holocaust]. In a way it’s about capturing reality. Recorded speech has a referent, and as the camera was not there originally, reconstruction works as fakery, recreating something which was once real but no longer can be. I’m not sure if this answers your question.


TJ: Well I think it is a very complex question with no real answer. There’s such a fine line between what reconstruction is today. If you look at The Thin Blue Line (1988), the Errol Morris film, which plays in a postmodern way with the idea of reconstruction and memory, as you have the event played over and over again from different perspectives, even lit differently.

TD: And it’s also in a kind of laboratory environment, and tests out these different perspectives as maybe a psychologist would. Morris has control of all the different variables, and then shows all the testimony and perspectives throughout the film in the pursuit of truth. As the film plays it is as if Morris is still searching for the correct answer to the question ‘is Randall Adams innocent or guilty?’ In the end we know that Randall’s case was eventually reviewed and he was released from prison. The search for truth in The Thin Blue Line is one of the most miraculous cases of a documentary having a real effect on the world outside films and filmmaking. And yet, it’s a fantastic piece of filmmaking for many reasons other than this. On a similar note, it seems to me that The Act of Killing also lives in some respects outside of what’s on screen.

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TJ: Could you expand on this?

TD: For me, the film appears to offer a single line of interpretation and this is from the perspective of the perpetrators who murdered thousands of so-called ‘communists’ in 1965 and 1966 and who are now still in power. But the film makes use of intellectual montage to ridicule and undermine the claims of the killers in the film. For example, Oppenheimer includes sequences where they play golf and go bowling, surreal sequences which clash with the perspectives offered in previous moments. Or when there is the man talking in front of his collected kitsch that he has acquired over the years, and a plastic fish is singing ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ in the background. There are all these subtle cues which provoke us to ask whether what we’re hearing on screen is true, if this is what really happened, or indeed, if it is a biased perspective, an interpretation of the events which suits their political and emotional needs. In a way it reminds me of that classic clip included in Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004) where George Bush says ‘We must stop the terror, I call upon all nations to stop these terrorist killers. And now watch this drive’ and he swings his golf club and the film cuts to an image of him in his golf buggy. Such scenes are so ridiculous it forces us to reassess the political figures on screen. And it seems to me that the point of The Act of Killing is to provoke the reassessment of Indonesian history by its audience, to force the audience to search for the truth themselves, rather than being handed it by the filmmaker.

act of killing

TJ: It is the grotesque. Aesthetically, in Oppenheimer’s film, it is that schism between what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing, between them going bowling and golfing and these weird, lavish musicals and fantasy sequences. They’re talking about horrific mass executions and killings but then Oppenheimer juxtaposes this with fantasy reconstructions. I think this provokes a visceral reaction and it did make me feel sick by the end. There is also that scene where Anwar Congo is actually sick, and it’s clear that such memories do bring out a feeling of sickness within not only the audience but the film’s characters. It is a grotesque documentary, but I do not mean this in a pejorative sense.

TD: I think the film is highly successful in what it provokes. And we have to remember Joshua Oppenheimer was originally doing a PhD before he made the film; he’s someone who has written academic articles on Indonesian history and has a high level of expertise in the subject. Why doesn’t he offer his side of the story?

TJ: He was criticised, wasn’t he, for not putting much exposition into the film. But do you think this is purposeful?

TD: I think it’s so the audience is forced to reassess their own understanding of the history.

TJ: I think I agree. What do you think the film is saying about documentary? Does Joshua Oppenheimer have faith in the documentary tradition, to tell stories, to reveal truth? Or is this his send up of the idea of documentary? Because these reconstructions of the killings through Hollywood genres seems to me to be argumentative and critical of the way truth is commonly presented in cinema. Are the scenes in which the killers conceptualise themselves as detectives, or as characters in action films and musicals, a comment on the distortion of truth through Hollywood fiction?

TD: I think that’s an interesting question. From some perspectives, I can see the film as a comment on the distortion of truth through cinema vérité filmmaking. Oppenheimer goes to great lengths to become friends with the killers in the film, he spends many years of his life there, he learns the Indonesian language, and is forever searching for these moments where the killers will reveal something, perhaps not in a cinema vérité sense but in something similar. Yet, it is clear that there is little truth in the film, in the end we are presented with a heavily skewered understanding of the events of the 1965-66 killings. And in combination with the surreal reconstructions, it’s clear that Oppenheimer is provoking a reevaluation of this aesthetic.

TJ: So you’re saying that he’s mocking reconstructions in general, of the type we were talking about earlier?

TD: Maybe in some respects, but then again I would say it is difficult to make this argument. I think the film is a good example of the two forms of filmmaking mentioned before – the cinema vérité aesthetic combined with Griersonian reconstructions – and its playing with these two forms and showing that they don’t really work.

TJ: I think I would agree. And if you bring in the idea of historical trauma, which we’ll also discuss in relation to Waltz with Bashir, a question that has also plagued Lanzmann is ‘how can we portray historical trauma on screen?’. And I think in allowing these killers to dress up as gangsters, killers and detectives, Oppenheimer is commenting on the way in which Hollywood ideology masks deeper traumas and deeper truths. Film noir films, musicals, action films etc. put a numbing, aesthetic glaze on a historical trauma. But I’m not sure he’s critical of the documentary tradition outright but I think he is saying something about cinema in general.

TD: One way I would add something to this is if we think about the ending.

TJ: When Anwar Congo is on the roof, throwing up?


TD: Yeah. Across the film, nothing can make Anwar Congo come to terms with the crimes he’s committed, until he watches his performance and the recreation of the killings on a cinema screen. So it takes cinema to reveal the reality of his actions. So it seems to bolster Oppenheimer’s position: he wants to expose the lies and brutality of these psychopathic killers, who are still in power, through cinema, and it’s interesting in the end, that through watching films, one of the killers actually realises the extent of his crimes. If this sequence was staged – because some people have suggested this – then it would be further proof of Oppenheimer’s motives.

TJ: So now you’re saying it’s less critical than what I said earlier? That cinema can be communicative rather than masking a hidden truth.

TD: I think there’s a lot of ambiguity here, it offers so many different lines of interpretation and is so multi-faceted that I’ve seen it in so many different ways.

TJ: Yeah, I think it’s difficult to come to a singular conclusion. But what do you think of this idea of historical trauma as portrayed in cinema. You were talking about Lanzmann earlier who portrays the Holocaust in a very different way. He just includes speech; he doesn’t have any fanciful reconstructions.

TD: What he does is return to the original sites, the concentration camps and parts of rural Poland, and presents these images from a modern perspective.

TJ: Kind of like Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955) does in a way. And I think that’s his way of communicating trauma just as Oppenheimer communicates his history through the reconstructions.

night and fog

TD: So do you think it’s possible to reconstruct the Holocaust?

TJ: I like what Lanzmann does. I think Sartre said that ‘to write poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric’, to even bring aesthetics into a discussion of one of the most overwhelming historical events is morally dubious. Lanzmann takes the stance that you can’t do that, you just have to let people talk, this history has to be communicated through voices and memory. And Oppenheimer, I think agrees with him largely, but kind of goes to the other extreme. They’re both in their individual styles dubious about reconstruction. Lanzmann doesn’t do it at all, he completely eschews it and Oppenheimer does it to such an absurd and grotesque extent that it’s also in the end quite critical.

TD: That’s a good point. As I’m not sure I have anything else to add, how about we move on to Waltz with Bashir? How does the film fit into these debates or this history of documentary? Is it playing with the cinema vérité and direct cinema aesthetics and reconstruction or is it doing something entirely different?

TJ: Well, it’s tricky with Waltz with Bashir. The film is about the Lebanon War of 1982 and a filmmaker’s quest to remember what happened during the Sabra and Shatila massacre. And the way it uses animation is interesting. I think the semiotic framework of animation allows the fantastical digressions: the moments when he’s lying on a giant naked woman floating in the sea and other sequences where reality is distorted and bent – and we accept this because it’s animation. Through using animation, Folman is allowing the paradoxes and irregularities of traumatic memory. He’s putting forward animation as a way of working through these vague boundaries of traumatic memory and the way it can produce these unrealities and cloud memory. There’s a short film made in 1998 called Silence (Sylvie Bringas, Orly Yadin) which is also animated and uses animation to portray the subjective realms of memory.


TD: I guess that this is something that can’t be done in a conventional documentary. The film does set itself up as a conventional documentary though. Ari Folman is the interactive documentary filmmaker figure, who goes to interview his friends, and he incorporates these interviews inside the film. But then he animates all the surreal images that his many interviews conjure. In the film, only the sound is objective: what we hear is real, what we see is an interpretation of the events described in the interviews.

TJ: …as filtered through memory. I think for me the reason why animation works here is that because animation as a format is usually associated with these fantastical fictional worlds but also with the jovial, the jolly, the childish, the colourful, the bright. And I think this sort of schism between conventional notions of animation and the extreme violence within the film produces something in the viewer which I think is akin to the shock of seeing trauma, the shock of seeing death. It is reality as you would never believe it. I think the film messes with your idea of what animation is supposed to be. It produces a visceral reaction in this respect. But what I was going to ask you, is the ending sequence…

TD: …that’s exactly what I was about to ask you…

TJ: What do you think the ending sequence where you have the clash of animation and the photographic image: Folman is a soldier, represented in animation, and he turns towards the camps where the massacre happened and the film cuts to real, video footage of the women mourning the death of everyone who died in the camps. Is Folman saying that in the end the recorded photographic image triumphs?

TD: I think that’s a fair interpretation to make but also I think it would undermine what he’s explored in the film. Perhaps the reality of the photographic images, in a Bazinian sense, represent him actually coming to terms with his past? Or maybe he is saying that the reason he uses animation is because he doesn’t want to relive his experiences and to actually see it through reconstructed or recorded images is too much for him. I’m not entirely sure if I like the ending, what do you think?

TJ: I think you make a really good point. Animation has been very therapeutic for Folman, and through using animation to filter the real, we have been able to dissect these events without really coming to terms with them. I like the ending but I see it more in a political sense. It’s an aggressive statement, which argues that he can’t hide from this forever. And it also suggests guilt, perhaps not on the behalf of the filmmaker, but a collective guilt on the part of those who perpetuated the crimes, the Christian militia. It’s a powerful statement that you can’t run from this forever, it can be distorted, as the animation has, but it can’t be outrun. So I liked it in that respect, but I liked it from a political rather than an aesthetic perspective.

TD: Ah, that’s interesting! Ok, before we move on to Leviathan, do you have anything else to add?

TJ: I just have one final point on Waltz with Bashir. I don’t know if you’ve seen The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2013). I think there’s a similarity here. This film also finds alternative modes of aesthetic expression.

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TD: Well, we could have easily included that film in this conversation. It would go well with both Waltz with Bashir and The Act of Killing. So it’s clear that documentary filmmakers are searching for new ways of expression within the medium, through using animation, dramatic reconstruction, and for example in The Missing Picture, still images of clay models.

TJ: And these three films are very much related to historical trauma. The idea of the inexpressible, of something that can’t be conceptualised because it’s too traumatic.

TD: To represent the unrepresentable.

TJ: Exactly. And I think that in all three films there’s an underlying knowledge that there are limitations to the documentary approach, that truth is too difficult to discover, as nothing is resolved in these three films. They admit failure yet are still quite fecund explorations of their subjects.

TD: For me The Act of Killing and Waltz with Bashir are both beautifully crafted films, and there is lot of pleasure you can take from the surrealism of the images, in both instances, and the fantastic cinematography. And this allows us to talk about Leviathan, a film which at first appears to be interested in the experiences of a crew on a fishing trawler off the coast of Massachusetts, but really wants to show us something completely different. There are opportunities in Leviathan to create an environmentalist narrative, to look at the film’s subject politically. But I would say the power of the film does not rest with its politics but with its incredibly mad and insane use of aesthetics. When I first saw the film, I thought it could be made by an alien, as there never seems like there is a human presence behind the camera.

leviathan doc

TJ: Yeah, I would agree. The film uses numerous GoPro cameras and in way could be seen as an extension of what the direct cinema film movement was trying to achieve in the 1960s and ‘70s, of removing that presence of the filmmaker. Cameras can now resemble accessories, hats, pieces of jewellery almost. Does the GoPro camera allow reality to be represented truthfully, with the subjects unaware of the presence of the camera? Do you think this what they’re trying to do? Are they continuing the work cinema vérité and direct cinema filmmakers started?

TD: I think you’re probably right in a lot of respects, but there is a difference. The filmmakers aren’t really interested in the fisherman aboard the boat or the reality of the subject matter, it’s not a work of sociology. Instead, they revel in the blood oozing out the boat, the fish moving backwards and forwards on the deck and crashing into the camera as the ship tilts in the sea, the seagulls shot from below, giving them an alien, nightmarish quality. Perhaps the film sets itself up in a direct cinema sense – as all these cameras are stationed around the boat and it wants to minimise the filmmaker’s presence – yet the images, the film obtains, are so surreal that they deny conventional realism.

TJ: I think the film is really affectual. As these images are so disorientating, it abstracts all the events to the point where they feel elemental, to the point where it is really just sound, noise, light, surface, texture and viscera. It has an almost infernal quality. It reminds me of a Stan Brakhage film almost, a sensory assault of colour, texture and surface. Maybe it’s not so simple to say that they’re trying to capture reality unfettered by camera equipment, because if they did this they would just show us the day in the life of a fisherman. I find the fact that the film doesn’t have a narrative interesting also.

TD: Do you think it’s a difficult film to watch? Or is it so engaging because of the power of the images and the filmmaking?

TJ: I was never bored and I was always engaged by the film. I was pulled along by the images and by the soundscape as well and I didn’t need a narrative. It’s interesting in comparison to the other films we’ve discussed and this notion of attaching a narrative to an event in documentary. In Primary, there is the start and beginning of the Primary, in Night Mail there’s the start and beginning of the journey, Waltz with Bashir, start of his quest, his quest completed, The Act of Killing, beginning a conversation with these guys, ending with the resolution that one has come to terms with what he’s done, yet in Leviathan, this is not the case. So I found it interesting in this respect.

TD: I like how the film is set just on the boat, marooned from the land. We don’t see the fish being taken for processing and to be sold, we don’t see the families the fisherman leave behind on the shore, all there is is this nightmarish boat, which is so removed from how we understand things in a political or social sense.

TJ: I totally agree. I found myself really affected by the fish gutting scene, where we just see hands slicing up the fish with callous indifference.

TD: And when the workers are portrayed, it’s with such a slow cinema aesthetic. There are static images of people sitting at the table silently eating their dinner for five minutes for example, and all of this is included in the screen time. I think it’s fair to say that the film is challenging and could test a lot of people’s patience. Yet, at least for me, since I became interested in films, I’ve moved inexorably towards this kind of filmmaking, towards films which are visually and sonically interesting.

TJ: I think the film is contentious because there is not an agenda there, and I think this is hard to swallow for a lot of people.

TD: I think you could say that you have to be interested in film to really appreciate this film, what it does is so unconventional and strange that I understand why a lot of people have found it boring, weird or difficult.

TJ: Yeah, I agree. This film is more about aesthetic appreciation than content. It doesn’t have the obvious and laudable agendas of the other films which we can get on board with. There’s no perspective or sense of narrative. Documentaries are usually made with this sense of narrative because people have to be engaged, there has to be conflict, but Leviathan has none of this. We are left, for want of a better phrase, at sea.


More Conversations with Tom Jackson:

British Cinema’s North-South Divide

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