Documentary film has always had a complex relationship with archive material and archival practices.
In the 20th century media texts, such as television programmes, were transitory. It was assumed that a programme would air once, maybe twice if you were lucky, and then never be seen again by the public. However, the internet’s prominence in our lives has changed these once transitory texts into objects of permanence. Audiences now assume that once published, texts should be available to be revisited, resold and engaged with. Platforms like Youtube, Netflix and BBC iPlayer make this possible. The online library becomes some what of an archive in and of itself, allowing media texts to have an afterlife.
Archive has historic, educational and entertainment value however it needs technological, creative and curatorial skills to be able to unlock its full potential. The internet encourages publishing material and then connecting to audiences and similar texts. So you could argue that TV frameworks are becoming outdated.
If you consider another creative medium, such as music, you do not think of music from the past to be ‘archive music’. A song from the 1950’s is not considered to be ‘archive’, it is thought of as an album to be enjoyed in the present, perhaps even added to a playlist amongst recently created music. This framework encourages the integration of relevant material from both the past and the present for audiences to enjoy. It is interesting to consider what kind of digital innovation will be necessary to get archive film to be handled in the same way. Continue reading Archive Film Part 1
As part of my course at UCL I recently completed a short observational film called ‘Life on Two Spectrums’. It is a short documentary project looking at the experiences of members of the LGBTQ+ community with Autism and Asperger’s syndrome. The film follows Dan ‘Tia Anna’ Kahn, a drag queen with Asperger’s Syndrome who founded A.S.P.E.C.S (Autistic and Aspergers Persons of Every Category of (Queer) Sexuality) a support and networking group to help address the needs of the neurodiverse members of the LGBTQ+ community.
I spent the weekend in London to attend Open City Doc Fest. Like Sheffield Doc Fest, Open City Doc Festival is about more than simply exhibiting films. Its programme also features live events and performances as well as really interesting masterclasses and panels.
I attended three really insightful panels hosted by organisations such as Doc Heads, Festival Formula and Together Films.
The first panel I went to ‘The road from shorts to features’ was hosted by Doc Head’s founder Tristan Anderson.
Tristan began the session by giving everyone some advice ‘Your first film will be your worst, get it out of the way..’ He followed this up by showing us a great short film called ‘The Gap’ which perfectly explains why it getting your first film out of the way is so important in the process of making work that actually matches your taste level.
Then by using filmmaking duo Matt Hopkins and Ben Lankester, who’s film A Divorce before Marriage premiered at the festival, as a case study we looked at the steps required to make the transition from short docs to features.
Matt and Ben, as many filmmakers before them, explained that they were required to produce commercial content in order to make their company, Progress Films, financially viable and for them to go on to produce their creative work. Matt explained that whilst ‘A Divorce Before Marriage’ had not financially enriched them. It was the work that they were most proud of. They explained that when you’re working on projects for free you have to look at the bigger picture and remember than something will come from it eventually. The duo produced a series of short character portraits for a collection called ‘England your England’. Although they ended up having to fund it from their own pockets, their films were selected as Vimeo Staff Pick and they established a community of filmmakers around them who appreciated their work. From the series, they received commercial work.
I absolutely love short documentaries. The format lends itself to experimentation and also forces filmmakers to make tough choices when it comes to the edit. For me, a good short doc is concise, moving and narratively whole. There are a lot of great short documentaries online but they rarely are seen in a cinema/communal screening environment despite the fact cinema was built upon the screening of short films.
During my first year at uni, I was saying to friends at the student union pub that they should come around to mine for ‘cocks and docs, long cocktails and short documentaries’ and the idea stuck with me since then. It took two years to actually do it in a public space for a larger audience but yesterday myself and my friend and collaborator, hosted the first ever ‘Cocks&Docs’ event at the Falcon Tap basement in York. The basement seemed like an unlikely screening room as it is typically used for sweaty club nights. But working with a shoe string budget we managed to transform the room using old tea lights and a shower curtain we fashioned into a screen using some string. Once all the seats were in, the pop corn machine was on and the lights were down, the room felt like it was built for the job.
We screened a total of 6 curated short documentaries covering topics including: pop culture, women’s issues, art, animal welfare and crime.
I am thrilled with how the event went, the audience seemed to enjoy the selection of films and we were sure to provide time for discussion during the breaks. ‘Cocks and Docs’ taught me two important lessons:
You never see a short film and wish it was longer.
You need to be mindful of the order you put films in, think about the mood the film provokes. We nearly made the mistake of finishing with a film that really brought down the guest’s mood. Instead we chose to play an upbeat, music driven documentary which stirred an applause from the crowd the end the evening.
DIY film screenings are a bit tricky to organise, when it comes to licensing the shorts and the venue and actually getting bums in seats but it was also a very rewarding experience.
Our latest production is in full swing and we will be filming in the last week of this month (January).
We asked drag kings and academics from around the world to tell us more about what drag performance means to them…
The documentary will explore the resilient spirit of the people who perform masculinity on stage. If you don’t already know, Drag Kings are male impersonators, often women, who embody the mannerisms of men. Our film will follow myself and a young performing drag king, Benjamin Butch, as we uncover the core reasons that performers choose gender impersonation as a form of artistic expression. Other contributors will include drag kings Sammy Silver and Wolfy .
We are also hosting a drag night in my university town of York, in a wonderful LGBTQ+ friendly venue Thomas’s of York . If you are in the area and would like to attend your name can be added to the guest list as a ‘reward’ for donating.
While the film project is stilldraggingon…. You can follow our progress (and see pictures from the event) on our social media pages.
The documentary, ‘Bill Cunningham New York’ makes no apologies for its bias towards its subject. This biographical documentary uses a number of narrative resources, including examples of photographs taken by Bill for his ‘On The Street’ segment in ‘The Daily Star’, some of which date back to 1978. It also makes use of archive film and footage captured by the director as he supposedly ‘stalked’ Bill. These are used to paint a favorable portrait of this enigmatic photographer. All of these elements are pieced together as evidence to further the subjective view the filmmaker aims to present to the audience. They highlight Bill’s dedication to his job and his humble nature. However, to understand the full impact of the documentary one must look at the interviews, the way in which they were conducted and perhaps more importantly who was chosen to feature in the film and why; whilst also observing how these ‘casting’ decisions mediate the ‘real.’
James McEnteer (2006) states that: ‘ Grieson defined [documentary] as ‘the creative treatment of reality.’…every nonfiction film is a form of propaganda, trying to persuade us of something.’ In the case of this film, the filmmaker’s agenda is to promote his point of view of the subject, Bill, and leave audiences with an understanding of the importance of his work and an appreciation of his contribution to the fashion world. Due to information presented in the interviews, the documentary unveils an underlying narrative, Bill’s pending eviction from his home in Carnegie Hall. This was backed up by the evidence of news coverage, so the audience becomes aware of the ‘scandal’ caused by his landlord wanting to place him in a larger apartment with a Central Park view, as opposed to his tiny box apartment. There may have been issues related to the terms in which the director and crew were allowed access to the subject. There may also have been certain topics or potential interviewees that were listed. Other people may have refused to participate. The terms of access given to a crew can affect the reality presented to viewers.
To look at a list of contributors of the film would be like looking at a Who’s Who guide of the fashion world. His colleagues at ‘The Times’ and his neighbour, Editta Sherman feature in the documentary as ‘Insiders’. They are believed to have an in depth knowledge of Bill’s life, but as Bill himself is unforthcoming about his personal life, how much do they really know about him? And what authority do the interviewees have on the subject? The possible unreliability of their contribution is highlighted when they’re asked about Bill’s upbringing and family life. They make assumptions that he is from a wealthy background based on what they know of him. Later in the documentary, these conclusions are proven wrong. Bill states that he is from a working class family who had very little when he was growing up. This example shows that the contributors’ knowledge of Bill may be lacking, thus distorting the truth.
The documentary also features ‘experts’ from the fashion industry. Whilst these well-known names give the film a sense of credibility, it highlights the issue of the contributors’ motivation. Firstly, whilst these people may work in the same industry as Bill, there is no evidence of them having any relationship with him beyond featuring in his photographs. Secondly, it is questionable how neutral their knowledge of the subject is. All of the people interviewed for the film benefit in some way, from the publicity of the production and/or Bill’s photography or other means.
The film is edited in such a way that it puts forwards an entirely one sided perspective in which no one has a bad word to say about Bill, which fits in with the director’s agenda. However, several questions arise regarding the subjectivity of the interviews. A number of contributors describe how Bill’s time at ‘Women’s Wear Daily’ came to an end, over a dispute about an editor changing his copy and humiliating Bill’s muses. Annie Flanders, the creator of ‘Details’ magazine places the blame entirely on the editors of the ‘Women’s Wear Daily’. She tells the story in an evocative way, causing audiences to feel sorry for Bill. This use of emotional content could possibly displace the truth. Comments from the magazine editor on the issue do not feature in the film, nor does Bill’s view on the matter. Everyone commenting is basing their judgment on hearsay. Having not been present themselves, nor having video or photographic evidence, the reliability of the interviews as evidence is debatable.
There was an extremely brief indication, during the footage of Bill on the street, which showed that not everybody appreciates the way in which Bill operates. Two women are shown shouting angrily at Bill because he was taking their photograph and asking him to stop. This is a natural reaction to being followed and then photographed by a man they don’t know. However, this viewpoint of Bill’s work fails to be fully explored in the documentary because it conflicts with the director’s narrative.
Director, Richard Press, has openly admitted to manipulating the interviews he shot with Bill during the edit. The interviews were conducted with three crew members in the room. In order to make the film easier to follow for the audience, the producer would rerecord the questions so it sounded like a single voice interacting with Bill. On the film’s website, in the director’s statement, Press wrote: ‘This also made the need for any clarification or exposition in any part of the movie easy—I simply recorded Philip’s [the producer] voice making a comment or asking a necessary question.’ The nature of this editing is manipulative. Although it may not read as a contrivance, by reconstructing the questions asked to Bill the original meaning of the content could be altered significantly.
Along with New York City itself, the film reveals Editta Sherman, a fellow photographer and Bill’s neighbour, as one of his greatest muses. Editta’s ‘character’ acts as a foil for Bill. She was clearly chosen because she is comfortable in front of a camera and holds no qualms when talking about Bill and herself. In the instance of this documentary, Editta showing her self-appreciation reveals more about Bill and his unusual modesty and humility. This juxtaposition of the two friends, who have the same level of professional success, shows that they live two completely different lives. Their contrasting apartments, Editta’s being significantly larger than Bill’s overfilled box room without its own bathroom, shows how little Bill cares for material object. These images highlight the positive things about his character. They make him more endearing to audiences which is the essence of what the filmmaker wanted to capture.
The interview with Editta is conducted very differently to the others – which are seated and lit precisely. The interview appears more Ad Hoc and unpredictable, as if the, or a, truth is unfolding in front of the camera. The hand held camera follows Editta as she navigates around her roomy apartment, talking about the importance of the building and the memories she created with Bill.
The film lies somewhere between the boundaries of the observational mode and the interactive mode. This is because the documentary deals with the past as well as the present. The observational mode works well for action unfolding in front of the camera in the present day, but with missing footage this cannot be done with subjects from the past. The interactive mode allows the filmmaker, by means of interrogating the contributors, to unveil stories from the past to paint a full picture of Bill’s life. The filmmaker remains hidden behind the camera at all times. He uses live, synchronous sound and since the camera is rushing to keep up with the action, particularly when Bill is on the street, it is often shaky. This gives it an aesthetic style not dissimilar to that of cinema verité films such as ‘Grey Gardens’. This familiar aesthetic can, as Partricia Aufderheide (2007) states, ‘convince viewers that they are present, watching something unconstructed and uncontrovertibly real.’ As cinema verité has made its way into the default language of documentary, and other forms, audiences have come to associate this visual style with greater reality.
The filmmakers allow Editta and Bill to interact with each other as the camera just observes. The presence of the camera itself affects the way in which Editta holds herself. There is certainly an element of performance within this observational mode, much like the behavior little Edie in ‘Grey Gardens’ exhibits. Editta thrives on the camera’s gaze and puts on a show, thus exaggerating the ‘real’.
However at times a voice is heard asking questions, prompting discussion. This would fit more into the interactive mode, which welcomes and acknowledges the filmmaker having a direct impact on the event being recorded due to an engagement with the subject. Unlike other participatory filmmakers such as Michael Moore and Louis Theroux, Richard Press does not show himself on screen. His immediate presence in the film is limited to an off screen questioning voice.
Bill Nichols (2001) argues that all films are, in a way, documentaries. Fiction films are categorised as ‘wish fulfilment’ and non-fiction as ‘social representation’. He groups fiction and non-fiction in such a way to comment on the similarities and crossovers these two forms have. There are many cases of documentaries using techniques commonly associated with fictional texts. Director, Richard Press said of the production of Bill Cunningham New York: ‘ I approached the movie’s structure less like a documentary and more like a narrative with a strong protagonist surrounded by a menagerie of characters…with narrative threads that slowly builds…a portrait.’ The interviewee’s interpretation of the truth is captured by the director, who then manipulates the footage according to their creative wishes. The information presented to audiences in the film is mediated not only by the filmmaker but by all who feature in it, as they, perhaps, self produce their contribution.
Patricia Aufderheide (2007) states that biographical documentaries ‘reveal the same choice making that reveals all historical work to be an interpretation.’ This means Bill Cunningham New York cannot capture the whole truth about this ‘unsuspectingly important’ man. As a biographical documentary, it is ‘character driven by definition but the filmmaker must interpret that character for the viewer.’ Since the director had to make so many choices in the production process, such as its interlocutors and selecting archive footage to use, the nature of the documentary is personal and subjective.
All films, documentary or otherwise, involve making a myriad of ethical decisions. Simply pointing the camera onto something mediates the pre-existing reality. Therefore no film can be classed as purely objective. Documentary filmmakers have a responsibility towards their subjects to treat them with respect and present an honest representation of the truth as they see it. However, they simultaneously have a need to produce interesting content so that audiences will engage with the ‘truth’ the filmmaker puts forward. ‘Bill Cunningham New York’ shapes the real, forming it into an interesting narrative carried by the interviews, in order to present to audiences the directors admiration and respect for Bill. It features people who are well known in the fashion industry, whether or not they have an in depth knowledge of Bill and his life. Their names will attract audiences and the purpose of using them as contributors is to gain publicity. People will be interested in the opinion of these figures and so will want to watch the film. This ultimately means that the documentary and its subject will reach a wider audience.
I’m going to explore the ways in which the Maysles Brothers used techniques synonymous with direct cinema. They produced a candid and controversial non-fiction feature film depicting the relationship between an eccentric mother and her daughter. The film’s aesthetic embraces its imperfections as a hallmark of realism. It follows direct cinema conventions with handheld camera movements and the use of only diegetic sound. The drama unfolds unscripted and without narration. The filmmakers’ faith in the spontaneous, asks nothing more from its subjects than their permission to be filmed.
Whilst working with the Drew Associates the Maysles Brothers saw fault in other modes of documentary, which strongly resembled propaganda and often mislead audiences. The Drew Associates set about revolutionising documentary film, aiming to produce more intimate and objective content. In the early 1960s when the brothers began working on their own productions, they continued to develop the principals of direct cinema.
In 1972, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwill (mother-in-law of Real Housewives of NY’s Carole Radziwell) approached the Maysles brothers to produce a film about her childhood. On the list of places she suggested to film was Grey Gardens, a 28-room East Hamptons mansion which was an overgrown flea ridden fortress. Although Radziwill eventually lost interest in the project the brothers found a fascination with the mansion’s residents, Edith ‘Big Edie’ Beale and her daughter ‘Little Edie’. The women’s fierce tenacity and complex relationship with one another captivated the filmmakers in the same way the film does with its audiences.
As the aunt and first cousin of Jackie O, the Beale’s isolated life and the increasingly decrepit state of Grey Gardens was a far cry from what they were brought up to be accustomed to. ‘Big Edie’ a former singer and ‘Little Edie’ who was a model and ‘it’ girl, were both New York socialites. Before Big Edie and her husband separated the women lived a life of luxury, attending premiers and donning the latest fashions. Little Edie’s love of clothes continued when their disposable income declined, she would creatively fashion her flamboyant outfits from towels, bed sheets and curtains. The documentary explores how two aristocrats both with beauty and talent ended up being the subject of criticism for living in such appalling conditions. The local board of health ordered the women to improve the state of the house or be evicted. Little Edie believed this was an invasion of their privacy, pushing the two women into an even more insular existence.
Despite their impoverished circumstances, the high society drop outs seem content in their decaying mansion relying only on each other, their cats and the raccoons in the attic for company. The only regular visitor was Jerry Torre, the women’s young handyman. After running away from home he was taken in by the women and became somewhat of a rival sibling for Little Edie. The presence of a man in the house served as an unpleasant reminder of the rich suitors scared away by Big Edie. Little Edie who frequently brought up the men’s marriage proposals displayed resentment for missed opportunities throughout the film.
The exposition of the film is done largely through the use of a montage of news clippings showing the coverage that ‘Grey Gardens’ was receiving and the attitude neighbours had to the women’s lifestyle. The use of montage is effective because as well as providing the mansion’s back story it places emphasis on the story being true. The Maysles brothers do little to hide their presence in the film. Whilst the headlines are being shown, their voices are heard accompanied by an image of the two men. J B. Vogels (2005) argues that this is an important part of the film as it cements the Maysles as both supporting characters within the film and its creators. This is also apparent as glimpses of the filmmakers can be seen in reflections in mirrors and when the Beales directly address or speak about the men. By showing images of the brothers with their equipment the film makes its audience acknowledge that although the film shows the real lives of its subjects, it’s presented as a manufactured product. The documentary’s self-reflexive nature makes it not only about the inhabitants of Grey Gardens but about a time when a film crew visited them.
Direct Cinema was dependant on the new technologies coming out at the time. Sound recording equipment became smaller and more portable as did the cameras. ‘Grey Gardens’ is filmed in a fly on the wall style, conforming to the conventions of direct cinema. The handheld camera enabled Albert Maysles to move freely and capture the action quickly, although at times the shot would be shaky and lacking focus. ‘These ‘flaws’ in themselves seem to guarantee authenticity and thus became desirable.’ (MacDonald, 1996, p.250) With the heavier pre-war equipment this style would not have been as achievable.
‘The beauty of a Maysles image most often arises through its startling immediacy, capturing and seizing the spontaneity of a moment….rather than freezing the image into one of overly aestheticized beauty.’ Joe McElhaney – Albert Maysles University of Illinois Press 2009.
McElhaney points out that the camera operator being there to capture the action unfolding on film is part of the attraction of this documentary. The fact the Maysles were there to record the moments at all is more important than the technical excellence of the images produced. It is the film’s visual imperfections that become a metaphor for the women’s lives which are at times off-kilter, messy and difficult to follow.
The filmmakers shot hours of footage without forming a final judgment of what the outcome of the film would be. The Maysles allowed a single camera to roll continuously whilst recording sound. This resulted in the film being largely made up of long takes, which are a common feature of direct cinema films. The creators aspire to be objective; the less they have to manipulate their footage the better. The Maysles allowed ‘Grey Gardens’ to serve as an exploration of the women’s feelings towards each other as well as their fears of men and the outside world. Edith and Edie spent a lot of time reminiscing about their past as they look through photo albums and express regret over missed opportunities. From the photographs the audience can see how the women, much like their mansion, were once beautiful but age and lack of care have caught up on them. The dissimilarity of the old photographs and the tightly framed images from the present highlight how their lives changed. Grey Gardens which in their youth was a sanctuary has become somewhat of an asylum for the women, trapping them in a lost time and in their view protecting them from the outside world.
The idea of the two women being imprisoned in Grey Gardens is repeated throughout the film. As Little Edie gives a tour of her bedroom she holds a birdcage and a poster advertising a world tour in her hands. She then goes on to explain how she would hang them next to each other on the wall. The juxtaposition shows Edie’s feelings of imprisonment and yearnings for the freedom of her youth. With the remarkable contrast between the two objects and the attention they are given in the film, it is hard to believe this moment was a coincidence. It raises questions about the reality of the film and suggests Edie is orchestrating her own narrative within the Maysles’ production. Instances of Edie’s directing can also be seen at the beginning of the film when she suggests what the brothers should capture next.
American direct cinema pioneer Robert Drew ‘saw direct cinema as a ‘theatre without actors’.’ (MacDonald, 1996, p.250) The Maysles tried to faithfully follow this model but some could argue that with Edie’s flair for the dramatic she would often act for the camera. Edie’s acknowledgement of the camera’s presence distances the film from direct cinema norms. She makes reference to her outfit as ‘the best costume for today,’ indicating she sees each day the filmmakers are there as a performance. She gives directorial advice to the crew and shows an apparently exaggerated version of herself within her dance routines.
Direct cinema can be seen as an approach which disregards fictional elements. This would imply that everything we see on screen is the ‘truth’. However, it is through the editorial decisions that the ‘truth’ captured by the camera is given a meaningful narrative. Ultimately the final film is a presentation of the filmmakers’ interpretation of reality. ‘Given the editorial nature of the process, a documentary/non-fiction feature film can only ever represent a truth selected by…the filmmaker.’ (Young, 2002, p.14). John Grierson argued that documentaries are ‘the creative treatment of actuality’ and in ‘Grey Gardens’ examples of this can be seen. There are instances when one woman is talking and it suddenly cuts to the other’s reaction. The film was shot with one camera so the close up reaction shots of the women could not have been captured. Artistic liberties were obviously taken by the editor to choose an appropriate shot to enhance the dynamic witnessed by the single camera.
The editing techniques used contribute to the chaotic feel of the film. It is choppy and utilises jump cuts frequently. This suits the manner in which the story is told as it is highly fragmented and it challenges formulaic narrative structures by blurring time distinctions. It mimics the disharmonious lives the mother and daughter lead. It also suggests that they have both lost all concept of time. They don’t pay attention to what day of the week it is, nor the time of day. This idea is also captured by Little Edie who said ‘It’s difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.’ The women appear to have become jaded with the present and long for their lost youth.
Alongside the images, synchronous sound is played; all of which is diegetic. This is because with direct cinema, the filmmaker does not want to generate a synthetic emotional plea to the audience. Since both the women were aspiring entertainers, music is a pivotal part of the film. The Beales singing along to the records contributes to the often discordant sound of the documentary. The pair frequently squabble and talk over each other as they speak directly to the camera. The fly on the wall effect is furthered by this because in a fictional film, actors would generally wait for their cue to deliver lines. However, the way they are shown doing this suggests they are competing for the attention of the lens. This may not resonate with modern audiences as films with this kind of sound rarely give rise to commercial success. There is no narrator which is common in observational cinema films. There is a belief that interesting subjects and circumstances are enough to hold the target audience’s attention.
Jay Cocks (1976) scrutinized the film stating it was ‘an aimless act of ruptured privacy and an exploitation’. Grey Gardens did prove to be uncomfortable viewing for some. It was released at a time before reality television’s prominence, audiences were surprised and in some cases appalled by having such a detailed view into the Beale’s lives. The voyeuristic feeling the film generated in viewers may have been an effect of the fly on the wall style Grey Gardens was filmed in. However, in response to a slanderous review of the film Little Edie wrote, ‘We’re proud of it and couldn’t be more pleased. It’s us!’ she also defended Albert Maysles by saying he was a pioneer and because of this he will be criticised.
The long takes, diegetic sound, absence of narrator and the hand held camera movements create a free flowing and impossibly intimate view of the extraordinary life of two ordinary women. Albert Maysles ‘asserted that ‘the more personal [a film] is, the more it tells everybody’s story.’.’ Audiences can sympathise with the dysfunctional family dynamic and feel inspired by the women to go against the status-quo.