Film in the age of digital media

I want to talk about Life in a Day (2011), dir. by Kevin MacDonald as an example of a new form of documentary filmmaking in the digital age. Stewart in his article “Mysteries reside in the humblest, everyday things: collaborative anthropology in the digital age” talks about a similar project called MyStreet. He argues that projects like this give the opportunity for consumers to be producers at the same time and to give voice to the everyday people without mediation. It also serves to “break down the walls between the academy and the world outside” (2013:307). On the other hand, he also says that the title of the project “MyStreet” gives the people involved some direction of what the film aims to portray. This is similar in Life in a Day. It is constructed by everyday people, portraying what they do in one single day. However, they are also guided by some questions that they have to answer apart form just filming their day. Questions such as “what they fear the most?” or “whom they love the most?”. This does not have a lot to do with their day in general but it can provoke some strong emotions that will make the film more powerful, especially when added to footage about people living under very severe conditions.

The people of the digital age, having access to technology and Web 2.0, produce content similar to Life in a Day and put it on Youtube or Instagram or any other social media every day. Given the amount of views they get it is already taking over the place of mass media or Television. It is highly demanded and people seem to like the fact that it seems so real and they can look into someone’s life/home/family/ etc. This makes me think a little of Black Mirror, a British TV series, which is a critique of society in the digital age. I feel like content produced without a specific aim  to portray a message (like Life in a Day)or raise awareness to something is not really documentary, it is just something fun to watch. I also think/agree with Stewart that this might be the future of documentary/anthropological filmmaking, given the demand for materials like this, it does not necessarily mean that it is the right sort of platform.

There are also other concerns with material produced solely by the everyday people, which I think is that it can be just as biased as those produced by an outsider. People don’t always want to put the truth out there and will portray themselves in a way they want to be seen. This is already the case with how people portray themselves on social media, which is often a completely different image of who they actually are. So why would this be different for the purpose of a film similar to Life in a Day?

Chronicle of a Summer

I find Chronicle of a Summer very intriguing in the sense that it seems like a documentary about how to make cinema verité, while including sequences from the actual film as well. They discuss what counts to be direct cinema and where it can seem too real or not real enough. I think there is very thin line between what seems or looks real and what is actually real. Unless people are not aware of the camera, which they were obviously aware of when they filmed Chronicle of a Summer, it is impossible to distinguish if someone is acting or not. They don’t have to be acting in the theatrical sense, which consists of learning lines and portraying to be someone else but the performance of self in ways in which we want other people to see us.

Furthermore, the point of cinema varité, or Direct Cinema, was to show the everyday people, their everyday lives and the ordinary things that concern them. In documentary film particularly, filmmakers started to intervene less with the subjects and avoided indirect documentation. What influenced this new feature is most likely Italian neoliberalism and the appearance of lighter and more compact equipment, which also required less crew for production.

I found that in Chronicle of a Summer there were some parts that are more similar to cinema of quality than to observational film, especially when the protagonist started talking about her past as a Jew and the time she got deported with her father.

 

She walks with and then toward the camera that eventually moves away from her leaving her very small in the background, while we can hear her story in a voiceover. The mise-en-scene and structure of this shot is more cinematic and reminds me of classical cinema, compared to other parts of the film when subjects are interviewed in real locations and are talking to the camera. I feel like it is more of a mixture of cinema verite and cinema of quality, which I believe can be explained by the fact that artists were still unsure of how to go about making a film like this. We can also see this though their conversation and discussion before they start filming and a certain disagreement and anxiety is perhaps present from both the actors and the filmmaker’s side.

A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

Me and my partner Jelena started working on our ethnographic short film on the Mohácsi Busójárás. This is a traditional Hungarian carnival, which happens every year in February; for 6 days man and woman dress up in scary costumes and parade on the streets on Mohács. There are a few believed legends behind this tradition. The legend goes back to the 1700, when the Turkish troops invaded the town of Mohács and those living there had a flee the town. They had no chance against the power of the huge Turkish troops but one day a mysterious Sokac man appeared to tell them to carve scary masks and loud weapons and wait for a stormy night when they should put a sudden attack on the Turks. This is what they have done and they managed to scare the Turkish troops out from Mohács. Ever since they dress up and parade to celebrate this victory every year.

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We wanted to investigate the authenticity of this tradition and the extent to which it is still an authentic part of the Mohácsi identity or whether it has been overly commercialised throughout the years. To start out we decided to visit the Busójárás on Sunday, which appeared to be the most active day of the carnival. However, we were worried that since it is most likely to be the day that everyone will visit, we dropped this idea. We ended up going on Friday (2nd day of the carnival). What happened on this day is what I would like to call the filmmaker’s Apocalypse. We got there on time, at about 10am, when it seemed to be a bit gloomy and there were not many people on the street. However,  at about noon it started pouring and the streets were literally empty. All the scheduled events were cancelled and there were not one busó to be seen. Regardless of the fact that it looked and felt like a complete disaster, like Mr. Coppola, we kept our hope and virtue shamelessly until about 5pm when we gave up. Thankfully, we met an anthropologist lady, Tünde, who introduced us to a few mask-makers who she knew personally. So we got some contacts and phone numbers for our next day of shoot, next weekend.

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screen-shot-2017-02-25-at-14-12-00We decided that since we cannot go back on any other days of the festival,mostly because we don’t have the budget for it, we will change a few things about our initial film plan. At this point we have the contacts of three mask-makers who have very different styles of making masks for the same event. They are known to have learned from the old masters of busó mask-making and developed their own styles throughout the years.

 

 

 

*stills are from the few shots we made on the day

 

 

Observational Filmmaking and Titicut Follies

Capturing Reality: the reality of observational filmmaking

Cinema verite or Direct cinema’s main idea was to represent or show reality in its full potential, which involved using a lot of observational techniques. It was a movement that has affected fiction equally as documentary filmmaking. This movement is called the French new wave in France, the British new wave or Kitchen Sink Cinema as known in Britain. The most obvious characteristics of these films were that it did not have a specifically laid down script, dialogue or trained actors. Everything was filmed spontaneously, in real, public locations and were about everyday people instead of actors. It was also often characterized by quite long shots that follow and stick to characters for longer than classical Hollywood.

Talking about documentaries, Fredrick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies is considered to be an observational documentary by Grimshaw and Ravez, as being part of a series of films made under the cinema vérité movement. The film appears to be highly based on a series of observations at the mental hospital the filmmaker is studying. Wiseman seems to make no contact with his actors or the actions that take place in the hospital. He purely seems to be capturing what is happening in the moment. This is evident since the characters do not talk to the camera, are not questioned or interviewed and they are not telling any coherent story to the observer. However, I think that there are some important choices that Wiseman consciously makes in order to build up a message he wants to convey, regardless of the obviously observational nature of the project.

One of these obvious choices is the uncomfortably tight shots. He films a room full of naked man randomly walking around but the audience is not given the choice to keep a distance from them. It feels claustrophobic and chaotic and this is most likely what he consciously wanted to achieve through these shots. This also complements his aim is to critique and show the brutality of this mental asylum, and similar institutions.

He focuses on faces in extreme close-ups, especially in the case of the man who has committed child abuse and the doctor who is questioning him. This is also interesting because this is the first time we see these characters and the man talks about very personal matters. We do not know anything about them up to this point, yet, they we are entering, interrupting into their personal spheres. The audience must feel just as uncomfortable as the man feels to talk about his sexual life. Furthermore, in the same scene, the two men are never seen in a two shot, they are always featured separately. Perhaps, to reinforce how the two men live in separate and opposing worlds.

The fact that he cuts between places and time unconventionally brings up another issue for me. I do not see the continuity of events or if they follow any particular order with a particular aim. Perhaps, he is aiming to, again through cinematic language, show the disorganized and chaotic nature of the asylum. He cuts to longer shots in the garden, where he shows man in relation to each other in space, contrasting it with when they are alone in their cells. He tends to do this is long shots, which linger on the monotonous and senseless actions, repetitive fustian.

 

The Fiction of Reality: What makes a documentary

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

To start the discussion about what makes a documentary, and what aspect of reality they portray, I want to address an instance from Nichols’ (1991) piece on “The Fact of Realism and the Fiction of Objectivity”. I find it problematic when Nichols talks about realism and the objective eye of the filmmaker and within the same context brings up Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Advertised as a documentary film, it is also known that it has been strategically made to glorify Hitler and German ideology, to celebrate Germaneness. She makes various cinematic choices that are explicitly used to portray Hitler in a low angle shot, making him appear authoritarian and powerful on screen. Just to name a few examples, she also brings attention to the flawless, prefect way in which the crowds line up to celebrate Hitler’s greatness. Straight lines and smooth construction connote the order and flawlessness of the Nazi regime.

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However, Nichols argues that “…an image can be made to appear highly similar to the way in which a typical observer might have noted the same occurrence” (p. 166). I find the notion of “typical observer” problematic because I don’t believe there is such an observer. Every observer has their own purpose in making the film, and even if unintended, but most of the time it is conscious. The choice of what to shoot, where to place the camera, from which angle to shoot, all of these choices are dependent on the filmmaker. In Riefenstahl’s case it was intended to send a message as well, even though she claimed to be filming reality. Her story is also problematic because she has been closely associated with Hitler. They regularly appeared together, and she has been frequently invited to Nazi events. Given their relationship, she could not afford to produce a film that did not carry carefully inserted propaganda material. Even though she has been denying her intentions and claimed that she has doing pure art, it is inevitable to see the problematic features in Triumph of the Will.

Intending to discuss what makes a documentary piece, I want to address Vetrov’s Man with a Movie Camera. Man with a Movie camera is a great example of the Soviet montage theory of editing. Even though the film is known to be one of the greatest first documentaries in the history of filmmaking, I believe that it goes against most conventional techniques of what we might consider to be important features of a documentary film. Vertov does not use continuity editing in his film, therefore, the shots are constructed in a way that they do not follow a chronological story or any particular pattern of events. The man with the movie camera wanders around the city, but he does not film an entire day, he films random features and moments from the day. Furthermore, he has a great fascination with  motion technology, and the way man and technology work together. He connotes this relationship to man’s relationship to the camera. He also pays great attention to trains, and people’s motion in space. Interactions, and a contrast of big spaces with extreme close-ups of eyes and faces is also interesting. The resemblance of peoples’ eyes and the eyes (lenses) of the camera is also important.

He uses montage at other instances as well, in order to reemphasize a particular image or message. For example, he puts side-by-side a woman washing her face and washing of the street.

Also, when the woman is opening and shutting her eyes as the window blinds on window are opening and shutting.

Through this he also illustrates the way in which people inhabit the space of the city as if they were complementing each other. I find it interesting to discuss the way Vertov uses montage to create certain images and if this technique is in the way of representing reality? The fact that the film does not inhabit a particular time sphere is also problematic for me, it jumps in time and in space, it almost feels a little surreal.