Docbox Books

François Niney, L’épreuve du réel à l’écran. Essai sur le principe de réalité documentaire (“The Test of Reality on Screen: An Essay on the Principle of Documentary Reality”)
Bruxelles: De Boeck Université, 2000: ISBN 2-8041-3543-8 (In French)

Bernard Eisenschitz

What is the true nature of documentary filmmaking, what are its limits, what relationship do the filmmaker and the moving image have with reality, does the documentary image in fact alter, not only on-screen reality but plain “reality”, how does the viewer relate to this image, should one always precede “documentary” by a cautionary “so-called?” These are some of the questions posed by François Niney’s 340-page book. L’épreuve du réel suggests a new outlook on the non-fiction film, as its title and subtitle imply: “The Test of Reality on Screen: An Essay on the Principle of Documentary Reality.”

Several paths cross in the book, which one hesitates to term either a history or an essay, for it manages to be both at once. A philosophical inquiry about reality intercuts with an aesthetic questioning—summed up in the “cinéphile” attitude. The documentary film, Niney opens, “appears as the touchstone where two orders of questioning intersect”(“s’offre comme la pierre de touche croisant ces deux ordres de questionnements,”p.7).

The first of the book’s five parts bears a title which looks like a Godardian pun : “La (re)production du monde” (“The (re)production of the world”). The invention of cinema, Niney argues, is an integral part of the turn-of-the century’s great inventions: X-ray photography, psychoanalysis, cubism, relativity. All have to do with a new, fragmented way of seeing reality; in all of them scientific and aesthetic aspects are merged. Two factors are apparent from the origins of cinema onwards: its documentary nature on one hand, and the “interference”(parasitage) of documentary through mise-en-scéne. Indeed, mise-en-scéne starts with the choice of a spatial frame and of a time limit—that is to say, with La sortie des usines Lumiére (The Workers Leaving the Factory). The ambiguity of this dual relationship has been brought to extremes. Niney mentions Citizen Kane, but he might have referred to a lesser known but seminal film by Orson Welles, F for Fake, from which he later quotes a line, borrowed from Picasso: “Art is a lie that makes us realize the trues.”

In reconstructing the invention of montage, the author paradoxically reconciles Vertov’s Kino-Eye—the lens sees and analyzes reality better than the human eye—with Flaherty’s view of a non discriminating, non selective camera (p.49). The point is not a doubtful continuity of documentary attitude, but something quite different: in his view, most innovators have sought to stimulate “either a disturbance between a film as a vision or a fantasy and the ordinary, “plausible” vision; or the intrusion of reality in fiction; or, the subversion of reality through fiction”(“soit un trouble entre le film comme vision ou fantasme et la vue ordinaire, vraisemblable; soit l’irruption du réel dans la fiction; soit la subversion du réel par la fiction,”p.53). No wonder, then, that L’epreuve du réel is at once a history of the documentary film and anything but that. In the passage from avant-garde to propaganda at the beginning of the thirties, the reader might be referred to Raul Ruiz’s recent theorizings as well as to Walter Benjamin.

In a second part, “Du parlé au parlant” (“From spoken to speaker”), directorial strategies are not at stake any more so much as the very function of film. The crux of Niney’s investigation is the essential turning point when young directors—the predecessors of the French Nouvelle Vague—started looking at the film pictures (in the specific meaning of the French images), not only as reflections of the world, even distorted ones, but as tools of the world. With Georges Franju, Alain Resnais, Jean Rouch, Chris Marker, film questions and reinvents the world, and Godard would be able, years later, to claim that cinema wrote the history of the 20th century in Histoire(s) du cinéma.. The need of reinventing the cinema was parallel to a need of understanding the world all over again after World War II. The filmmaker’s gesture thus assumes a moral status—but not only that of the documentary filmmakers. As a summing up, Frederick Wiseman, Jean Rouch and John Cassavetes, at various degrees of intervention, manipulation, fictionalization, all enter the category termed “fictions du réel.”

The “cinéma vérité” and “direct cinema” of the sixties provide a link to the relation of film to television as establishing a new relationship with the audience—a relationship that had been foreseen by filmmakers, but never to the extent of television’s reality shows and documentary soap operas. (No doubt the recent media and mass event of the first French attempt at a reality show, Loft Story (May 2001), would provide Niney with a useful addendum, but he probably has already said it all.) Again, in this part going “from cinema vérité to tele-reality” (“cinéma-vérité et télé-réalité”), he notes that a fiction film, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, that brilliantly anticipated the “autarkical and positively paralyzing ideals” of television (“un idéal autarcique proprement bétonnant,” p.175).

Such a mutation condones the disappearance of the “point of view” so central to “classic cinema” (Jean Vigo had coined the phrase “documented point of view” (“point de vue documenté”), and leads to the “nobody’s point of view” of video-surveillance or of the worldwide news coverage of CNN. A forerunner of the new situation is exposed in the War episode told in Harun Farocki’s Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des krieges (Pictures of the World and Inscription of War) about aerial views of Germany in which U.S. intelligence failed to spot the Auschwitz concentration camp because such was not the purpose of the reconnaissance. But the author does not shy at quoting another significant “factual” example, which is revealed in the end to be the retelling of a Roger Corman film, The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. His scholarship allows him to make a point humorously even through this fable.

The use of archival material is discussed, then, obviously not as a technical basis for compilation films, but as the means to various “theaters of memory” (“théatres de la mémoire”) as exemplified by Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah or the work of Marcel Ophuls and Richard Dindo. A final part, “Vertus du faux” (“The virtues of the false”), is an concluding plea for the cross-fertilization already described, giving among other examples L’Ambassade, by Chris Marker, and Route One/USA by Robert Kramer (to whom the book is dedicated). To be sure, this question of the “fiction/documentary interferences” is one of the main topics in the current discussion of documentary filmmaking in France, but the facts in the case have seldom been exposed with such encyclopedic wealth of materials.


Bernard Eisenschitz
Film translator and historian. Has published books about Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray (English and Japanese editions), German and Soviet cinema, and most recently an interview book with Robert Kramer: Points de départ, entretien avec Robert Kramer (“Points of depart: An Interview with Robert Kramer”). A member of the editorial board of Cinémathèque through issue #18, he is chief editor of the follow-up magazine, Cinéma 02.

Sato Makoto, Dokyumentarii no chihei (“The Horizons of Documentary”)
Tokyo: Gaifusha, 2001. (In Japanese)
ISBN 4-7736-2506-6
Kitakoji Takashi

We have come to a moment in documentary film in which we earnestly await new ways of theorizing the genre. Why? Technological progress, exemplified by the proliferation and popularization of digital video cameras, has made it possible to produce documentaries more easily and with a smaller budget than ever before. We should be seeing a proliferation of documentaries from younger generations of filmmakers, or from countries and regions in which the documentary tradition had been only minimally introduced. In this environment, with technological progress having brought fiction film closer to documentary around the world, our very definitions of documentary—delusory, perhaps, but once taken for granted—have been shaken at their foundations.

In most cases, theories of documentary film are created at that very real juncture between those who make films and those who watch them. Might we say that desires for new forms of documentary born “on the set” go on to impact theory, methodology and the composition of the film crew? In Japan and abroad, filmmakers like Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Ogawa Shinsuke, Noda Shinkichi, Oshima Nagasa, Fukuda Katsuhiko and others have been unwilling to sit and wait for the emergence of researchers and theorists. Spurred into action by the need to create some kind of theory, they have shown a preference to use the conflicts arising on the set to spur their own reflections on the history of documentary film. Now, with the publication of the two-volume Dokyumentarii no chihei (“The Horizons of Documentary”), we can add Sato Makoto’s name to this list.

Written “to consider the possibilities of the documentary genre as arising from a theory of practice from the perspective of one actual filmmaker,” the book is composed of eight chapters. Each “block” or methodology introduces two filmmakers, one Japanese and one from overseas. These include generational pairings such as Oshima Nagisa and Robert Kramer (Chapter Six, “Chohatsusha: Boryoku sochi to shite no kyamera” (“Provocateur: The Camera as Apparatus of Violence”)), as well as such surprising pairings as Kamei Fumio and Tran van Thuy, (Chapter Two, “Kotoba to betsu no imi o umu eizo” (“Images that Give Birth to Meaning Other than Words”)), each subsumed quite convincingly under a specific methodological heading. Among these, the chapter on Jonas Mekas and Fukuda Katsuhiko (Chapter Four, “Shiteki sho-uchu no hirogari” (“The Spread of the Personal Small Universe”)) deals most directly with the above issues regarding the present and future of documentary film. Starting from the assumption that Mekas and Fukuda worked in entirely different environments and yet both arrived through trial and error at the concept of the “diary film” (Mekas’s My Journey to Lithuania) and the “biography film” (Fukuda’s The Grasscutter’s Tale), Sato proposes that these entailed both “technological progress” and the “popularization of image technology.” There was a need to develop the individually-made “personal film” as a genre within the film industry, not only for filming but also for funding and distribution, and the spread of convenient, inexpensive media and equipment like 8mm and 16mm was an indispensable technical condition for the making of these films. The new prospects that technological progress have opened up for documentary film today also demonstrate some kind of commonality between these two makers of “personal film,” and allow us to use their methods as food for thought. According to Sato, the ability to introduce the gaze of the other into the film while maintaining a focus on the extremely personal differentiates Mekas and Fukuda’s films from ordinary garden-variety home movies and “Yamakawa Jizo eiga” [a somewhat derisive term for nature documentaries that aestheticize scenes of mountains, rivers, and other natural scenery—the eds.] shot on similar equipment. Were they only filming themselves as though in a mirror for personal pain and pleasure, their films would be no more than juvenile narcissism. However, the necessity of introducing that gaze of “the other” makes cracks appear in this “mirror stage.” Mekas’s “maturation by time,” in which he waits until well after shooting to begin to edit, is an example of this, as is his practice of using the effects of accidental camera trouble to his advantage in the film. In the end, such moves beg the question of how to relate to that “other” we call the camera or other machines. Endowed with the ability to make things reappear mechanically, an ability beyond human imitation, the camera overflows with a violence that can crush any hopes of making humans the centre of the work. As technological progress makes such cameras easier to use, we may find ourselves making documentaries as casually as though we were standing half-asleep at the mirror every morning. Of course, such an environment may open other possibilities for the documentary genre, but both myself and the author affirm our position that documentry is“visual expression with which to critically capture the world.” For this reason, the camera and other machines will always be “others;” we must each establish our own productive relations with them.

That said, I wonder if Sato may have further developed some parts of this view as he was writing the book, and am anxious to see his new film, Self and Others. Chapter Seven’s “archive documentary” methodology, which introduces the question “What elements (archival images) should we mix together, and from what point of view should we mix them?,” the tender attempt to approach prematurely deceased photographer Gocho Shigeo’s “personal small universe” and the entirely new horizons which open up for documentary film in the miraculous fusion of these two approaches [particularly intrigue me]. And so we are awaiting not only new ways of theorizing the genre, but the birth of an entirely new type of documentary altogether.

—Translated by Sarah Teasley


Kitakoji Takashi
Film critic; co-author of Social Con-sciousness Film (“Shakai-ha shinema no tatakaikata”) and other works