Docbox Books

Brian Winston,
Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries

London: British Film Insitute, 2000. ISBN: 0-85170-797-1
Kees Bakker

With one of the most tempting titles imaginable, Brian Winston delivers an argument on documentary, which is in a way a case study of a specific British situation, but carefully extended to more general problems and questions related to documentary ethics. It looks at the difference between “lies” and “damn lies,” the thin line between the two, and how this line has been and could or should be drawn. Key words are “the freedom of expression,” “regulation,” “responsibility,” and with these the role of documentarists and television, and law and regulators.

The starting point is what Winston calls “The Great British Documentary Scandal” that started in 1998: the case at hand is the film The Connection (1996), produced by Marc de Beaufort for Carlton Television about drug traffic between Columbia and the UK. Reporters at The Guardian revealed that many elements in the film were reconstructed, staged and faked. The allegations were picked up by the Independent Television Commision (ITC), the body that is responsible for the control and regulation of British commercial television. Sure, we can reproach the producers of the film for faking and inventing quite a few parts of their film (lies), but the basis on which the ITC condemned them was very disputable: the general documentary practice of using reconstruction—asking protagonists to repeat a move—turned into a crime, that of misleading the audience.

In the first part of the book, “The State of Documentary,” Winston examines how this could happen, focusing on the evolution of (television) documentary, and its role and presumed tasks in Public Service Broadcasting. One of his main points is that the idea of documentary in today’s television context has been fed mainly by direct cinema, resulting in the naive belief that only through this “fly on the wall” way of filmmaking it is possible to represent an unmediated reality (which is of course a contradiction in terms). This lack of knowledge of the documentary tradition with its practices (we only have to think how reconstructions have been used by Flaherty in Nanook of the North, and by other pioneers of documentary), can not only be found with the regulators, but with the documentarists themselves as well. The result is that both groups—regulators and documentarists—have completely forgotten about the “creative treatment,” and think of documentary only in terms of “actuality.” With this griersonian definition in mind, Winston analyzes the role of law and regulators in the second part of his book, and the ethics of the balance between free expression (creative treatment) and truth-telling (actuality) in the third part.

Winston makes a strong call to abolish any kind of regulation that is isolated from law. Where law requires that there has to be some damage done, regulators fine producers and documentarists for using reconstructions, which—in general—cause no harm at all. In the case of The Connection, the argument relies on the concept of “breach of public trust”—no proof of actual or potential damage had to be given. The mere use of reconstructions, and not labeling them as such, was enough. In defence of freedom of expression, Winston argues that any constraint on documentary filmmaking should be coming from common law, and not from regulators that use concepts that have no legal value.

For both regulators and docu-mentarists Winston proposes a model of a “reconstruction contiunuum” ranging from complete non-intervention (as witness) to total intervention, which is the case of fiction. This is an interesting model, but with the always recurring problem that it is difficult to draw a line. Winston draws it at “acting witnessed history” and considers anything more than that as falling outside of the documentary tradition. A film like Roger Spottiswoode and Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Hiroshima, which most of us would label a documentary, would fall out of this category according to Winston’s distinctions. Nevertheless, although a model is never apt to deal with all concrete issues, it is an interesting way to discuss the balance between the freedom of expression of the documentarist as artist and the public service task of the documentarist as journalist (truth-teller—and nowadays many journalists forget that part too). Here is where the ethical questions should arise, and where common law, and not regulators, should cope with eventual problems. One minor but crucial example Winston gives shows how both documentarists and regulators forget where the ethics are: the crew of the Channel 4 production Staying Lost was threatened with an injunction for having asked begging and prostituting children to repeat their behaviour for the camera. “The far more vexed moral issue of encouraging a child to repeat their own demeaning, unethical and indeed illegal behaviour for the camera was less a focus of concern than was the morality of the reconstruction process” (27). These are the damn lies that lead Winston to state that documentarists’ moral responsibility is not so much towards the spectator, but more towards the people with whom they work.

In his well known ironic, engaged and grasping style, Brian Winston shows us that the documentary idea (though mainly focusing on television documentary) is being threatened by a naive, positivist, version of it (which denies its historical background) held not only by regulators but also but by those who call themselves documentarists. Where Winston wishes to be a plague for both documentarists and content regulators, I am afraid that this book will mostly be read by academics. It really deserves an echo in the film-making, -controlling and -consuming community itself.


Kees Bakker
Former staff at the European Foundation Joris Ivens, now Research Assistant at the European Audiovisual Observatory (Strasbourg, France). Teaches and publishes on film theory and documentary. Edited Joris Ivens and the Documentary Context.

Garrett Stewart,
Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. ISBN: 0-22677-412-0
Jonathan M. Hall

A film has returned from the celluloid grave, not the usual spoil of globalization retrieved from Moscow or Beijing, but refuse, instead, from the nearby vault of Tokyo’s Nikkatsu Studios. Seven years after a brief rediscovery at YIDFF ’95 and more than thirty years since its abruptly terminated three-day release, directors Fujita Toshiya and Kawabe Kazuo’s Document: Nippon Year Zero has finally made it out. The 1968 film, first intended as an omnibus documentary by four directors, intertwines three elements: a splintering and radicalizing student uprising, a mobile youth counterculture, and the training of a new recruit in Japan’s Self Defense Force. Kawabe’s absorbing interviews with the counterculture “dropout” and the young soldier combined with both Fujita’s dramatic scripting of scenes involving a key student revolutionary and the nimble union of his camera with the riots themselves all make this film one of the period’s most powerful, albeit questionable, documentaries. 1 With freeze-frames an important visual trope within the film, action starts early when factional splits erupting in violence are followed and then caught in the title shot’s riveting freeze.

Document: Nippon Year Zero is a film I saw as I undertook the seemingly unrelated task of reviewing Garrett Stewart’s 1999 Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis for these pages. Stewart’s mammoth study largely ignores the documentary, resting instead upon a dichotomy between avant-gardist, experimental cinema on the one hand and industrial, commercial cinema on the other. If the former’s attention to the materiality of film actually ends up in an interrogation of “no longer just the filmic apparatus ... but the whole technique of perception” (30), then Stewart finds more useful the latter, usually narrative cinema where “mimesis and materiality ... make their tensions evident in a shearing force at the surface of the text” (28). Dubbing the photogrammatic track a “terra incognita” of traditional film theory, Stewart makes an eloquent and well-documented argument across eight tautly written chapters for the importance of the single frame or photogram, the normally unseen terrain that comprises and sustains cinema’s optical system of “oscillating materiality” (266). It is the “passing away” of the photogram that necessarily, according to Stewart, “precedes all coming to be in cinema’s spectral presence, each instant of imaging the ghost of its own foremath” (37). Stewart breaks the conventional opposition between the photograph and cinema to instead consider the photograph within the moving image as a suppression legible to “a specular unconscious” (1).

But, if the documentary form is one where neither filmic materiality nor mimesis in the service of narrative usually surpasses the alleged importance of the camera’s social relation to the profilmic, is the genre necessarily irrelevant to Stewart’s book, one admittedly where the social relations of filmmaking and of broader representational systems (class, sexuality, race, and gender) are at best afterthoughts? Or, how might Stewart’s assertion of the fundamental importance of the individual film cell within cinematic experience contribute to our comprehension of Nippon Year Zero? One terrain worth examining is Fujita’s frequent use of the freeze-frame, cinema’s closest approximation of the still invisible photogram. Rather than understanding the documentary’s freeze-frames as either the directors’ rhetorical flourishes—a technical logic—or metaphorical punctuation marks signaling impending death or restriction—an aesthetic logic—, we might instead see the freeze-frame, especially common in the “cinematically self-trumpeting late 1960s” (27), as a spectral reminder of the static’s suppression within the film’s own rush forwards. This other terrain of a ghostly cinema, cinema as “death in serial abeyance” (xi) resonates well with the Japanese title of a film already advertised as “phantomlike” (maboroshi no): Zero [Rei] Nen is as much infinitesimal and ethereal as a firm site of origin or death.

Stewart’s arguments converge, often around the freeze-frame, in a series of cross-referenced claims: a) the freeze frame is not a form of cinematic self-referentiality for “its point of reference is not the continuous representational illusion that is film” but the cinematic experience’s “extinguishing limit” (42); b) the freeze-frame allows even industrial, commercial cinema the possibility of the “purest” resistance to “passive inspection in a commodified culture of naturalized visual intake” (115); c) the freeze-frame, in its photographicity, “breaks from those timed mechanic crises of continuity out of which, alone, the filmic rises” (120) and, in doing so, best clarifies the fundamental relation of cinema‘s patterned complexity to singularity of the filmic; d) science fiction, as a genre, not simply evokes, but also “mobilizes its own self-anachronizing upgrades” (222) and “contemplates the metamorphosis of its own viewing subject to mere simulated being, receptor without substance” (223). In the face of such digital, technological developments, e) cinema becomes the locus for a technological nostalgia. Finally for Stewart, cinema is not simply a modern technology, but a modernist mode where cinema’s suppressed photogram runs parallel to the sonorous phonogram of literary modernism. 2

Between Film and Screen suggests what Fujita and Kawabe too have assumed. The freeze-frame in its optic seizing of the moment, much like the later shown scars on the body, literally figures the activity of representational systems and, at the same time, suggests their very collapse. In Nippon Year Zero, the student activist is revealed to be the son of an atomic blast survivor when he interrupts his involvement in the anti-authoritarian struggle to visit Hiroshima with his girlfriend. This fourth dimension of the film—set apart by editing and content and lacking the freeze-frame technique of other sections—figures the film’s most constant reminder of termination. Victims of the bombing, especially the sanguine maid Emi who flatly entertains another atomic blast as possible result of her refusal of politics, reference the constant figure not of a death as endpoint—not the sad end of politics, the Tokyo University tower reclaimed by the riot police at film’s end—but of death, constantly, actively, and visually “still at work.” Bringing documentary into dialogue with Stewart’s epochal work means foregrounding the optical nature of the documentary project; it also demands making explicit the politics latent in this powerful book.

1. The former student interviewed in 2002 about his participation in the film describes Fujita as looking for someone who was involved in the student movement but also a capable actor. Fujita is “credited” by this anonymous student with having composed a fourth of the dialogue, itself recorded in studio after shooting. Ichikawa Ezumi and Kumagai Mutsuko eds., Documentary Film: Nippon zero nen (Tokyo: Nikkatsu, 2002), 11.

2. Stewart rejects “the closely historicized cultural evidence” of recent media studies and their common emphasis on photography as origin rather than basis of cinema, and calls instead for a genealogy to reveal “its local parentage within a larger family history of mimesis and mechanization that roots more intricately, rather than overrules, the primary optic basis of the filmic text” (270).


Jonathan M. Hall
Lecturer at the University of Chicago’s Department of East Asian Languages & Civilizations. Also affiliated with Chicago’s Committee on Cinema and Media Studies, he teaches and researches modern Japanese literature, Japanese film, and critical theories of East Asian cinema.