Battles fought to shoot the truth

The Documentary Makers
July 2, 2004

This is a pretty book. Handsomely printed, heavily styled, it offers interviews with 15 documentary-makers from around the world. Modish portraits of the film-makers - peering for some reason through a blood-red wash - head each of the interviews. Page-numbering mimics film-time codes.

Striking photographs decorate almost every page. At times there is an uncomfortable whiff of the coffee-table book.

This is the more unsettling as several documentary-makers give harrowing testimony of their struggles to get their films made. Chilean Patricio Guzm n tells of being arrested by Pinochet's police and threatened with execution. Jean-Marie Teno from Cameroon describes his tussles with primitive equipment and putting himself between a thief and an angry mob.

Anand Patwardhan from India speaks of his constant court battles to get his films seen. In the end, the dissonance between the glossy presentation and the gritty content of some of the interviews raises questions about who the book is for.

What is striking is how very differently the various documentary folk view their roles. As US director Errol Morris puts it: "There's a tendency to think of documentary as being 'one thing' and it's not that at all." Molly Dineen is breezily direct: "It's a great privilege to be given a soapbox to rant from." Jorgen Leith from Denmark confesses: "I want to make films that look good, but I don't think of the audience." Patwardhan insists: "I believe films can have a real political impact only if they reach mass audiences - in other words, through television." You could say the sheer diversity of intention testifies to the vigour of documentary at the start of the new millennium. Certainly we are a long way here from the familiar fare of British prime-time documentary TV - Wife Swap , say.

But what emerges from these interviews is a widening gulf between the purposes and convictions of documentary-makers in the West and in the developing world. For all its overdressed appearance, The Documentary Makers provides a vivid sense of how documentary people in Africa and China and Latin America fight to tell their stories.

Time and again in these pages, that consciousness - sharp and unjaded - lights up the interviews from beyond the comfort zone of European and US film-making. "Showing these films is the real thing," Patwardhan says. "If I didn't personally screen my films and talk to audiences, I think I'd lose my motivation for making them." Wu Wenguang tells how his films are driven by the spirit of Tiananmen Square.

Set alongside such urgency, Morris' account of making documentaries in America armed with 50 crew, rain machines and huge lights feels bizarre.

And those fortunate Danes who make their "poetry" thanks to "the considerable financial support of the Danish Film Institute" seem to inhabit an alternate universe.

On the evidence of The Documentary Makers , British documentary merchants feel themselves increasingly lost in the swamps of ratings-hungry TV. This book both exemplifies the problems of commodified reality and offers some inspiration.

Leslie Woodhead is a freelance documentary-maker, formerly with Granada Television.

The Documentary Makers: Interviews with 15 of the Best in the Business

Editor - David A. Goldsmith
Publisher - RotoVision
Pages - 176
Price - £.50
ISBN - 2 88046 730 6

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