Real life concerns

For Documentary

January 14, 2000

For much of the span of my own working life," Dai Vaughan writes in the preface to this fiercely intelligent and stimulating book, "it has been possible for documentarists in Britain to believe in - or to be seduced by, if you prefer - the ideal of television as a means of disseminating significant work to a mass audience."

As a fellow toiler in the documentary vineyard over the past three decades, I suppose I have been seduced by the same siren. And I also recognise and identify with the theme that lies at the heart of Vaughan's book as he follows the shifts and turns in documentary, from the thrills and spills of cinéma-vérité in the 1970s to the digital manipulations of the 1990s - there is a sense of loss and the diminishment of something valuable.

That underlying theme that derives from the significance this book claims for documentary film as a form that "engages our freedoms in a way other forms of communication do not". As Vaughan suggests in a provocative essay about the impact of electronic imaging: "It is surely not fortuitous that the age of the chemical photograph has broadly coincided with that of mass democratic challenges to entrenched power." It is a strength of For Documentary that it roots these large claims in experience.

In an essay written in 1974, Vaughan recalls how, in preparation for an observational documentary: "The crew made a point of being on location, with their equipment, for anything up to a fortnight before the start of shooting so that their presence, being familiar, would cause the minimum distraction."

The unreality of such an investment of time, money and commitment when viewed from the perspective of a bean-counting TV apparatchik in the 1990s is dizzying. And it offers a startling reminder of how much has been lost to documentary and to television in this country in the headlong pursuit of ratings and money.

It also suggests the rare qualifications that Vaughan brings to his subject. As one of Britain's most distinguished documentary film editors over more than a quarter of a century, he is able to draw on an unrivalled blend of practical first-hand experience and long-matured reflection. The resulting essays offer an absorbing diversity of meditations about the nature of documentary representation, shot through with passing observations about enthusiasms as various as the fascination of old postcards or the special frisson of first encountering the witch in The Wizard of Oz . And there are some collectable quotes from unfamiliar sources. I particularly relished this, gleaned from a German film- maker of the 1930s: "Entertainment films are merely monstrous documentaries of actors at work."

Vaughan's years at the documentary coalface, teasing out the possibilities of the material brought to his editing room, allows him to anatomise the muscles and sinews of an individual sequence with enlightening precision. Whether he is deconstructing an encounter between South American indians and the camera in The Tribe that Hides from Man , or exploring the ambiguities of a documentary record of US Senate hearings, the insights are sharp and illuminating. At the same time, he is refreshingly honest about the editorial interventions that are an inescapable part of shaping a documentary. As he observes: "The mere act of cutting a sequence into a coherent shape contributes to a tradition whereby the viewer sails under sealed orders."

But it is in exploring the big themes that For Documentary is most intriguing. "What makes a film a documentary is the way we look at it," Vaughan suggests, in what is a central proposition of the book. "Every documentary is a do-it-yourself reality kit," he declares in a rare moment of breezy populism. I am not always in agreement with him about the value of preserving "a penumbra of incomprehensibility" in a film so as to allow the viewer space for further reflection. In less than assured hands, that can, I think, be little more than a mandate for sloppy indulgence and a dereliction of documentary purpose.

In the end, Vaughan's analysis leads him to a gloomy vision of a documentary apocalypse. As a documentary maker of Vaughan's vintage, I have much sympathy with many of his concerns. He reports how a young BBC producer instructed him recently that the optimum length for a shot was four seconds, and no shot should last more than ten seconds. Well of course, there is plenty of that know-nothing arrogance about in these commodified times, but it is not, I think, the whole story.

In Britain at least, it is premature to declare the death of the documentary. Our audience, it seems, will still switch on their TV for surprisingly demanding stuff, and they will do it in sufficient numbers to head off the dark suspicions of the Ratings Police and their spooky accomplices, the Schedulers and Marketers. The plain fact is that in any week, along with the froth of docu-soaps and celeb-flicks, there are two or three genuinely intriguing documentaries on British television. My American documentary colleagues, condemned to the ghettos of Public Television and obscure festivals, are consumed with envy. Long may it last.

But I suspect that Vaughan's deeper concerns may be well founded. Contemplating the reality-corroding implications of digital-image manipulation, he says: "What concerns me is that we shall wake up one day and find that the assumption of a privileged relation between a photograph and its object, an assumption that has held good for 150 years, and on which cine actuality is founded, will have ceased to be operative. And once we have lost it," Vaughan concludes, "we shall never get it back."

It is an Orwellian prospect and plainly a real hazard of the digital revolution. In alerting us to those threats to the integrity of the image, For Documentary has implications that go far beyond its concerns for the condition of documentary film.

Leslie Woodhead is a director and producer of documentary films. He is completing, for BBC2, a documentary about the men and women who stand ready to launch the United States nuclear missiles.

For Documentary

Author - Dai Vaughan
ISBN - 0 520 2 1694 6 and 2 1695 4
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £24.50 and £9.95
Pages - 208

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