Reality check missing the vision thing

Encyclopaedia of the Documentary Film
June 30, 2006

The first comprehensive survey of documentary films contains good work marred by extraordinary omissions and rampant auteurism, says Roger Crittenden

These are interesting times for the documentary film. Annual events such as the Sheffield International Festival or the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam and similar events around the world provide exciting forums. DocHouse in London is giving a growing audience a regular taste for seeing quality documentaries on the big screen. Projects such as Cinemanet-Europe are extending this to creating distribution networks for cinema exhibition, made easier by digital projection. While the explosion of digital technology has also flooded our screens with much that is banal, it has encouraged the emergence of fresh and vital talents.

This publication is therefore timely, though none of the above gets a mention in the more than 1,500 pages of its three volumes.

Ian Aitken and his group of advisers have taken on a task that has been waiting for some time for the right champions to come along. No previous publication -certainly none in English - has attempted to encompass the whole of the field of the documentary film. As with any encyclopaedia, the recruiting of expert contributors is essential, but decisions about content are just as crucial.

In this case there is much to admire about the result, but the character and quality remain a reflection of the above decisions. The vast majority of the contributors have excellent academic credentials, but film-making expertise seems incidental, unless academic status exists. So the fact that David MacDougall writes a superb piece on "ethnographic film" is not at all surprising, considering his long and distinguished career as a film-maker, but his relatively recent academic status may have been crucial to his being chosen to contribute. Similarly, the frankly pathetic few paragraphs on "editing" must reflect the attitude of Aitken and his board and their choice of contributor. Here is a demonstration of the drawback of a book conceived in the groves of academe that attempts to tackle an aspect of film-making practice.

To anyone who has made even one attempt at a documentary, the importance of editing immediately becomes apparent. It is arguably the most sophisticated and complex aspect of the whole art. To have it reduced to a few notes about, for example, "the 180-degree rule", "continuity" and "cutaways", none of which has much credibility as serious aspects of documentary, is of no value to any serious student who uses this book, whether his or her interest is theoretical, critical or practical.

The question that this raises is, who is this encyclopaedia for? "Scholars, students and the interested general reader", according to the publisher's blurb. Not the film-maker then. I have to admit that even the most avid film-maker is unlikely to invest in these three massive volumes. However, if anyone, film-maker or not, were to refer to this work regarding a current British documentary-maker, who would they most likely look up? The list would almost certainly start with Nick Broomfield. But they would be disappointed. He does not appear. But he must at least be referred to - check the index. There are two entries, but neither page reference checks out. Incidentally, there are similar errors for other entries in the index.

Let us take a subgenre to further check the claim that this book is comprehensive. Documentaries about art and artists have a long and distinguished history. At the BBC the genre was well established by the 1960s. One of the best practitioners was Michael Gill. He was not only the mastermind behind Kenneth Clark's legendary Civilisation but made many ground-breaking and award-winning films on individual artists. He does not appear in this book. Occasionally films about artists are mentioned, but usually because a film-maker has subsequently acquired fame in fiction.

For instance, Chantal Akerman's artist films are included in a very sympathetic piece that describes her documentaries and their relation to her fiction work, and there is a whole host of feature directors who merit inclusion because they once made documentaries. Subsequent status seems crucial here rather than the quality of their non-fiction work.

Incidentally, it is praiseworthy that Aitken has recruited contributors from, in many cases, the country or geographical region of the subject of each particular entry, but this has led to some quaint English that better sub-editing would have corrected.

Auteurism is rampant and clouds the reality of the process of making documentaries and its reliance on the contribution of collaborators. Not only is editing crucial, but individual editors have been too. Yet there is no mention of Helen van Dongen, whose diary offers evidence of how she gave coherence to Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story . Stewart MacAllister is mentioned only in passing, despite his crucial contribution to Humphrey Jennings's Listen to Britain , which is why he has a co-direction credit. If an editor such as Dai Vaughan, himself a revered contributor to many documentary film-makers' success, had written the piece on editing, this book would have gained some of the substance it lacks. Yet the cardinal sin of this publication is the way it pays scant regard to the camera and camerawork. Yes, there have been and will continue to be film-makers who shoot their own films, but how can you pass over the shared vision between directors and their camera people?

Charles Stewart is featured because he has made his own films, but his work at the elbow of Roger Graef is just as significant. Going back to Louisiana Story , Richard Leacock's images gave van Dongen the beautiful though inchoate material from which to forge an effective film. Yet the craft of camerawork is not covered specifically. The only entry is about technology.

This is especially surprising considering the amount of attention that has been given to the way the camera sees and how documentary attempts to convey reality. Even the very definition of documentary depends on the way the camera is used. If the item on "editing" is any guide, we might have expected "how to shoot cutaways" and "maintaining continuity", so perhaps the reader has been saved from such banalities.

Here is the critical chasm between practitioners and academics. Aspiring film-makers struggle to understand the implications of aesthetics and shooting methodologies, which in the end are related to moral choices, yet this does not even seem to register with the theorists. "Derrida and deconstruction" merits an article, but a clear presentation of, for instance, subjects such as visual aesthetics and point of view would have been more valuable. Instead room is found to include Dogme95, because the tenets adhered to by this group of Danish fiction film-makers are connected to some fundamental criteria for documentary - such as the rejection of non-diegetic sound. This does not make their films documentaries. There is even an entry on Anais Nin because someone in America made a film about her.

By its very nature this book is difficult for one reviewer to survey adequately. Only a few obsessives can lay claim to universal knowledge of the documentary. To verify the comprehensiveness I culled a list of names and titles from film-makers and teachers. Boiled down to a score of essential references, I checked them off. Fewer than half appear in these pages. Clearly much good work has been done but more needs to be done before a second, revised edition can be published.

Roger Crittenden is a course director at the National Film and Television School. His latest book is Fine Cuts: The Art of European Film Editing .

Encyclopaedia of the Documentary Film

Author - Ian Aitken
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 1,110 (three-volume set)
Price - £325.00
ISBN - 1 57958 445 4

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