The Importance of Documentary Film

[documentary filmmaker Vic Alexander Paris France]

Leo Tolstoy on Film

Henri Troyat, in his biography of Lev Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, relates the story of Tolstoy's first visit to the cinema. It took place in January of 1881, in the Arbat district of Moscow. His daughter Sonja insisted that he see a movie, at that time an amazing invention. His first comments were, "Views of places, a melodrama and something comical at the end." He said upon leaving the theater, "What a wonderful instrument this could be in the schools, for studying geography and the way people live. But it will be prostituted. Like everything else."

When I first began studying film at the San Francisco State University in the late sixties, I was fascinated by the documentary films that were part of the curriculum. Dr. John Fell, dean of the Film Department, came from a history of popular arts background. He had an extensive knowledge of Jazz, radio, television, the mass media, and generally was determined that the education of filmmakers should involve all the arts. He was a wonderful teacher, who gave our generation of filmmakers a tremendous appreciation for film in its emergence as a unique art form.

For me shooting documentary style is the most interesting way of seeing the world and telling a story. I don't like the contrived way the theatrical movie is conceived and put together. If the movie is based on a novel or a stage play, then the filmmaking process is only a copying medium. There's no art in it. I think great movies can be made when a novel or stage play is successfully converted to a movie. The adaptation process is important. However, a lot of times, it's not advisable to do that, since the audience for the original work is much greater than for an esoteric adaptation based on it. This is where the commercial interests come in and destroy the chance for a unique cinematic experience to emerge.

The potential for exploration, collaboration and creativity is much greater with the documentary. Yet so many documentaries are scripted beforehand, and this process may destroy the reality or truth of a documentary. The finished product may look more impressive or be more entertaining when it's scripted, but the documentary ceases to be a documentary, and any artistic impulses during the shooting have to be quashed. I think working creatively in the shooting of a documentary is essential, however. I enjoy seizing the moment and turning the camera on when things are happening before the rehearsal. People like to fuss with how they look, what they're wearing and what they're going to say, but I prefer to capture the reality of the moment as soon as I size the situation and form a cinematic point of view of how I'll cover what is transpiring before my eyes. There's always time to assess what's been shot later, and if necessary it's better to go back and add to it, in case something essential was missed, due to ignorance of the subject matter or an oversight. Even then it's necessary to re-establish the freshness of approach. A documentary film should unfold as a story happening for the first time.

It's much more creative for me as a cameraman and documentary filmmaker to experiment with framing and angle of a shot while the event is taking place. The photography is usually more beautiful when captured in the passion of the moment. The sound is more authentic and the experience as a whole is more dynamic.

I think feature films could be shot the same way too. Even stories that are created on the spot can be fictional, yet the style could be documentary. I believe the French New Wave movement worked much in this way. Also, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni worked in the same style. I'm thinking of such films as Fellini's Amarcord and Antonioni's La Eventura.

I would like to see filmmaking go this route in this new century. I think there are signs of it already.

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