Hybrid wars are in trend nowadays. They were named like that, opposite to the classical ones where two different parties existed simultaneously. They knew from the very beginning what to expect. The same thing can be said about documentaries. The borders vanished, and creativity has no limits. How far can the directors that abolish written or unwritten rules go with their freedom in order to tell their story? Maybe it is just a vanity affair or it is fair to admit that, in the name of art, the end justifies the means?
Let’s take it literally. More precisely like in the EXD. When it refers to results, ideas or facts, the “hybrid” adjective is defined as ”being composed of separated elements, missing harmony”. These words are likely to reveal deceive. Is it real? I bring into your attention a chronology of a movie gender that is very disputed. The documentary gender: hybrid.
In an article that was published on filmcomment.com, Dan Sullivan presents the history of hybrid cinema. It starts, very predictable, with Jean-Luc Godard words: “All great fiction movies aspire to become documentaries, as well as all remarkable documentaries tend to become fiction”.
1897-1912, the greatest cinematographic discoveries
It is obvious that hybrid documentaries have a history of more than 130 years. Imitating reality was the obsession of many modern film makers, beginning with Muybridge, Edison, until Lumiere or Méliès brothers. In fact it is only an illusion. Whether we’re talking about Serpetine Dancers, directed by Edison or about the news of Lumiere brothers, their productions, to name them conventionally like that, are being produced under the sign of artifice, which means the intervention that modifies reality.
1922, the birth certificate of hybrid documentary
Robert Flaherty was launching in 1922 Nanook of the North. Flaherty is considered by many the father of the documentary. His story deserves a few words. Flaherty was a photographer fascinated by the American Indians and Eskimos life. His wife convinced him to give the camera on a video camera. So he went to New York in order to learn how to film. Then, between 1913 and 1914 he lived with the Eskimos and collected hours and hours recorded on camera. While he was in the editing room, he dropped the cigarette and all the recordings were destroyed. (Nitrate film was used then, based on flammable cellulose, used until the ‘40s, replaced with the film based on acetate, as Lucian Pricop said). Almost broken, Flaherty had the ambition to go on. Between 1920 and 1922 he recorded Nanook of North. Here also the border between reality and fiction is very fragile: the Eskimos family that had the main role in the story was not a real family in everyday life, but a team of actors with different roles. Along with many praises the producer was also criticized. Dean Duncan teaches at Brigham Young University. For him, Nanook of North misguides and manipulates.
(For those who are interested in this subject, some works should be taken into consideration. Billson, Janet Mancini – Inuit Women Their Powerful Spirit in a Century of Change, New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. Print, Christopher, Robert J. Robert and Frances Flaherty – A Documentary Life, 1883-1922, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2005, Print or McLane, Betsy A. A New History of Documentary Film, 2nd edition, New York: Continuum, 2012, Print)
Robert Flaherty lansa, în 1922, Nanook of the North. Flaherty este considerat de către mulți părintele documentarului. Povestea lui merită câteva rânduri. Flaherty era un fotograf fascinat de viața ameridienilor și de cea a eschimoșilor. Soția lui l-a convins să dea aparatul de fotografiat pe cel de filmat. Aşa că s-a dus la New York pentru a învăța să filmeze. Apoi, între 1913 și 1914 a locuit cu eschimoșii și a strâns ore și ore de filmări. În timp ce era în cabina de montaj, a scăpat din mână țigara, iar toate înregistrările au fost distruse (Pe atunci se folosea nitrate film, pe bază de nitrat de celuloză inflamabil, utilizat până în anii ‘40, înlocuit cu filmul pe bază de acetat, potrivit lui Lucian Pricop). Pe jumătate dărâmat, Flaherty a avut ambiția de a continua. Între 1920 și 1922 a filmat Nanook of North. Și aici granița dintre realitate și ficțiune este subțire: familia de eschimoşi care se afla în centrul poveștii nu era o… familie în viața de zi cu zi, ci o echipă de actori, distribuiți în roluri. Pe lângă destule laude, documentaristul a primit și critici. Dean Duncan predă la Brigham Young University. Pentru el, Nanook of North induce în eroare şi manipulează.
(Pentru cei interesaţi de acest subiect, câteva lucrări merită consultate: Billson, Janet Mancini. Inuit Women Their Powerful Spirit in a Century of Change. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. Print, Christopher, Robert J. Robert and Frances Flaherty: A Documentary Life, 1883-1922. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2005. Print. Sau McLane, Betsy A. A New History of Documentary Film. 2nd ed. New York: Continuum, 2012. Print)
1929-1942, the Symphony of the City
This is the so called era of “The Symphony of the City” and has as inspiration the everyday recordings of the two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere. In 1921, the American painter Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, the photographer, made a six minutes documentary on New York life and had as a starting point Mannhatta, the poem of Walt Whitman.
The film of Alberto Cavalcanti, Rien que les heures, (1926, the well-known ” Nothing But Time” in English translation) is considered “a lyrical cross-section of Paris”. Of course, Rien is a predecessor of “The Symphony of the City” but the contrasts between the poor and the rich preside over, and along the movie different characters appear, which involves the public, keeping his attention.
A year later, Berlin was the main character in Walther Ruttman documentary: Berlin, The Symphony of the City. Briefly, incidents and personal stories combined with editing techniques of the Russian film maker, Dziga Vertov. Ruttman used hidden cameras in his luggage and presents doubtful scenes, as for example the supposed suicide of a woman that seems to be fake.
In 1929, Dziga Vertov made a documentary (Man with a Movie Camera) about life in the city. It was filmed in many Russian localities. Why is it unique? The public is part of the film. We see the cameraman that films the empty cinema hall, and the editing and special effects revolutionize the world (Vertov likes this word very much). During the same year, Jean Vigo suggested us, referring to Nice, a documentary about the waking up of the city.
The Second World War and the coming period emphasized especially the role of the propaganda within the documentaries. Why We Fight by Franz Capra is as explicit as possible: it follows a sincere political agenda. (A series made up of 7 movies, all of them being ordered by the American government). At the same time, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti or Vittorio de Sica are on the roads in order to find daily dramas, they take their role of sociologists very seriously. That means they are their supporters here and now.
Just like their predecessors, not only Morris Engel (The Little Fugitive) but also John Cassavetes (Shadows) turned the streets into a big scene for their productions. Shadows was considered as an improvisation film, although the script was repeated in detail very carefully. The distribution in The Little Fugitive was made up of amateurs actors.
1960-1972 Revolution all over
The technological revolution in this period was happening at the same time with the political-cultural revolution in 1968. Jean Rouch (Chronique d’un Ete) or Shohei Imamura, the winner of 2 Palme d’Or Awards (A Man Vanishes) emphasized their interest as anthropologists. Andy Warhol introduced simple gestures (eating some bananas, Mario Banana) or oral sex scenes (Blow Job, 1964) in front of the camera, and Peter Watkins dramatized the political problems. Straub-Huillet combined fiction with documentary and adapted literary works. In 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle, 1967, Godard made a documentary about 24 hours of the life of a woman, and also interviewed the main actress, Marina Vlady. She answered some questions that are not introduced in the documentary; sometime as a character, Juliette Jeanson, or as an actress Marina Vlady. We don’t know for sure the role she played.
It is an experimental era. Chis Marker’s essay in Sans Soleil proves that images have their own body, while Welles warned us that F comes from Fake. La coupe de grace belongs to Godard too, with Numero deux and Ici et ailleurs. He proves that images are the most important.
The Australian Ulrich Seidl (Dog Days, Animal Love) succeeded in intriguing, and irritating and more than this, in disturbing with every single documentary he made. His personal experiences and the catholic education left a trace on him. He wanted to become a priest, he studied journalism, and he did not admit until now that he made documentaries. For all these reasons maybe he asked essential questions about the nature of cinema and about the ethics it did (not) include. Abbas Kiarostami is on the same side. He offers us a Close Up on human condition. His documentary tells the story of Hossein Sabzian who introduced himself as being a well-known director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Sabzian convinced a family that he was going to play in a movie. Once he was found out, the man was sent to the Court. During a scene full of revelations, the real Makhmalbaf asks the fake Makhmalbaf: “Would you rather be Makhmalbaf or Sabzian?” Sabzian answers: “I’m sick of being myself”.