zaterdag 3 december 2011

Documentaries or films?

What does a good documentary film make? I guess that is a very personal issue. The difference with the fiction/feature films makes that at the very least one would want to learn something of a documentary, about unknown phenomena, unknown worlds, unknown themes. Educational before entertainment.


The last few months happened to be relatively very “documentary-intensive” for me. Not in the sense that I scanned at my own home all television channels for eventual documentaries, but more that there were festivals in Amsterdam with especially international documentaries, that is (mostly) about other countries than the Netherlands and other continents than Europe. There was recently the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA), held from 16 to 27 November in several theatres in Amsterdam. The IDFA is actually the largest International Documentary Festival in the world, I read. The 2011 edition had about a total of 200.000 visitors, even more than the 2010 one.

Smaller but not less interesting there was before this the Africa In The Picture festival held also in Amsterdam (concentrated in one theatre) from 6 to 9 October. This included films about Africa and the African diaspora, responding thus to my main interests. Not coincidentally of course the films/documentaries I chose to see at the IDFA also mainly dealt with African countries and the diaspora: some African countries and some Caribbean countries. Some of these documentaries premiered in the Netherlands, Europe, or even world wide. Now looking back at my “documentary period” a sort of a combined review seems appropriate to me.


I will review the documentaries keeping in mind that documentaries are meant to be educational and portray certain phenomena and/or environments in a good, engaging way. I also heard that for a “formal” documentary actually a written script is required, so it mostly does not tend to be merely haphazard, spontaneous filming. What’s related is somehow scripted, but this can be of course in different ways. I find this interesting. Does the visual dominate the message/content too much? Or does the visual: landscapes, streets, people’s faces (and the sonic of course) help explain the content/histories/situations, make it only more vivid, more real? This intrigues me as I also have encountered the negative sides of the “too visual media” during my life. Superficial Hollywood movies tend to be dominated by the visual, much of other visual media as well. The visual turns into a gimmick, limiting the intellectual. That is my objection. Maybe I am not a very visually-oriented person myself, or – flattering myself – it has to do with intelligence, but inclinations aside, I think I may have a point. A guy with glasses becomes a “nerd” because of certain movies or series and not someone with e.g. myopia. Let alone the racial and cultural stereotypes Hollywood tends to stimulate and confirm!


I think it is interesting to analyze how the documentaries I saw combine the visual and the content, to at the end focus on the content, concluding thus: what have I learnt, how did I extend my knowledge on certain themes? Extend is also a good word, because, like I said, I chose documentaries that were on themes and or countries I have relatively more interest for: read Africa and the Caribbean. Further my Rastafari(an) beliefs were influential.

The documentaries I saw:


-The First Rasta/le Premier Rasta (about early Rasta movement leader/pioneer Leonard Howell)
-Twilight Revelations, episodes in the life and times of Haile Selassie


-A Good Man (on a play in the US on Abraham Lincoln)
-When The Drum Is Beating (on a long-standing Haitian musical group)
-Little Heaven (on an Ethiopian orphanage for children with HIV)
-Lagos : Notes Of A City
-Hinterland - A Child Soldier’s Road Back to South Sudan
-Motherland or Death (on present-day Cuba, specifically Havana)

I found all these documentaries (mostly from 2011) interesting, though to differing degrees. You have explanatory and you have explanatory. Some documentaries were not that self-explanatory, and questions in the Q & A (afterward!) with the director at times gave more information I sometimes found too crucial to not be mentioned in the documentary itself. I come back to the theme of the visual: without information biased fantasy and prejudice come into play. This was the case with a few documentaries, but especially in the one on the Nigerian city Lagos. Several children could not walk and moved about on a trolley. Oddly enough their condition was never explained. In the Q & A afterward the German director explained as a response to a question that these children had polio, very common in (Islamic) northern parts in Nigeria where religious leaders (imams) prevented useful vaccinations against polio, making Northern Nigeria one of the most polio-intensive regions in the world, and many migrated from there to Lagos in South Nigeria. Why not explain this in the documentary: it is too interesting? That there was migration from the North to Lagos was on the other hand (a bit) mentioned in the documentary.

Some of these documentaries seemed to be visual secondary: only to illustrate or accompany the content, the history. I do not have too much objections against this, maybe because I am not very visually-oriented myself, like I said before. Still: landscapes, facial expressions, cityscapes all can add crucial information sole texts cannot. The latter was the case with the story of a South Sudanese refugee (and former child soldier) who lived in the Netherlands. The contrast between Dutch and South Sudanese spheres became relevant, illustrating the effects of physical and mental journeys. Psychological studies have concluded that traumatic (or impactful) episodes - like migrations - are in remembrance often very “visual”.


As a Rastafari-adherent I was of course also interested in the documentary on the First Rasta, Leonard Howell, and the one on Haile Selassie’s reign.

The documentary The First Rasta, based on a book (2005) by Hélène Lee, documented the rise of the Rasta movement in Jamaica, around an influential early Rasta leader: Leonard Howell. It was all in all interesting, I thought, but had in my opinion a few flaws. It was probably scripted as well, but seemed nonetheless very haphazardly made. The documentary had no very clear structure, other than the admittedly interesting biography of Howell. This biography was enough by itself to keep it engaging, but not quite. Again, it could be more explanatory. Visually some atmosphere-enhancing - related but not connected to the subject - audiovisual material was used. This is very common, is sometimes done right, but can be somewhat misleading as well. Think in this case of people dancing in a club in Harlem, New York around the 1920s, when it was an active centre of black America (Howell was there too, and Marcus Garvey lived and worked there). There seemed to have been no films of Howell in Harlem so it is understandable that other people and places were shown, but still.. Since, as the director/writer Hélène Lee explained (again: afterward), there was only one moving image of Howell (on a ship, he worked and travelled around the world as mariner), therefore much of this symbolic, quasi-relevant imagery was used. Understandable to a degree, and it was combined with interviews requiring less artifice.

The lack of artifice was also evident in the documentary on Haile Selassie’s reign in Ethiopia, from 1930 to 1975, consisting mainly of interviews with persons with leading positions during his reign, or having worked with Selassie. It did not seem very spectacular, but was interesting nonetheless. Insightful also because Selassie's reign has been criticized by some (although including biased parties) as undemocratic, despotic. The documentary gave a balanced, and overall positive (and human) view of Selassie as person and emperor. In addition, it explained the difficulties of ruling and initiating policies in a developing country. Especially Selassie’s important contribution to education in Ethiopia seems hard to deny. As is his important contribution to African unity.


The documentary on the Haitian band (around for a long time with changing members) seemed only limitedly scripted, as it interchanged interviews with apparently not too much focus in the questions (political then personal then social), with images of the band playing, music, cityscapes, and tragedies. Despite a few flaws it managed to give a good impression of something that worked/continued in Haiti – a long-standing musical group – despite political failures and tragedies, such as the recent earthquake of January 2011, killing many people.

Not far from Haiti, the documentary on Havana, Cuba - Motherland or Death -gave me a strong sense of déjà-vu. I saw similarities with other documentaries I have seen before on Havana and Cuba. I could have expected this as the description of the documentary read within a sentence : “the photogenic streets of Havana”. This could presage a focus on the atmospheric at the cost of substance/content. And it did, but only partly, since the photogenic – if in ruins – baroque, colonial architecture of Havana’s streets figured prominently, but of course - since it was a documentary - the focus was on interviews and the daily lives of Cubans in the city. This was here and there insightful, though – there I go again – not very explanatory. The what was presented, how they sought to make ends meet despite economic hardships, but hardly why. An impression rather than insight.

Less atmospheric though informative was the documentary, set in Illinois, USA, on the play theatre maker/choreographer Bill T. Jones (known for his musical Fela!) made about Abraham Lincoln. ‘The making of’ so to speak, with adequate attention to the historical role of Abraham Lincoln, along with the practicing, dancing, creative choices, and preparing by Jones and dancers/performers. The focus was on individual behaviour, I guess, with little artifice.

The documentary on the Ethiopian orphanage, in Addis Ababa, – Little Heaven - also centered on people and behaviour, on the children, also with little if any artifice. The camera seemed not to be acknowledged anymore by the children in the documentary. The Belgian director explained afterward that he had been living in Addis Ababa quite some time, even understood most of the Amharic language, and had for a long time been acquainting himself with the children in the documentary. In the course of time the children apparently got used to the older Belgian white man, even with a camera in private places as their bed rooms. The documentary did give a good impression of how the children lived, their problems, and gave at least some explanation, though a bit too limited.


Some documentaries gave mainly impressions, some were more explanatory. A good balance was seldom found, in my opinion. I am by no means an expert on documentary films, but I know if and when I learn, when I obtain insight and to what degree. To chill back and lose myself in atmospheric imagery is not enough for me. At least when it comes to documentary films: I expect these to be educational in some sense. Not only raising questions, but answering some as well. Most achieved to do this, that is true. Yet, I also noticed that the more atmospheric, the more the focus on images and the visual, the less explanation was given, especially without the Q & A, when the director/maker does not happen to be present.

The two city tales, on Lagos and Havana, were examples of less explaining because of the focus on imagery. More films than documentary films, so to speak. The First Rasta was more informative, partly because it started off from a deeper, philosophical and sociological premise: the birth of the Rasta movement. Artifice could not limit that too much. The “human portraits” among and as part of the documentaries stayed at times a bit too superficial as some personal backgrounds were not discussed, but were at the end insightful with regard to human behaviour and social conditions in which they find themselves, also in different countries, such as Sudan (or now South Sudan), or the US.

I am not a “figures man” – language, culture and social sciences always have had more my interest than math or numbers - but some more illustrative figures could have been useful in some of these documentaries, just to show the impact of phenomena (Aids, mortality, war, migrations etcetera). That is another critique I can give.

In hindsight I do not see the “documentary film period” I went through in October and November of 2011as a waste of time, not at all, despite some flaws and missed opportunities here and there in the documentaries. I think I made a good choice and these documentary films are all worth checking out. It’s just that some of them were not as “documentary” as can be expected...