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The Presence of the Storyteller in Non-Fiction Films

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

Still Image from The Darkside

Everyone understands the importance of images these days. They are pervasive. They draw the eye. They are immediate and sensorial. They impress. They are impressionistic in the way Joseph Conrad used the term when he described what he wanted to do as a writer, “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. "Today we are immersed in a river of images and few would say that they need the written word to see.

In the years following World War II, however, some, like André Bazin and Eric Rohmer, came to mistrust the seductive power of images as preferable to, and somehow superceding, the spoken word. Images transmit emotions powerfully, and as Sergei Eisenstein showed can, at the same time, via a series of shots that are narratively or causally linked, transmit ideas without a single word being uttered, a powerful combination that can cause the relaxed and receptive spectator to internalize these ideas and link them with the emotions associated with them in a film, almost as if the experiences seen, the emotions observed, and the resulting ideas were their own.

Michel Chion later showed how, in sound cinema, sound and images combine in what he called audioimages. What we hear tells us how to interpret what we see. But it is also true that what we see, especially the facial expressions and body language of human beings, framed and presented to us in very specific ways and in specific contexts by the filmmaker, add a great deal of significance to what we hear because what is most important to us, and what we most identify with, is human experience. It was Bela Balazs who wrote about the central role close ups of human faces, with all of their nuanced micro-expressions, play in conveying complex emotions that signal to spectators how to respond to what we are seeing and hearing. As Balazs wrote, paraphrasing Marx, "The root of all art is man." We can update that, of course, replacing "man" with "human beings."

A film is a series of framed constantly moving images, and this movement, what Lev Manovich calls the "dynamic screen," intensifies the experience for viewers, draws us in and immerses us in that framed visual flow to the point where, when we are watching a film, we generally pay no attention to what is not framed. As Manovich writes about screens, "the screen is aggressive. It functions to filter, to screen out, to take over, rendering non-existent whatever is outside its frame," In the case of the film viewer who presumably watches a movie uninterrupted from beginning to end, as opposed to people glancing at electronic billboards or scrolling through their cellphones, he says, "the viewer is asked to completely merge with the screen's space." Marketers and politicians know these things and use them to their advantage. And you know this too intuitively, even if you have not read the writers mentioned above. It is a commonplace for people to talk about how we are manipulated by the media.

Having realized the power of the visual in film, Bazin preferred Neorealism precisely because these low budget films, made not in studios, but in the streets of Italy during and after World War II, with actors who were often not professionals, seemed more real, less doctored, and therefore more trustworthy. This was also the aesthetic of the unadorned, highly verbal Cinema Verité made in the 1950s and 60s. Eric Rohmer went further than just expressing a mistrust of the polished image, arguing in 1948, for the importance of the spoken word in film in "For a cinema that speaks.'' For Rohmer, it was important that spoken language was not just used as filler, as just part of the soundscape, but rather that the film be structured in a way that caused the spectator to pay attention to and think about every word uttered. The moving image in service to the spoken word, not the other way around. Rohmer's films are all about language, conversations. They are discussions of ideas. They do not tell you what to think but they encourage you to think. My Night with Maude (1969), for example, is a conversation, a debate between differing ideological positions, between a Catholic, a divorced woman and a Marxist, at a time when divorce was far less common than it is now.

Even today, if you compare French and American films, American films tend to rely more on spectacular imagery while French films are often much more verbal.

Let's look at the storyteller in some non-fiction films.

Precisely because we know how powerful film images are, It is interesting to consider non-fiction films that privilege the spoken word over the visual, films in which the storyteller is presented to us visually, framed by the filmmaker, and then tells the story in their own words. One such film is Swimming to Cambodia (1987), which features actor and monologuist Spalding Gray. In New York in the 1980s, Gray would deliver his very personal autobiographical monologues in a spare, stripped down theater, always wearing the same plaid shirt and jeans, always seated at the same small table, and always with the same intense dramatic delivery. Jonathan Demme filmed Gray in exactly the same kind of theatrical space, wearing the same clothing, performing a monologue about his traumatic experiences working on the film The Killing Fields in Cambodia. In this clip from the film, Demme moves the camera and manipulates the lighting some, but refrains from illustrating the scene with visual images that are not of Gray himself, from cutting away to Cambodia or anywhere else. It is all about this person and his performance, his words and how he speaks them, the rhythm and flow of the monologue.

Another film that focuses on only one person and the words he speaks is The Fog of War, Erroll Morris's 2003 documentary about Robert McNamara. Morris uses footage of McNamara, historic events, graphics, visual illustrations, and a musical soundtrack to illustrate, contextualize and complement McNamara's account of his own life in his own words, including the many errors this complex and conflicted protagonist of the Cold War admits to having made. Again what is central to this film, and what makes it so fascinating, is McNamara himself, his furrowed brow, the anguished or insistent quality of his voice as he tries to explain his decisions and come to terms with his mistakes. As we watch, we come to know and understand him through the words he himself speaks.

Warwick Thornton is an indigenous Australian filmmaker. All of his films, short and long, fiction and non-fiction, present Aboriginal perspectives. He is also a prize-winning cinematographer, quite capable of creating compelling visual images. In 2020, Thornton, feeling a victim of all the non-stop activity associated with being a successful filmmaker, decided to spend time alone camping on a remote island next to the beach in a simple zinc house without any electricity, and made a personal documentary about it called The Beach. In it, he records his thoughts and feelings about what he was experiencing

during this period as the thoughts and feelings occurred. At one point, he looks at the footage of himself and observes that it does not flatter him, As a filmmaker and a cinematographer, his urge is to create more beautiful images and not include these images of himself in the finished film. He does, however, include them in the film, precisely because the point of this project is to get away from what is polished and professional-looking. This is not a film about making nature or human beings look beautiful or promoting tourism.

The Darkside, Thornton's documentary about the accounts of encounters with the supernatural in the words of Australians - Aboriginal people and others - is also interesting because of how it refrains from illustrating these stories visually, instead choosing to focus on the storytellers themselves, their faces, their voices, their words. Each is carefully framed and contextualized in static shots, each shot at the same time, constituting what could be considered a portrait and a scene of the film. This approach to framing can be seen in the still from the film that appears at the beginning of this article which shows a woman sitting on the porch of her house recounting a series of bad things that happened to members of her family after they picked up a Ouija board that was lying on the ground. In this frame, what we pay attention to is the intensity of the woman's face and voice as she tells her story in the foreground while her mother plays an endless game of solitaire in the background.

Another scene from this film which is interesting is that of a man seated next to a campfire at night. It is a beautiful shot in which the warm firelight flatters him, and he is

framed so as to give him protagonism as he tells his story, However, as the man speaks, he becomes increasing agitated and cannot remain seated. He stands up walks out of the frame, back into it, and then towards the camera. He is too bothered by what he is talking about to respond even when the voice of Thornton asks if he wouldn't like to sit down again. The result is that for most of the time when he is telling the story we see him in the foreground, framed only from the waist down as he moves around, speaking emotionally. What is interesting is that Thornton chooses to leave this scene in the film, not refilm it using the original framing. He relinquishes the more beautiful image because this unplanned framing conveys more, emotionally speaking. (I only include an image of the framing at the beginning of the scene here since I could not find an image from later on.)

A film is a dynamic flow of compelling audiovisual images, and only this has the power to fascinate. Some people will watch videos of little real interest for hours on end simply because of the constant audiovisual stimulus. Films, like other (audio)visual media, can dazzle us with spectacle, but they can also refrain from too much beauty, too much visual sensation, in order to frame and give protagonism to the voice of the storyteller.

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