What was documentary? An elegy for Robert Gardner

Is it time to put away this mirage of ‘nonfiction’ cinema?

Kevin B. Lee
Updated:

‘What is documentary?’ When Sight & Sound invited me to contribute a video essay to accompany the release of its international poll of greatest documentaries, this question came to mind as a provisional title.

And looking at the titles that this poll deems the greatest documentaries of all time, the question begs to be asked more intently than ever. For what do Man with a Movie Camera, Shoah, Sans soleil, Night and Fog and The Thin Blue Line really have in common? Some notion of engaging with ‘the real’ in ways that fiction films don’t? But if these top-ranking films share any distinctive quality, it is that they have done more than most films to make us aware of how reality (cinematic or otherwise) is constructed, raising basic ontological questions of the form that most documentaries take for granted. They perform this task exceptionally well, to the point that they seem to call for a referendum on the genre’s continuing relevance.

Documentaries are no longer confined to cinemas and television; they are practically everywhere, because people are now equipped to make and watch them all the time. YouTube, Instagram, Vine and Facebook have collectively built a vast, unruly new ecosystem of personalised documentary production and exhibition. People are constantly sharing their realities with each other, with such convenience and immediacy as to trigger an epidemic of compulsive one-click behaviours: ‘like’, ‘fav’ or share.

Participating in this nascent economy of image circulation, to what extent is one prompted to interrogate the effort that goes into producing these fragments of reality that seem so casual, direct, and ‘real’? When one looks at one’s friend’s stunning travel videos, candid family moments or spontaneous selfie, does one notice the way it was framed and staged, or recognise which filter was used to create that look? In other words, to participate in the image ecosystem of our present, how vigilantly must one keep in mind that reality is constantly being constructed before our eyes?

Facing this 21st-century experience of hyper-constructed image reality, the term ‘documentary’ feels outmoded, destined for the history books. Like its root word ‘document’, it carries too much of a naive promise of a reliable reality being delivered to us, in such a way that it assures us not to question or doubt its authority. It’s the reality of network television newscasts, and of cinema newsreels before that (one might call this the curse of John Grierson), as well the utopian ideals of observational documentary, Direct Cinema and cinema verité (the curse of Frederick Wiseman).

If one can acknowledge that these forms are as prolific as ever in mainstream documentary practice, one might ask to what extent their prominence is due to a persistent, pervasive desire to keep faith in images of reality and avoid the trouble that comes with probing the reality of the image. This mass denial will run its course, and when it does, the term ‘documentary’ may give way to another label, one that ought to convey more vividly the myth of reality and its construction: how images don’t depict reality so much as the human desire to depict it.

These thoughts are largely inspired by a master of this thing that may no longer be called ‘documentary’, although his stature is not reflected adequately in the results of the poll. The works of Harun Farocki, who passed away the same week the poll was published, foster a deep awareness of the ideological underpinnings of an image, which I elaborated in writing about the essay film last year.) His highest ranking film on the poll, Images of the World and the Inscription of War, places at number 98. (Robert Drew, who passed away the same day as Farocki, fares better for his seminal Direct Cinema doc Primary, which ranks at number 33.)

Also placing rather unassumingly at number 77 is Forest of Bliss, the masterpiece of another recently deceased documentarian, Robert Gardner. I find it telling that Leviathan, the audacious 2012 work that has made the term ‘sensory ethnography’ the recent rage in the documentary world, ranks significantly higher in the poll than Gardner’s film, this despite that Leviathan and the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab from which it sprung both owe Gardner a tremendous debt.

Gardner, who founded the Film Study Center at Harvard, was a key figure in straddling the divide between anthropological documentary and experimental film, inspiring a fusion of the two through which the Sensory Ethnography Lab has made its name. The Lab’s marquee title for this year, Manakamana, was filmed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez on the same camera Gardner used to film Forest of Bliss.

That Leviathan should place so much higher than Forest of Bliss may be attributable to any number of factors, but I suspect it has partly to do with the relatively unfixed state of the documentary canon, letting major figures like Gardner and Farocki slip through the cracks while recent sensations carry fresh currency. This would seem to justify the need for a poll such as Sight & Sound’s, but the results as they stand seem to do as much to obfuscate documentary history as they might establish it.

The video essay that I’ve produced is thus a tribute to Gardner (in subject matter) and Farocki (in analytical approach), paying their work the attention not afforded to them by the poll results. It examines three of Gardner’s films from over three successive decades to demonstrate the extent to which his approaches varied and evolved over time, taking less and less for granted in the documentary form, while still pursuing a kind of ideal.

In today’s hyper-constructed reality of images, that documentary ideal may now be regarded as a fallacy, but as seen in Gardner’s valiant attempts, what stays vital and compelling is the urge to pursue it.

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