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Documentary Films: Everybody's Making Them - But Should They?

Icarus Films

Everybody and her uncle is making a documentary right now. Maybe it just seems that way because I teach at a film school, but even outside this precinct, I run into people constantly who say they’re making a documentary – about their aunt, or an injustice, or a factory that’s polluting the neighborhood. The subjects may be intimate or worldwide, and the would-be documentarists start right off telling about whom they intend to interview. And they all, of course, have a camera.

They’re right that all they need is that modest camera. Small digital cameras make excellent tools for documentaries. But people may not be entirely right about the interviews – or about the subjects they have in mind. The catch is whether someone is thinking about recording a lot of information – or shaping it into something more than information. That kind of documentary goes beyond simply collecting interviews. Just as putting together a good magazine report involves serious writing skills – serious craft and you hope genuine artistry – so does making film documentaries.

Kristi Jacobson directed a documentary about a labor strike called American Standoff in 2002. She described how her cameraperson Kirsten Johnson was particularly good because she sensed visually when something was about to happen. It’s one thing to turn on the camera when activity is taking place, but to have an eye for the anxiety or excitement before something happens is what makes a film more than a report or an account. It’s to see in a rich sense, how the world looks.

What brings all this to mind is a documentary I watched again a few days ago called Nostalgia for the Light. The filmmaker is a Chilean, Patricio Guzman, who got famous in the 1970s for The Battle of Chile, for which Guzman filmed events surrounding the terrible coup d’état that killed the president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Guzman then had to flee the country, or he could have been murdered.

Nostalgia for the Light, from 2010 has none of the frenzy of The Battle of Chile. It’s a film of tremendous composure and reflection. It starts with images of the huge gears that control a telescope in the Atacama Desert in Chile. They move slowly and precisely, but as metal grinds on metal, it sounds like a freight train shoving its way along. Guzman as narrator says that the Atacama Desert is a good place for telescopes because it’s the darkest place on the Earth at night. He describes astronomers as historians of light. The images – the light -- they see in telescopes may be billions of years old and is just reaching the Earth as these people look up.

But the film then looks down into the desert itself because the Atacama is also one of the driest places on Earth, and for a few thousand years, a trade route. Archaeologists flock there because the dryness preserves things like human bodies, their clothing and tools. The film’s images of the fabulous immensity of the desert, join with the images of the immensity of the heavens and you feel transported ineffably into two dramatic embodiments of space and time.

Then, in the middle of all this wonder, Nostalgia for the Light goes to the Pinochet years when more than 30,000 people were disappeared. Many bodies were dumped in the sea – and many were also dumped in the Atacama Desert. The film shows women – mothers, wives, sisters – hunting for bones of their loved ones. A piece of skull, a bit of a shinbone. Like the astronomers and archaeologists, these women also find evidence and clues. One woman literally pieced together how her son had been executed. The Atacama is a place of all sorts of discovery and excavations of the past in at least three different notions of time.

The film shows that the calcium created in the Big Bang is in the bones of the disappeared. This is what documentary can do.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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