Documentary: Fact and fiction/history or imagination.
That is not a test question. That's an interesting problem that is being talked about right now among jurors, film selection committees, film curators, feature filmmakers and documentarians.
The question stems from a problematization-an inquiry-that arises out of the new forms that documentaries are assuming. Gone indeed are those works where filmmakers appear to have told everyone in the field to 'just go on with whatever they are doing and pretend we are not here.' In many documentaries, the camera is not only ubiquitous but the documentarian is also a strong, insistent presence.
In many film concourses, a label has been developed: the creative documentary. The term 'creative' doesn't beg definition. All works-feature films, short films, documentaries, etc.-are obvious products and end-results of creative processes. Wilma de Jong talks of how creativity has always been at the heart of a documentary. She quotes John Grierson, the Scottish filmmaker known as the father of English documentary, as having stated how a documentary is 'a creative treatment of actuality.'
As it is, we differentiate feature films from documentaries. The requirements and expectations readily attributed to feature films are the omniscience of the film director and the substantial participation of those I would call 'the other filmmakers,' such as the cinematographers whose role are significantly carved into cinema by the more current title, Director of Photography; and the scriptwriters whose blueprint of images, scenes, actions and dialogue determine, given the changes made in the course of the shoot, the course of the narrative.
The debate, which is necessary, is real and practicable. There are film concourses that award the Best Film to films that are documentary in form and, generally, should compete under the Documentary category. There are, of course, film festivals and award-giving bodies which recognize documentaries and, instead of separating them from feature films, put them under the general label: Film. A very recent case is the 'reformatted' Famas Awards, which placed Yield, listed as a documentary in other award-giving bodies, under the category of Best Film. Interestingly enough, on the awards night, Yield, by Victor Delotavo Tagaro and Toshihiko Uriu, was adjudged as Best Documentary, with three feature films granted the two Grand Jury Prizes and Best Picture.
In our case, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, we classified Yield as documentary and thus competes with other documentary films like Jose S. Buenconsejo's Seven Dances of Life, JL Burgos's Han-Ayan, Sari Dalena and Keith Sicat's History of the Underground, Ramona Diaz's Motherland, Phyllis Grande's Haunted: A Last Visit to the Red House, Nawruz Paguidopon's God BLISS Our Home, and Dempster Samarista's Bundok Banahaw, Sacred and Profane. Presently, we are still clear and confident about what constitutes a documentary. This doesn't mean though that the categorizations will never change. Only time will tell...and theories about films.
For the moment, I like to stay with the significance of the question: What is a documentary?
I find the discussion of Wilma de Jong's helpful as she navigates the theoretical and applied/practical waters of documentary filmmaking. She goes as far as quoting Bill Nichols, author of Introduction to Documentary, who speaks of h0w documentaries present 'an argument about the historical world.' That quote, however, doesn't make us sit still and accept things as defined.
Nichols, described by de Jong as the father of documentary theory, himself admits the fuzziness of definitions with regard to documentaries. Listen to him: 'Documentaries adopt no fixed inventory of techniques, address no one set of issues, display no single set of forms or styles. Not all documentaries exhibit a single set of shared characteristics. Documentary film practice is an arena in which things change. Alternative approaches are constantly attempted and then adopted by others or abandoned. Contestation occurs. Prototypical works stand out that others emulate without ever being able to copy or imitate entirely. Test cases appear that challenge the conventions defining the boundaries of documentary film practice. They push the limits and sometimes change them.'
Or, they do not change at all. In 1997 Robert Coles wrote a book, Doing Documentary. In the chapter 'The Tradition: Fact and Fiction,' Coles begins with this claim: 'The heart of the matter is the pursuit of what James Agee called 'human actuality'-rendering and representing for others what has been witnessed, heard, overheard or sensed.' Coles cites James Agee, a celebrated American writer and critic who was always concerned with 'actuality.'
But this fixation on actuality should be reexamined, Coles, in so many words, says. He cites, for example, how his students referencing Agee would place 'actuality' against the 'familiar alternative of fiction.' He cites the questions posed by human actuality to people doing fieldwork or those in locations-the folklorists collecting folktales; the musicologists taping indigenous 'sound' even as they have declared already the sounds as music; and the filmmakers, 'those who are trying to engage with people's words, their music, gestures, movements, and overall appearances and then let others know what they have learned.'
When taping and recording oral history, Coles asks challenging question of selection: what portion of the interviews to be utilized, what scenes to be chosen. Our organization of material can affect the actual event, so that there is really no more actuality. Coles poses to us the following points: 'How does one deal with the mix of actuality and emotionality that any taped interview [you can change this to any scene shot] presents...and how does one arrange and unfold the events, the incidents: a story's pace, its plot, its coherence, its character development and portrayal, its suggestiveness, its degree of inwardness, its degree to connection to external action, and, all in all, its dramatic power, not to mention its moral authority.'
Coles closes that chapter almost with lyricism:
'...doing documentary work is a journey, and is a little more, too, a passage across boundaries (disciplines, occupational constraints, definitions, conventions all too influentially closed for traffic), a passage that can become a quest, even a pilgrimage, a movement toward the sacred truth enshrined not only on tablets of stone, but in the living hearts of those others whom we can hear, see and get to understand.'
And our struggle to define, even understand, what a documentary continues....