Les États généraux du film documentaire 2014 Viewing Experiences

Viewing Experiences

Under Construction from A to Z

What else is there to say than what the selected films have to tell us? We have no desire to speak in their place, nor to pin them down like butterflies under a glass by genre, style, trend, etc. They attracted us because of what was living in them and that escaped all classification. But as we have to say something, this is, spontaneously and in alphabetical order, some of the things that crossed our minds on discovering them. Disjointed fragments, sudden enthusiasms, argued positions and strong impressions that this “viewing experience” made on us.

A like Attention.
Pay attention, be at once attentive and in waiting. What Walter Benjamin (writing about Franz Kafka) called “the faculty of attention”. Seeing the world as something to be deciphered, patiently. The contrary of the attitude of a predator—I show up, I understand everything, grab what I need and run off with the loot. All the films which moved us had in common this availability, this sense of being open.
But also A like Absence, picking up the hollow, the trace, films thrown out like nets, meshes over the void.

B as in Beautiful, or not Beautiful.
Doesn't matter. Alone counts the filmic energy.
B also as in Beginning. Some films never stop beginning. Presentation, introduction, pre-title sequence, even worse: the teaser. A screen writer asked when was the best time to begin a scene said: “The latest possible moment.” Which was true for the entire film. Like any viewer, our preference went to films which grabbed us by the throat from the first minute and never let go.

C as in Cinema.
The word “cinema”, close to the idea of a show often expresses a reproach. He's just showing off. Food for thought for any cineaste.
But also C as in Cinema which, with no connection to what has just been said, provided a world that educated and nourished us and is the reason we continue to talk about films and not programmes. We saw this at work in the films we chose. It's difficult to define. Except perhaps that the film, as opposed to the “programme”, is a place where the unexpected happens, an open space where anything can occur.
C as in Character. The character has become an indispensable figure in documentary. Who remembers that things were not always so? Who is still surprised when a documentarian talks about “casting”?
That goes sometimes together with a flattening of the film onto the character, whom the director rides like a horse, letting them do all the work. Whence a simple rule: filmmakers in their work must be as strong as the persons being filmed. No more, no less.
C also as in Complexity: it's not a quality in itself, making things complicated is not what it's about. But some of our preferred films have the courage to get a grip on complexity, to mix places, times, characters and perspectives. It's a way of loving cinema, to continue to trust in its capacity to account for the richness and difficulty of the entire world.

D as in Director.
We are film directors ourselves. This plunge into the experience of a spectator has allowed us to see as in a microscope our own errors, and the main one: believing that spectators are interested in us, our accomplishments, whereas they're only interested in what we manage to show and tell them. They don't give a damn for our reasons or the state of our morale, for our feelings, or to paraphrase a letter by Lou Andréa Salomé to the young Rilke: “Films are not feelings, but experiences.” Shared experiences.

E as in Ellipse.
Both of us have a predilection for films with holes, which let the air through. Incomplete, imperfect, disjointed. In the cracks they leave, we find our place.
E also as in End. Cf. Beginning. The same screen writer asked when was the best time to finish a scene, answered: “As soon as possible.”

F as in Figure.
A film only exists by inventing its own way of figuring the world, its own form.

G as in Geography.
We also indulged in the naïve pleasure of letting ourselves be shipped away to see what we had never seen. Reconnect with the childhood of cinema all the while knowing that today, innocence is not enough.

H as in History.
Few films in the preselection confronted history, historical conscience. As if only existed the present, the local. It's an attitude of common sense, facts and people rather than slogans and grandiloquent speeches. But the result is to compound our feeling of atomisation and solitude. And by that very fact, our preferred films conveyed a sense of disillusionment—but this may be only an expression of the real solitude of filmmakers today.
And also H as in Humour. A quality in rare supply, even in our selection. Missing almost as often as historical conscience. Is there a connection?

I as in Intentions.
Good intentions don't make a film. Bad ones neither by the way.
But also I as in Images. It's not images that make a film, but what happens between them.
I also as in I. This “I” is awkward, sometimes completely invasive. A difficult thing to dose, but is it really a question of dosage? Some of the films we liked never stop saying “I”, but what they were saying is “I share”.

K as in nothing.
We're writing in French and at the letter K no idea appears, only a memory of Karl Kraus who, to explain his silence one year after Hitler's taking power, wrote: “When I think of Hitler, no idea comes to me”, a superb definition of the connection between Nazism, fascism and the labour of thought.

L as in Long.
Today, there's an obsession with length. Ninety minutes or nothing. It's a new type of formatting directly linked to the conditions of distribution. If there were one thing we miss from television, it would be that it allowed short films to exist. And yet, when the length comes from within, when it is the very respiration of a film, time itself disappears...

M as in Montage.
Many films seem to signal a return to montage in the sense that Vertov or Eisenstein gave to the word: the shock of images liberating energy, creating meaning. Is this because the ideology of “direct cinema” (and of Bazin's famous “forbidden montage”) is on the retreat? A return to the roots of cinema now that the honeymoon with television is over? A simple optical illusion?

N as in Naturalism.
Filmmakers are mediators. They cannot simply “capture” the Real, it always has to be read, transcribed from a particular perspective. The naturalist perspective is not enough. A film can never be reduced to an “interesting situation” (as people used to say about a woman who was pregnant), seen by an intelligent eye.

P as in Play.
The film as taking a risk, like throwing a dice. A game of which we do not know the outcome but whose rules we set ourselves.

Q, another difficult letter.
We could talk about Quality/Quantity but that would be pushing it. We'll pass.

S as in Selection.
Subjective, need we develop?
S as in Shoot—that's where the films are made.

T as in Tools.
People no longer talk about “strategy”, we've become more pragmatic: now we talk about tools, and all the specific procedures that the director applies to making a film. The palette has become much wider, especially in fictional and animated forms. A wonderful freedom, when used with judgement.

And still more. T as in True, the truth of a film is not necessary truthful nor even plausible; U as in Useful, it would be nice if films could be used for something; without mentioning the VWXYZ which we leave to your imaginations—we're running out of space and, in any case, the best time to finish is always as soon as possible.

Enjoy the projections.

Stan Neumann and Stefano Savona

Debates led by Stan Neumann et Stefano Savona.
In the presence of the directors and producers.