Jørgen Leth je danski književnik i filmaš, klasik filmske eksperimentale i općenito provokator i čovjek-događaj. U satirično-egzistencijalističko-antropološkom, minimalističko-restrikcijskom Savršenom čovjeku savršeni čovjek toliko je standardizirano-modernistički "savršen" da nema pojma što mu se događa, a na kraju filma izriče slavnu rečenicu: Danas sam doživio nešto štu ću, nadam se, razumjeti za nekoliko dana.
Leth je napravio i epski dokumentarac A Sunday in Hell.
Održavanje distance je umjetnička tehnika: poput književnih Oulipovaca, Leth uvijek u djelo ugrađuje neko ograničenje.
The Five Obstructions, u suradnji s Larsom von Trierom, peterostruki je remake Savršenog čovjeka.
Nowadays it is refreshing to find a theme-curated exhibition at a Miami gallery. Compiled of six works by both national and international artists, “The Perfect Human” discusses social and personal systems of ideals and how we go about defining what is, and is not perfect. Inspiring the exhibition title, Juergen Leth’s short film The Perfect Human (Det Perfekte Menneske) analyzes a middle class Danish couple performing everyday rituals. The only dated work in the exhibition (1968), the good-looking couple is possibly movie actors, pushed forward on the viewer’s picture plane in an unreal seamless space. They are at our disposal and we are invited to interrogate their motions of dressing, drinking, sleeping. We hear the director’s narration in Danish, sharing his thoughts on the actions and lifestyle of these perfect characters. But they are obviously not perfect and it is clear that beauty, or in this case perfection, is in the eye of the beholder (the director). The work’s maturity, continuous questioning and language barrier (which amplifies the feeling of these characters being alien and unknown) make it unnerving and confrontational- and anchor the exhibition giving it a deep sense of human behavioral analysis. This film is juxtaposed with a series of witty and satirical one-liners.
Martin Bashers’ The Hard Work of Simple Living (2009) is a totem pole of self-help books made to the height of an average American, which is apparently 5′7″. Gazing up at them -feeling less than perfect- the pile is topped with an overflowing ashtray and a balloon wishing “Congratulations.” The book titles range from Ulcers, Quit Whining, Start Living to the last book on the pile, How to Quit Smoking. The work quite obviously plays on insecurity and self-doubt as humans aim to improve and aspire to meet societal expectations. It’s a good chuckle and a cheap trick and I found myself narcissistically reading each title, wondering “which could apply?”
Thankfully we are rescued by Pat Mcelnea. As a stand-alone spark of spontaneity, The Living Room is a video collage of paintings, magazine clippings and photographs overlaid with bizarre inserts of self-made clips. Exploring various identities, the central character is staged in a series of eccentric, surreal and psychedelic backdrops. These are juxtaposed against scenes of suburban sophisticates (we assume the character’s parents) interacting in pristine Home and Garden-style living spaces (the character’s upbringing). One is left with a glimpse of an unstable child breaking out of the mundane of the perfect life. The non-linear narrative and ungraspable rationale are as much confusing as amusing, leaving us with a refreshing necessity to compare and question.
The curators have adopted a formulaic approach, strategically placing work to individually speak about human aspiration and perfection - to its detriment allowing the obvious to take away from a more complex and complete discussion. However, moments of delicious innuendo and sparks of playfulness allow “The Perfect Human” to be compelling. - Claire Breukel
The Five Obstructions (2003)
Rules of the GameThe Five Obstructions is a passkey into the often forbidding world of Lars von Trier's films. It's a short, documentary-like, highly conceptual film about a “game” Von Trier played with an older fellow Dane, Jørgen Leth, a kind of filmmaking mentor for him. In the Sixties, Leth made a short art film called The Perfect Human, which Von Trier has always greatly admired. For The Five Obstructions, Leth and Von Trier get together and plan for Leth to “remake” the film with Von Trier setting arbitrary and challenging new conditions to govern the process. In the course of the picture, Leth “remakes” The Perfect Human four times, and then Von Trier makes up a “letter” in Leth's voice describing what has happened.
by Chris Knipp
By watching this “game,” we find out a lot about how Von Trier works with other people in making a film. It's not only here that Von Trier has begun by imposing a set of limitations upon himself and others; he always does that. This certainly provides a handy way of seeing his challenging, often maddening, work. Von Trier seems a little like Guy Grand, Terry Southern's wicked trickster millionaire in The Magic Christian , whose whole delight is in getting people to do things that are against their nature. Grand gets them to do it for money; Von Trier gets Leth to do it out of friendship. Presumably when Von Trier has put actors like Emily Watson or Nicole Kidman through their ordeals, they have done it for art. This time, it's the mutual friendship and respect that humanizes the abrasive Von Trier, and in frankly accepting his total failure to stump Leth or spoil his fun, Von Trier shows himself to be a better sport than his critics might have expected. But he also shows himself to be wicked and mean, with a sense of humor that's both playful and malicious.
In The Perfect Human, a well dressed man eats, talks, and dances in front of a blank white ground while a voiceover asks “Is this what the perfect human does?” Snatches of The Perfect Human appear throughout The Five Obstructions, but it's worth noting that we never see it all, nor do we see all of Leth's new “versions.” We have to take it on faith that they're the way Von Trier or Leth say they are. The “remakes” are obviously very free adaptations, and the latter ones are more commentaries on the remake process than anything else.
Von Trier's assumption clearly is that Leth himself is the “perfect human,” and that his arbitrary rules for the “remakes” (the first of which is that no take will be longer than 12 frames -- half a second) will put dents in Leth's control so deep, will cut so far into the crystal glass of his perfection, that he will fall apart and will be forced to make a “mess.” This is what Von Trier repeatedly states: that nothing would make him happier than for Leth to make a “mess.” He hopes that through destroying Leth's artifice he will make Leth produce something truer and more human.
Other requirements are for Leth to make the film in Cuba, where he's never been; in “the most horrible place in the world” (which turns out to be a red light district in Bombay, where he has been) but without showing its horror; to do a “remake” without rules; to do one in the form of an animated cartoon (a format neither man likes), and so on. Von Trier comes up with these different “obstructions” randomly when the two men meet at various stages in the “game.”
But Leth makes no messes. He succeeds brilliantly in working within the difficult limitations Von Trier has set for him, and comes up with a polished work every time. And although he seems to be losing some sleep on the first go-through, he gets happier and happier as things go forward, a sign Von Trier finds ominous. In the end the letter read as a voiceover by Leth, but written by Von Trier, states that it's Von Trier who's shown his weaknesses. It's the aggressor, not the victim, who shows his faults, he says. It's Von Trier, he admits (in the voice of Leth), who has been pretending in all his films to be authentic but really lying and concealing himself behind a mask of artifice.
The “game” may sound orderly when described, but in fact the whole framework is a very loose convention; it isn't followed closely. This also sheds light on Von Trier's working methods in his films: they aren't as rationally structured as they appear. Von Trier doesn't impose the same kind of limitations on Leth each time; he imposes fewer and different ones, and “obstruction” five is really just to credit Leth along with Von Trier, to make the footage of their conversations into this film, and to have Leth read the “letter” Von Trier wrote for him.
Von Trier freely admits that Leth's solutions to his “obstructions” are brilliant, starting with the 12-frame takes, which Leth turns into a jazzy staccato rhythm. In Bombay, Leth shoots himself in front of a semi-transparent scrim that does show, and yet hide, the teeming masses behind him as he eats a sybaritic meal dressed in evening clothes. It's cheating, yet it's also a master stroke. For the animated cartoon version, he gets Bob Sabiston, the man who did the animations for Richard Linklater's superb Waking Life , and its not surprising that the result is an elegant and fresh-looking commentary on all the previous films made in the series, including the original Perfect Human film.
The whole paradox is that both Von Trier and Leth are control freaks, and that even their playing about with loss of control is highly controlled. Viewers are free to see The Five Obstructions as a sterile exercise. J. Hoberman calls it “one part documentary, one part psychodrama, and one part mock manifesto,” and that's about right. But I found it interesting, and my first chance to watch a Von Trier film without being repulsed. But is it a Von Trier film, or a film about Von Trier? It's hard to say.
It's a pity that André Téchiné's brilliant little movie, Strayed comes to America not long after Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Bon Voyage, which treats the same event, the French wartime flight from Paris to the countryside, in a much more buoyant, charming manner. The contrast may make the much lower-keyed Strayed look a bit drab. But it's an intense, haunting film, and pure Téchiné, with its sexy, somewhat ambiguous relationships and intense encounters across generations.
The sad-eyed, lovely Émmanuelle Béart is Odile, a recent war widow with a 13-year-old son, Philippe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), and a seven-year-old daughter, Cathy (Clémence Meyer), on the road with all the others, in their own auto. Suddenly, when the convoy they're in is strafed by stukas and bodies are lying around and their car's been blown up and they don't know what to do, a youth named Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel) appears out of nowhere, leads them into the woods to safety, and finds a big abandoned house for them to stay in.
Yvan is a wild, lean young man with a hard body and sheared-off hair, like the brother Benoît Magimel played in Téchiné's 1996 Les Voleurs . Odile and her children are Paris people; they're brave but inept in these circumstances, and Yvan has survival skills they lack. Camping in the recently abandoned house, these people live for a few days as an unconventional family. Yvan is big brother, younger brother, husband, elder son, outcast, wild boy, protector, or provider to the others, alternatively indifferent and willing to do anything to stay with Odile.
The wartime context has been clearly established, and we know this can't last. There are curious paradoxes. The household is mad, disturbed, yet idyllic and peaceful. Yvan is wise beyond his years, yet ignorant and uncivilized. It emerges that he can't read. Philippe is a weak child who looks up to, and tries vainly to bond with, Yvan. But he's more civilized than Yvan, more mature in moral sensibility. It's clear that Yvan's sense of property is vague and so are his origins. He tells a strange story about a friend who has died, but his background remains mysterious.
Strayed is as sad and brutal and incomprehensible as the war itself, and as such has more in common with Michael Haneke's apocalyptic Time of the Wolf (also just released in the U.S.) than with Rappeneau's operatic, comedic, but ultimately hard to care about Bon Voyage . In Strayed , you don't have time as a viewer to prepare for anything, just like the characters. Suddenly Odile's car is hit and people nearby are dead. Suddenly a young man pulls Odile and her children off into the woods. Suddenly, after the odd idyll in the nice house has gone on for a few days, with Yvan catching rabbits for the others to eat, two French soldiers from Sedan appear and spend the night at the house.
It's not a contemplative film. It's so vivid and immediate that, were it not for the crowd scenes and 1940s clothes, you'd question if it has any period flavor. But it's touching and alive, and it leaves you a little bit devastated -- if you've been paying attention -- with just a hint of what it's like to be marked by war's abrupt gifts and deprivations. Strayed works on a smaller scale than Téchiné's best films, but you feel his style in every scene. However modest, this is a compelling and accomplished piece of work.
- Chris Knipp
The Five Obstructions (Danish: De fem benspænd) is a 2003 Danish film by Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth. The film is a documentary, but incorporates lengthy sections of experimental films produced by the filmmakers. The premise is that Lars von Trier has created a challenge for his friend and mentor, Jørgen Leth, another filmmaker. Von Trier's favourite film is Leth's The Perfect Human (1967). Von Trier gives Leth the task of remaking The Perfect Human five times, each time with a different 'obstruction' (or obstacle) given by von Trier. At the Berlinale 2010, Lars von Trier, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro announced plans to work on a remake of Scorsese's film Taxi Driver. The film will be made with same restrictions as were used in The Five Obstructions.
Lars Von Trier, the giggling charlatan-talent of arthouse cinema, has made the most interesting film of his recent career. Most of his movies since Breaking the Waves have looked like facetious and faintly malign pranks. But for once, the joke isn't on us, the audience, but on a fellow film-maker.Von Trier sets up a garrulous production meeting with the Danish documentarist Jorgen Leth, plying him with vodka and caviar and filming it all, documentary-style, in digital video. He proposes that Leth undergo five tasks: the director must remake, five times over, his 1967 experimentalist black-and-white piece, The Perfect Man, in keeping with arbitrary rules of Von Trier's own devising. Warily genial, Leth agrees, but as Von Trier's strictures get more alarming and bizarre, we get reality-TV footage of Leth becoming exasperated and angry as he realises that the exercise is to break him down and lure him into some humiliating catastrophe of poor craftsmanship in the service of an ill-defined experimentalism - if not just to give Lars a good laugh.
"It will be a spastic film," complains Leth at one point, apparently alluding to The Idiots. Eventually, the obstructions come from Leth himself, as he tries to find a way to obey Von Trier's rules while making himself look good. It is an intriguing duel and an insight into the precarious nature of artistic reputations.- Peter Bradshaw
Lars von Trier, the Danish director of "Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark," and "Dogville" returns with a strange and brilliant meta-film. In 2000, he challenged his mentor, the veteran filmmaker Jorgen Leth, to a one-of-a-kind director's game: von Trier would give Leth rules, or obstructions, by which Leth would have to remake his own 1967 short film "The Perfect Human"--five times.
The first film, according to von Trier's rules, has to be composed of shots no longer than 12 frames and must be filmed in Cuba, without a set. Fast forward to Havana: Leth has found a solution to the difficulties and is making his film with confidence. With satanic glee, von Trier comes up with an even more constraining set of obstructions, clearly taking pleasure in torturing his former teacher. He attempts to find the most crippling rules and devises appropriate punishment when Leth fails to follow them.
Lars von Trier is no stranger to sadism: this is the man responsible for the abuse of Emily Watson, Bjork, and Nicole Kidman in his last three features. "The Five Obstructions" makes it clear that his apparent mean streak is considered, focused, and aimed at a kind of creative catharsis. His agenda is to strip away the pretense, to get from the "perfect" to the "human," as he puts it.
Von Trier is hoping to force his former teacher to make a bad movie, a "pile of crap," but the truth is that creativity feeds on limits: the resulting short films are all terrific. To see how Leth discovers ways to use the devilish obstructions to his advantage is nothing short of thrilling. "Everything inspires you!" the frustrated von Trier complains. The directors' game reveals itself as something more than an empty exercise in style: von Trier had a secret agenda all along, but by the time the fifth film unreels, the ambiguities have multiplied, and it's not clear anymore who exposed himself more, or who obstructed whom. In this creative mindgame, the only clear winner is the audience.- Jurgen Fauth
The Five Obstructions" is a perverse game of one-upmanship between the Danish director Lars von Trier and his mentor Jorgen Leth. In 1967, we learn, Leth made a 12-minute film named "The Perfect Human." Von Trier admired it so much he saw it 20 times in a single year. Now he summons the 67-year-old Leth from retirement in Haiti and commands him to remake the film in five different ways, despite obstructions which von Trier will supply.
The first obstruction seems almost insurmountable: Von Trier commands Leth to go to Cuba (and bring back some cigars while he's at it), and remake the film in shots no more than 12 frames, or half a second, in length. "That will be totally destructive!" Leth complains. "It will be a spastic film." But when he returns after facing the first obstruction, he is all smiles and tells von Trier: "The 12 frames were like a gift."
Von Trier accepts this news while lounging behind his desk like a headmaster. The joke seems to be that Leth, 19 years his senior and once von Trier's teacher, is to be ordered around like an unruly schoolboy. There is an additional element in play: Leth's style is clean, spare and classical, while von Trier is the architect of the Dogma movement, which is essentially a series of obstructions (use natural light and sound, no music except that found at the source, etc). "I want to banalize you," von Trier cheerfully informs him.
Von Trier sends Leth out again, this time to "the most miserable place on earth." They settle on the Falkland Road red light district in Mumbai. Leth journeys there and films himself eating an elegant meal. "This is not the film I asked for!" growls von Trier and offers him a choice: (1) Go back to India and do it again, or (2) make a completely free-style film, which would be against all of Leth's stylistic instincts.
Leth, who in his cool and amused way seems impervious to von Trier's challenges, emerges intact from this third obstruction with a film shot in his native Brussels. For Obstruction No. 4, von Trier has a real zinger in mind. "I hate animation," he observes. "So do I," says Leth. "Make an animated film," von Trier says. Leth protests, "I can't be bothered to invent the technology or to learn it. No stupid drawing board!" His solution is as brilliant as it is elegant. I will not reveal it, except to say the result will speak loudly to anyone who has seen Richard Linklater's "Waking Life."
At this point Leth seems ahead 4-0, but von Trier has one more twist up his sleeve. See for yourself. A film like this has a limited audience, I suppose, but for that audience it offers a rare fascination. Von Trier has deliberately set up a contest between two generations and styles of filmmaking, and in the pose of honoring "The Perfect Human," he tries to force Leth to demolish and reinvent it. Leth is more than his equal, and the entire enterprise is infected with a spirit of mischievous play.
"The Five Obstructions" clearly calls for a sequel, in which Leth would require von Trier to remake "Dogville," despite Obstructions 6 through 10.- Roger Ebert
Stars and Watercarriers:
TIFF 2010. Jørgen Leth's "Erotic Man"
"Filmmaker/poet/aesthete-of-all-trades Jørgen Leth (perhaps best known in the states for collaborating with Lars von Trier on The Five Obstructions) here assembles over a decade of his intimate studies of women," writes the AV Club's Noel Murray, "some of whom were girlfriends, and some of whom were actresses he hired to re-enact one particular scene from an old love affair. His stated purpose is to 'frame the erotic,' by showing all different kinds of women in circumstances both sexual and casual.... This is an odd but beautiful movie, reminiscent in some ways of R Crumb's Art & Beauty (and, sure, Russ Meyer's Mondo Topless)."
"This semi-confessional effort by the Danish cultural institution (in addition to his filmmaking, Leth is a well-known football commentator, and for a time was the Danish ambassador to Haiti) is so startling in its lack of self-awareness," blogs Michael Sicinski for Cargo, "a critical viewer keeps thinking that it must, at some point, take a turn toward autocritique. But what we have is Leth's turgid poetic reverie about succulent nubile 20-year-old women, splayed naked across beds, in Haiti, Brazil, The Philippines, Senegal, Panama, you name it. If there are brown women there, Leth is dipping his wick and waxing nostalgic. Although the director does have an eye for Playboy-style tits-and-ass cinematography, Erotic Man is a colonialist project so blinkered it's more laughable than offensive."
"[T]his film and his memoir The Imperfect Man have caused controversy in his native Denmark because in them he details his relationship with Dorothie, the 17-year-old daughter of his cook," notes James McNally. "It's very clear from the film that his five years with Dorothie were among the happiest in his life, and his attempts to describe the erotic can be seen as an extended love letter to her." Even so: "Though Leth is clear to the women that he's not making pornography, the dynamic is the same."
Time Out New York's Joshua Rothkopf suggests an alternative title, "I Like Big Butts and I Cannot Lie," and adds that the film "feels ridiculously exploitative, vaguely racist and dunderheaded about its own objectification." At the Playlist, Luke Gorham proposes another title: "Erotic Jørgen."
"No walk-outs!" Leth exclaims at his blog. "Today a second screening, another full house. An even warmer atmosphere, people laughing in all the right places, they get it."
Jørgen Leth has always lived by his own rules—he’s a poet, a journalist, a filmmaker and a sports commentator, as well as Denmark’s Honorary Consul in Haiti. His talents may be diverse, but in his films he’s single-minded and uncompromising. From his early documentaries on perfection (The Perfect Human, 1967), life (Good and Evil, 1975), bicycle racing (A Sunday in Hell, 1976) and love (Notes on Love, 1989), Leth has worked with a set of strictly observed principles that he lays out for himself at the beginning of each project. It’s a technique that inspired Denmark’s most important group of filmmakers, the Dogme movement.
Earlier this year, Dogme directors Søren Vinterberg (The Celebration, 1998) and Susanne Bier (Open Hearts, 2002) affectionately labeled Leth their “papa” in a seminar on Dogme. Lars von Trier, the author of the Dogme manifesto, has paid homage to his former teacher in a much more mischievous fashion. He proposed a collboration with Leth: the two would watch and discuss Leth’s classic short The Perfect Human, and then Leth would set out to remake his own film five times, with Trier imposing increasingly difficult “obstructions” for each remake. Trier’s documentary of the process, a film called The Five Obstructions, interweaves footage of the filmmakers’ interactions with Leth’s remakes and excerpts from the original Perfect Human. The obstructions, one of which requires the film to be shot in Cuba, another in the red-light district of Bombay (according to Leth, “hell on earth”), are designed to induce humiliation and failure, releasing what Trier calls Leth’s “inner Munch scream,” but Trier’s mentor manages to use each obstruction to his advantage, creating works of astonishing breadth and imagination. At one point Trier tells Leth he hasn’t suffered enough, so he must make a “crap cartoon” because “I know you hate cartoons, and I don’t like them either.” But Leth remains game, and The Five Obstructions plays out between the two directors like a tennis match that is not about winning but about observing the rules. The fifth obstruction forces Leth to narrate a voiceover to Trier’s edited footage of the entire process, and to take credit as writer and director of Trier’s film. Trier’s final assertion of dominance over Leth, however, turns out to be an incredibly moving, profound and poetic tribute to and acknowledgement of his mentor.
Most of Jørgen Leth’s time is spent outside his native Denmark. He lives in Haiti and has filmed and toured worldwide with his 40-some shorts, documentaries and features (his previous film, New Scenes from America, showed at Sundance this year). Still, his fame is greatest in Denmark, where his particular aesthetic sensibility has inspired an entire generation of internationally acclaimed Danish filmmakers. The Five Obstructions, which opened in New York at the Film Forum on May 26, promises to extend that influence.
Anne Mette Lundtofte In The Five Obstructions you put yourself into the hands of a director who is renowned for torturing his lead actors. In one of the first scenes, you say that Lars Yon Trier’s proposal—to remake your early film, The Perfect Human, five times, observing a set of rules or restrictions that he places in your way—is a “total destruction” of the original idea of your work. Why would you agree to submit yourself to such a treatment?
Jørgen Leth Because I thought it would be a challenge. I know that Lars respects my work, as I respect him and his work. When he proposed that we make a film together, I thought it would be a lot of fun. But I’m not naive, and I wasn’t naive going into the project. I knew he could be devious, even evil, so I knew that it wasn’t going to be all fun and games. It was a mixed experience . . . . He tells me that he admires my work and loves the original version of The Perfect Human, and then the first thing he asks me to do in the film is to deconstruct it completely. That’s a shocking proposition. Anyway, it was within the rules we’d set up for our project, so I had to accept his challenge. We had other rules—we had to be brutally honest with each other; it all had to be spontaneous; nothing could be scripted or prepared in any way. Not at any point in the filming process did I know beforehand what his rules for my remakes would be, and not at any point did he know in advance what my responses to his challenges were. In this way, my responses were also a challenge to him.
AML There’s a whole genre of documentaries about the making of films. One of the best, in my opinion, is Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, about Werner Herzog’s making of Fitzcarraldo, with Herzog’s antihero Klaus Kinski in the main role. The film documents the torturous relationship between director and actor—a relationship that eventually drives them both mad: at one point in the film we see Herzog wave a gun around, threatening to kill Kinski. A more recent example is Lost in La Mancha, which documents Terry Gilliam’s disastrous attempt to film Don Quixote—here the lead actor falls off his horse in the first week of filming and is unable to continue. Even though The Five Obstructions shares certain aspects with these documentaries, it is also a very different film. First, it’s about a remake of a film, and, second, the obstacles you meet as a director are all invented. Isn’t it a perverse premise for a documentary?
JL In a way I was actually thankful that Lars was so mean and pushed me so far, because it forced me to be innovative. It’s like any kind of game: you have to take the rules seriously, otherwise it’s no fun at all. So when he came up with some really difficult obstructions, I had to go beyond myself in my responses. I took it very seriously, and I did things in my work that I would otherwise never have done. For instance, I would never have done a film with 12-frame edits only, as he instructs me to do in the first of his obstructions. You might say that the whole project was an attempt on his part to humiliate me, and I knew from the beginning that I took a risk entering into this project—I risked my own reputation, for starters! It would all be very embarrassing had I not been able to live up to his challenges. But I do think I rise to the occasion, finding a way that is not just a way out, but a way to use the obstruction to make an interesting film. You say that the film is about a remake, but it isn’t really. It’s first and foremost about the creative process of filmmaking. The discussions Lars and I have are a very integrated part of the whole project. In that sense, The Five Obstructions is a documentary about the creative process.
AML You’re both directors, and a great part of the film is about you, as directors, discussing the rules of the game. But at the same time you’re not only a director in this documentary, you’re also an actor who has to execute Lars von Trier’s will. On his set.
JL Yeah, yeah. That was an interesting experience. He did want to treat me like one of his actors, that’s true, but I’m not that easy to work with. Or maybe I am, I don’t know. The interesting thing about this project was that I never knew where it was leading me. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the beauty of art, really—that you don’t know where it will take you. It’s like writing a poem. When I write I never know where I’m going. I only know that I started it. And I’m a very curious person; I like to be taken places I don’t know. It’s a miracle the best of times, and the same goes for filmmaking. I’m applying the same philosophy to my film work. I like to put myself into situations where I lack control from the beginning. That way things happen, they come out of the blue by the sheer chemistry of the situation. And this is the real definition of what’s happening in The Five Obstructions. Lars is the same, and then he’s not. At some point we were talking about the issue of control and not having control, and we both agreed that the beauty of the film was that neither of us knew where it was going. But at the same time Lars is a control freak. He wants to control other people, to set the rules and maneuver them, and in the film I’m no doubt giving myself up to this manipulation—and even to humiliation, you might say. But I did it voluntarily, because I wanted to see what would happen.
AML At one point in the film Lars von Trier gives you what I would imagine to be any documentary maker’s worst nightmare: he asks you to go reshoot the film elsewhere after you’ve just spent months finishing it in Bombay, which was part of the second obstruction. As it turns out, though, the most difficult “restriction” for you is when Trier gives you absolutely free reign—that is, no restrictions at all. Why does artistic freedom constitute the ultimate penalty for you?
JL I’m used to working with formalist rules. In my own work I like to challenge myself with restrictions. For example, I’ll make it a rule not to use the camera in this or that way. It might sound paradoxical, but for me that constitutes freedom: to be able to create something within a certain frame. When I had to respond to Lars’s requirement that I must produce a film with no formal restrictions, I really didn’t know where to go. I felt desperate. I was discussing with my son how I could get started on a film with no rules, and we started talking about my poetry throughout the years, where there are elements of mystery and sex consistently present. I have always loved film noir, and these themes, which I had explored in my poetry through a recurring figure motivated by his inner dark side, provided a wonderful inspiration for The Five Obstructions. It proved very interesting that I could find in my own writing the reminder of an idea that I had always been interested in but had never been close to investigating in film. So I remade The Perfect Human as a film noir. For me it was a very playful solution to the obstruction.
AML Artistic freedom, in fact, gave you the opportunity to create something that you hadn’t been able to achieve using your usual technique of self-imposed formal restrictions.
JL Exactly. It gave me the opportunity to do something I’d always wanted to do.
AML And you had to break your own rules in order to do it.
AML In the film, von Trier says he “chastises you with your own aesthetic principles,” and he believes you will get to a point of some psychological breakthrough through a breakdown of control and confidence if you fail to meet the challenges he puts your way. That’s his particular technique, I believe. But it seems to me that what he wants from you is a spastic performance like the ones he incited from his actors in The Idiots, where a group of adults try to connect with their “inner idiot” by posing as mentally retarded. In the film, the members of the group act out in public, believing that they’re rejecting the normality and conformity of society. But you’re not a spastic kind of person.
JL No, I’m not.
AML And you don’t seem to believe in the idea of spazzing out.
JL No. I don’t believe in that at all. I think it’s romantic of Lars to believe that somehow something pure and unspoiled will rise from a psychological breakdown, from a point of emotional exhaustion.
AML He wants to push you over the edge.
JL And I’m very much into pushing things over the edge, pushing the limits of filmmaking, of documentary making. I think we have a common ambition in that sense, and I think it was best accomplished in the idea of the second challenge in The Five Obstructions. He sent me to, by my own definition, the most miserable place on earth—the red-light district in Bombay—to reshoot The Perfect Human with myself in the lead role as the Perfect Man. He wanted to see how I would react when exposed to extreme misery. Whether I could maintain what he regards as my façade. He wanted me to break down, of course, but I didn’t.
AML You’re of one piece throughout the film.
JL I have an instinct for performing, and that’s what I do when I make films. What Lars is questioning here is my method—the way I deal with or depict reality, by imposing rules and making art out of it. The intention of his film is to see me go from the “perfect” to the “human” by undoing the underlying system structuring The Perfect Human: the ascetic backdrops, the controlled narration, the long takes. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that I’m obsessed with exactly that crossover from perfection to humanity. But I explore it in another way—namely, by working with the distance and limitations that I see as the inherent condition of art. In Bombay, we were shooting the scene from the film that depicts how the Perfect Man eats. I was wearing my best tuxedo and was seated at a table with a luxurious dinner set in front of me: a Chablis, a delicious fish, all silver utensils and fine china. I was seated right in the middle of this street lined with brothels. I had erected a transparent screen that no one could pass through behind the table, framing me and separating my reality from the reality of the street. Behind the screen you see women and children, a lot of colors, a lot of life. I’m well aware of the elegance of this scene, which is what Lars later noted as one of the problems with it: I was prepared for the entire set to break down, people could have torn it down or mobbed the street, but I never came close to breaking down.Keeping distance is a technique, and I’m aware of its emotional costs. I’m very well aware of that. But I think it’s an illusion to think that there’s a deeper and a more true source beneath the way I work—a source that can only be reached by breaking down the technique. It’s romantic, and I don’t believe in it.
AML Might this suggest a difference, even a generation gap, in particular between you and Lars von Trier but also between you and the Dogme movement, which you are often cited to have fathered?
JL There’s definitely a gap between me and the Dogme movement. But they’ve also been influenced a lot by my work, as you can clearly see in the films. I’m pleased with that, as I taught a couple of them in film school and often used my own work as teaching material. Lars always credited me with this, and he clearly does so in The Five Obstructions. So of course I’m flattered. But I myself would never be part of a brotherhood. That’s all long gone. In my younger days I was involved with a group of Danish avant-garde artists, but now it doesn’t appeal to me to be a subscriber to any collective set of rules. I want to make my own rules, and I want to go even further than the Dogme members do. I think there’s something very good, very important in this movement. When I taught in film school I always said that it was important not to get seduced by new technical equipment and possibilities; it becomes easy to think that the more effects you use, the more technical knowledge that you have, the more means to use them in a film, the better the film becomes. I believe in slimming down, getting down to the basic rules, the basic grammar, of filmmaking. What is a sound? What is an image? What does it mean to expose raw film to light? These are the questions I like to ask myself.
AML How do you explore this in your documentaries, which is the genre you mostly work in?
JL I’ve always been driven by curiosity and fascination. That’s what keeps me going as a filmmaker. I don’t like documentaries that take their own answers as their premise. They basically go out and find inspiration for their own arguments, their own prejudice. My documentaries are not like that. They are examples of a more curious, a more explorative attitude toward the whole idea of filming. My drive in my films is to understand, and that’s what makes them different from traditional documentaries of the BBC kind, which are all a product of knowing everything too well, knowing too much.These days I’m curious to know more about the materials of filmmaking. I like to mix video and film and work with the contrast between the two textures. It’s a sensual thing, and it’s a simple thing. But I’m interested in the simple things. That’s also why I’m so fascinated by Haiti.
AML Yes, it’s a very odd choice for a Danish documentary maker to choose to live in Haiti.
JL Of course it’s an odd choice, and everyone asks me why I have chosen to be there. The more horrors they hear about Haiti, the more this question comes up. But I’m perverted enough—in the Lars von Trier sense of the word—to appreciate having lived through the recent political disturbances there. I feel that I’ve learned more about life in Haiti than anywhere else, and I’ve learned more about myself by living in this place. I’m an observer, and I’m grateful to have been a witness to what has happened in Haiti. The Haitian history is full of tragic comedy. I’ve been there for many years and I’ve seen the country through many of its dramatic crises, but this is one of the worst. Aristide is a criminal, and in my opinion the U.S. should have come down on him much harder and much sooner. He pretends to have been elected democratically, but that is a lie. He should have been deposed long ago, and as the Haitian people couldn’t do it themselves, someone should have helped them. But the U.S. was too laid back, supporting the idea that as a democratically elected president he had the right to stay his term. This is a nice democratic thought, but that’s not the way things work in Haiti.
AML And you were reporting from Haiti this last winter?
JL I was reporting for Danish television and the Danish paper Politiken. I was passionately involved in the political situation there, and I believe I helped by reporting my observations from the inside. That’s what you can do when you live in a country like Haiti—you can make a contribution toward others’ understanding of a country that has been plagued by its own rulers by trying to let people know about what is really going on.
AML You’re a documentary maker, you’re a reporter, and you are also a sports commentator. What do all these different angles on the world have in common?
JL They are all driven by the urge to understand what is going on. To understand, and to explain what you see, and to be educated and informed by what is taking place in front of you. I see all of these things as a great drama, a theater where certain characters take shape and a plot evolves. It’s the same in the world of sports. In my documentaries about bicycle races, you see the various cyclists take on different qualities and human virtues as if on a great stage. In the race, they’re not just fighting against each other but also measuring themselves against the history of the race and other legendary performances of the past.
AML You’ve collaborated with a lot of artists, most recently with the musician John Cale, who wrote the score for your 2001 film New Scenes from America. You also worked with Andy Warhol in 66 Scenes From America . How has your experience with artists from other fields than your own differed from your experience with Lars von Trier?
JL One of the things that’s really fascinating to me is working across the arts. Andy Warhol has been a great inspiration for me. So has Duchamp and John Cage. I often get inspired by painters and sculptors rather than by other filmmakers, perhaps because the history of film has been delayed in comparison with that of the other arts. Perhaps because film in America is considered a show business—which is fine, a lot of great films have come out of this commercial condition—but the way I work, I’m mostly inspired by art and poetry. I consider myself part of a generation that has tried to explore how to move outside film into other arts both for inspiration and for opening up to another way of thinking, another philosophy, really. It has been quite natural for me to seek collaborations with artists like John Cale. I found John Cale because some very good friends of mine led me to him, but also because I was looking for this kind of sensibility. Warhol had been so meaningful to me that I wanted the new film about America to have somebody who represented that same kind of sensibility. It couldn’t have been more natural than one from Warhol’s own group of people: John Cale became a very obvious choice. He agreed because the way I suggested our collaboration was interesting to him. I don’t use composers as illustrators. I’m not looking for dramatic emphasis, like Hitchcock did in his work, for example—and he used it to great effect—because I’m curious to know what happens when sound and image do not fit together. I mean, sound for me has always been separate from the image. Sometimes in my films the music is even scored in contrast to the image, or in contrast to the narration. I hate when the music simply illustrates the image, explaining the obvious. That’s why I didn’t show John Cale my film before he wrote the score for it. I gave him some key words and asked in return for a few pieces, fragments, not a complete composition. I wanted his music and my film to be guided by chance. I like to be guided by chance, which is a shocking thing for a filmmaker to say. As a breed they are usually control freaks—Lars von Trier is not alone in that—but I do like to leave room for chance. I filmed New Scenes From America in September 2001 and left New York on September 10. It’s not a film about September 11, but the disastrous events of that day of course penetrate the whole film, color it in a certain way. But that wasn’t intended on my part.
AML It was beyond your control.
JL Everything is beyond my control.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE DOCUMENTARY
On Deontology of Representation and Ethics of Interpretation(Published in Documentary Box #24, YIDFF, Yamagata 2005)
In The Five Obstructions (Denmark, 2003) Lars von Trier is asking Jørgen Leth to remake his own 1967 short film The Perfect Human. Not once, but five times, and each time following von Trier’s bizarre obstructions. It should be considered a crime to ask a director to make a remake of his own film, but Leth accepts to play the game. The Perfect Human is a stylish but ironic, poetic film about human behavior, inspired by the world of advertising. When Leth returns from his first assignment – with the obstruction not to use more than 12 frames per shot – von Trier’s disappointment is visible: despite the outrageous obstruction, and having lengthy shots as one of the characteristics of his film style, Leth has succeeded in delivering a beautiful film. As a revenge von Trier is going to put Leth’s ethics to the test by imposing him the following obstructions: to film in “the most miserable place of the world” (to which Leth is quite used…), but not to show it; Leth plays the role of ‘the man’, and the copious meal should be in it. Filming a man eating a copious meal in face of the poorest people of the world without showing their misery is not very elegant – to say the least –, but Leth takes up the challenge and sets off for the most miserable street of Bombay.
This brings us to the discussion of what von Trier and Leth call during their talks ‘the ethics of the observer’ – the filmmaker being the ‘observer’. The ethics of documentary filmmaking has been discussed more often and generally it has focused on the relation between the documentarist and his subject(s). But there is much more to it. In this essay I want to discuss the different ethical aspects involved in documentary representation, by looking at it as an act, or actions, of communication in which ethics play a role on different levels. The first act – and in literature on documentary the most discussed – is the filming itself and the relation between the filmmaker and his subject. What is the documentarist ‘allowed’ to do with his subjects? How may he represent them, without harming their integrity? The second ‘act’ is another widely discussed one, but mostly from a semiotic point of view: the relation between the documentary – as the message – and reality; the act of representation. Notions of ‘objectivity’ and ‘truth’ are still considered to be elements of a litmus test for labeling a film as a documentary. A third act is hardly discussed when it comes to ethics, but is more and more pressing to be discussed: the presentation of the documentary by and its distributor/broadcaster. Nowadays, documentary depends mainly on Television to get financed and ‘distributed’. But broadcasters seem to be willing to impose their rules on documentary, formatting the genre in such a way that those who still make ‘real’ documentaries are regarded as weird types from a different age or even manipulators. Last but not least, and when it comes to documentary ethics hardly discussed, is the communicative act of the spectator. In philosophy ethics is discussed in relation to action/behavior – trying to distinguish good from bad. Ethics, as philosophy, can be considered as a ‘practical philosophy’ or a ‘philosophy of action’. Nobody will deny that filmmaking is an action that implies moral issues regarding the treatment of subjects (the first act) or, when it comes to documentary, truth-telling (the second act). Neither will many people object that broadcasting (or showing in general – the third act) is an action that, thus, implies ethical behavior. But since the spectator is generally considered as a passive human being, sitting in his chair watching the film, not much thought has been given to the most crucial action of all he undertakes: interpretation.
What follows should not be considered as an exhaustive description of ethical aspects in documentary, but merely as some points of reflection and strands of thought on those issues that deserve to get much more attention – both in the academic world as in the world of documentary practitioners, from filmmakers and broadcasters to the spectator. And since ethical values differ from country to country, from person to person, I will limit myself to a (Western) European context, the context in which I move myself and which undoubtedly has limited and defined my worldview and my ethical stance.
Act I: FilmingBefore sending Jørgen Leth to Bombay Lars von Trier asks him: “would you film a dying child in a refugee camp and ad the words from The Perfect Human?” “No” is Leth’s answer, “I’m not perverse.” Apparently, Leth’s moral values tell him that exploiting a child (or a film’s subject in general) in distress for mere artistic and aesthetic pleasure, or even for financial gain, is ‘bad’. Therefore, he wouldn’t do it. Still, he accepts the obstruction of filming the eating of a copious meal in the most miserable place in the world, without showing that misery. But again, it appears that Leth’s moral values dictate his filmmaking: he returns to von Trier with the remake in which he shows the scene against a semi-transparent background behind which the men, women and children clot together to witness the meal. Though not explicitly visible, their misery becomes palpable, making the film ‘good’ from an ethical point of view, which was exactly opposed to what von Trier wanted (thus, ‘mission failed’).
Still from The Five Obstructions
Both the European Convention on Human Rights (article 8) as well as the Council of Europe’s Resolution on the ethics of journalism (article 23) refer to ‘the right to respect for private and family life’. However, this fundamental right is regularly in competition with other fundamental rights: the right to freedom of expression, and the right to information (respectively article 10 and article 8). But why am I referring to ethics of journalism when I am talking about documentary? Well, I will go deeper into that in the next ‘Acts’ below, but let us content ourselves that: for one, it is upon these same rights that documentarists regularly put there claims; and for two, in case law on documentary in which ethics plays a role there is often a reference to these journalistic codes of ethics, for the ‘simple’ reason that documentary deals with reality. Don’t protest – we will get back to that.
So, how can the filmmaker be responsible regarding his or her subject? The answer is often: by informed consent. The filmmaker has to inform his subject of how he will be depicted in the film, and how this may affect his life. He is not allowed to obtain this consent by intimidation, or coercion, or from someone who is physically or mentally not competent to consent. It sounds easy, but it is far from that. First, the filmmaker is not always in a communicative situation with his subjects. Second, if we follow Calvin Pryluck’s point that “Consent is flawed when obtained by the omission of any fact that might influence the giving or withholding of permission,” (Rosenthal, 262) we can ask ourselves how many years we need to explain our subjects what the possible implications are of appearing in a Documentary. This is not merely irony: it is, in my opinion, simply impossible to provide all possible information about what a documentary is and what this specific one can cause, and to foresee all possible interpretations of the film or sequences of the film. Furthermore, a filmmaker is not always in the situation to show the final result to his subjects; sometimes there is some money involved to reach certain ends (is that coercion?), and then, when shown in other places, other cultures, the impact and interpretation can be quite different. But, as far as possible, informed consent is a good start – and let us hope they don’t regret it afterwards.
On the other hand, media are nowadays (here in Europe at least) so omnipresent that some pre-understanding of what it can imply to appear in a documentary may be expected. Worse: your subjects may turn against you because they already knew their opportunities. Again, no irony here, which may illustrate the following story, in which Nicolas Philibert, documentarist, sees his main character, teacher at a primary school, turning against him. Months of preparation and shooting, with cooperation of all subjects or their parents (in case of the minors), resulted in Philibert’s portrait of a primary school with just one teacher for all pupils somewhere on the countryside in France: the film Etre et avoir (To Be and To Have, France, 2002). Everybody was happy with the final result, proud to see their children appear in a sympathetic film, and proud of their teacher… until it appeared that this documentary hit the box office records with 1.8 million spectators in the cinemas, was selling to many broadcasters and was a also a hit in DVD-sales. Mr. George Lopez, the teacher made a charge against Philibert of counterfeit (claiming to be co-author of the film because fragments of his courses are depicted in the film) and of infringement of his ‘image rights’ (which derives from the right to respect for private life). The parents of the kids made a claim of 20.000 euros each, because they should be paid as actors, since the kids sometimes had to repeat certain scenes.
Still from Etre et avoir
All this only to say that in the relation between the filmmaker and his subjects ethics is not a one-way ticket. The filmmaker definitely has some responsibilities, but we should not forget that subjects should not merely be considered as passive victims, undergoing the documentary ‘treatment’ – especially not in a time when almost everybody (in Western Europe, it should be added) is a massive media-consumer. And, being citizens like any other, subjects too have rights they are allowed to exercise. For example, the Television Without Frontiers directive of the European Union provides for the ‘right of reply’ (Article 22): “…any natural or legal person, regardless of nationality, whose legitimate interests, in particular reputation and good name, have been damaged by an assertion of incorrect facts in a television program [which includes documentaries] must have a right of reply or equivalent remedies.”
There is much more to be said about this, but, as I already stated, this part of documentary ethics has been widely dealt with before, for example in Rosenthal’s book, but also in the last two chapters of Brian Winston’s Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries.
Act II: Truth-tellingThe idea that documentarists are authors, artists, who are creatively treating themes and subjects taken from historical or actual reality, seems to be outmoded. Thanks to the Maysles brothers, Jean Rouch and Television, documentary has become another word for ‘audiovisual journalism’. I am exaggerating a bit, but in the world of practitioners (filmmakers, broadcasters and spectators) the definition of documentary has definitely – but mainly implicitly – been narrowed down during the last decades. This has its impact on the idea of how documentary should represent reality, and when borders are crossed.
Well, let us play the game for a while and forget 80 years of documentary film history and that ‘creativity’ stuff. Let us again pretend that documentary ethics coincides with ethics of journalism and let us consult the resolution of the Council of Europe on ethics of journalism again, because there are some interesting things in there. First of all the distinction that is made between ‘news’ and ‘opinions’: “News is information about facts and data, while opinions convey thoughts, ideas, beliefs or value judgments…” (article 3). Key-word for ‘news’ is ‘truthfulness’ (article 4), while for ‘opinions’ – acknowledging that ‘truthfulness’ and ‘objectivity’ are not appropriate – we have “to ensure that opinions are expressed honestly and ethically” (article 5) and “should not attempt to deny or conceal the reality of the facts or data” (article 6). What surprises me in this, and in most national codes of ethics for journalists, is that it seems to be based on a positivism that was in vogue some 150 years ago. The recent developments (i.e. of the last hundred years) in philosophy (of science), post-modernist thinking and historiographical theory appears to be terra incognita for those who established the codes. OK, the resolution dates from 1993, and it is only very recently that one George W. Bush (not a philosopher) has clearly demonstrated that “the reality of facts and data” depends first and foremost on the ideological, political and economic interests/blinders of the person who is using or creating them. Facts, like data, are representations; and I am one of those (postmodernists?) who thinks that representations are interpretations. The (information about) reality of facts is thus the reality of interpretations. Journalists should not consider news as ‘this is how it is’ but as ‘this is how we see it’. Truth and objectivity should not be interpreted as that what corresponds with reality. Especially regarding journalism we can echo the words of Gianni Vattimo (philosopher and member of the European Parliament) that “it is in the world of public opinion, of the mass media … that a theory of truth not as correspondence but as interpretation may be found” (Vattimo, 115). Truth relates to a specific world view and, like objectivity, it can then be regarded as ‘correspondence with a specific world view’, bearing in mind that “radio, television and newspapers became elements in a general explosion and proliferation of world views” (Vattimo, 5). Documentary is part of that.
Does this all mean that we have to become nihilistic relativists? No, I don’t think so. We should not despair or fall into an apathy regarding the objectivity of the world, as some postmodern thinkers tend to do. To me, postmodernists’ aim is certainly not to deny facts, data and truth claims. Its aim seems to me more to put these in a (different) context, and especially to become conscious of the context(s) in which they generate their meanings, and thus how they could generate other meanings when these facts, data, and truth claims are analyzed from different perspectives, different world views. Especially in documentary, and in news programs on television, we see that truth claims are the core of the matter. A simple denial of this would block our way to understand and explain these programs and documentaries, and the events they talk about. Nietzsche’s famous thesis that the ‘real world’ has become a fable should not lead to the conclusion that we cannot rely on this fable. On the contrary, it is the only reference we have to build up our understanding of the world: “The images of the world we receive from the media and the human sciences, albeit on different levels, are not simply different interpretations of a ‘reality’ that is ‘given’ regardless, but rather constitute the very objectivity of the world. (…) It makes more sense to recognize that what we call the ‘reality of the world’ is the ‘context’ for the multiplicity of ‘fablings’ – and the task and significance of the human sciences lie precisely in thematizing the world in these terms” (Vattimo, 24-25). The ethical stance in this is the self-consciousness of news and documentaries regarding their context of reality. News can be truthful and objective, but should be conscious of the fact that this truthfulness and objectivity is limited to the world view in which it moves. Opinions should be honest and ethical in a similar vein: conscious of the world view(s) they imply. Like for journalism, reality is the core of the business of documentary. Documentarists have the same moral obligations to be truthful and honest – in the sense of as it is presented above.
In concreto, what are the limits of truthfulness and honesty in documentary representation? Fortunately, there is no documentary bible of do’s and don’ts, but the following story will at least give some food for thought, and will probably show that ethical values differ from person to person, even when they share a lot of world views. The case at hand is the documentary Ford Transit (the Netherlands, 2002) by Hany Abu-Assad, commissioned by the VPRO Broadcasting Organization. The film tells the story of a Palestinian taxi driver who has to cope with the many Israeli road blocks in the occupied territories. The VPRO decided to withdraw the film from the Dutch Film Festival after it was informed (by the BBC!) that scenes were staged, and that the taxi driver was not a taxi driver in real life – so it was acted. The VPRO had worked before with Abu-Assad, so they knew about his working methods (mixing fiction with documentary work). The filmmaker can be reproached that he had not mentioned to the VPRO that he had not changed these methods. That he used an ‘actor’ for the film does not change the daily experience of many taxi drivers and other Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories. Still, the VPRO considered the film not ‘truthful’, because scenes were staged. It is interesting to refer here to Winston’s ‘Reconstruction Continuum’, which should help us to draw a line between fiction (total intervention by the filmmaker) and fact (non-intervention). He says: “‘Acting’ alone is unambiguously fiction and ‘acting witnessed history’ is drama-documentary; but all other the other points on the continuum can and have been considered legitimate for documentary practice.” (Winston, 106). In Winston’s – British – view Ford Transit would be called a drama-documentary, but not everything in the film is ‘acted witnessed history’. I even want to claim that Abu-Assad has been more honest in using an ‘actor’ and more truthful to the situation of Palestinian taxi drivers, than the VPRO in censoring its distribution and showing at a festival, because – apparently – they consider staging in documentary a greater crime than telling about the impact of Israeli road blocks in occupied Palestinian territories. But it is up to anybody to give his or her moral judgment on this. (It should, however, be noted that using an ‘actor’ is contrary to the verdict of the judge in the case of George Lopez vs. the team of Etre et avoir: “A documentary fact – in its relation to reality – excludes the notion of ‘acting’.” Hahaha, if the judge only knew…)
Still from Ford Transit
Act III: ShowingDocumentary depends for its financing nowadays, and especially in Europe, on broadcasters. Most film funds even demand that the filmmaker has a deal with a broadcaster before they will eventually support the filmmaker in making his documentary. The commissioning editors of these broadcasters – well, many of them and other responsibles for financing and programming documentaries (or ‘factual programs’) – seem to have no idea of what documentary is (because they just moved from the children’s department to the documentary department, or they worked before for a publishing company. But hey, everybody knows what documentary is, isn’t it?). Some think that documentaries tell the truth, or something like that. Others claim that there is no creativity involved in documentary filmmaking: “A documentarist is no artist.” Unfortunately, this is not a joke – more than once I have heard commissioning editors say things like this; the documentarist is a recording machine – John Grierson would turn in his grave. People with some knowledge of documentary film history are a rare breed at broadcasting companies. Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité have set the models: documentarists are observing, recording and interviewing people. Investigative journalism or Brian Lapping-like films seem to set today’s norms for today’s documentary: a series of talking heads, preferably talking VIPs, explaining events or revealing juicy secrets, illustrated with some stock or journalistic footage. A ‘weirdo’ like e.g. Thierry Knauff, with his Wild Blue – notes à quelques voix (Belgium, 2000), is praised for his artisticity, but his film is hardly shown outside of the festivals, because “it doesn’t fit the slots.” First, because the film is 66 minutes, instead of 52 or 53 (although broadcasters have no scruples to cut films down; last years Amsterdam Joris Ivens Award winner Checkpoint was cut down from 78 minutes to 53 for broadcasting). Second, it is in black and white (nobody wants to watch b/w films anymore). And third, it has no clear narrative – the spectator is forced to think when watching this film. Furthermore, as I have already stated before, broadcasters are more and more imposing journalistic norms on documentaries; documentaries represent reality, and are therefore not allowed to stage scenes, be subjective, use fictional elements and the like. Of course, I am generalizing and exaggerating, but the tendency is clearly there.
Fortunately, for Europeans, there is the Television Without Frontiers directive of the European Union, which regulates the quotas broadcasters have to invest in independent production (10% of their transmission time or programming budget), and most countries have quotas for programming the different television genres. Some do specify ‘documentaries’ but then together with ‘magazines’ or ‘information/actuality programs’. Others only mention ‘factual programming’. Many broadcasters use these quotas not only as a minimum, but also as a maximum. Understandable, because they too have to make money. A lively debate last summer in France might illustrate this: The big boss of TF1, France’s leading private broadcasting channel, Patrick Le Lay declared: “What we are selling to Coca-Cola is the available time of human brains,” meaning that the programs in between the commercials are destined to prepare the television spectator for those commercials. Within that context we also have to note that companies like Endemol (Big Brother, Star Academy, etc) are also independent producers, and that some broadcasters tend to put the ultimate form of Direct Cinema that is called Reality TV under the same heading as documentaries, using up the quota and the slots for factual programming – simply because there is much more money to make with Reality TV, than with a documentary on the sex life of snails.
The Public Broadcasting channels are still the saviors of documentary, but their competition with the private channels is becoming more and more threatening for real independent production and the leveling out of the programs they offer. Patricia Zimmermann has analyzed this ‘war on documentary’ in an American context, which is a bit different than the European context, but the trend is going in the same direction. News and factual programming (which includes documentaries) have become the new battle grounds between public and private broadcasters, with the risks Zimmermann observes: “The clear lines of distinction between public space and corporate space, between public affairs and private enterprise, between oppositional work and corporatist multiculturalism, between identity politics and niche marketing, between the nation and the globe, have become murky” (Zimmermann, 50). Here in Europe a lot of people frown when they see the recent events in the USA, the way some news channels function, and an account on that like the film Outfoxed, and they think this will not happen on the ‘old continent’. But in Europe too, it becomes more and more clear that economic interests dictate political, ideological, and moral values and with that the media landscape, something that is called ‘truth’ and the productions that deal with that.
This battle for audience ratings and the formatting of documentary does not only lead to a narrowing down of the concept and definition of documentary itself, to which I already referred above, but also to a leveling down of modes of expression in general, and especially the subjective and interpretive – opinionating and thought provoking – discourses that are needed to give the public more background information and points of reflection on things that happen or have happened in the real world. Producing and showing these kind of discourses is, in my humble opinion, one of the noble tasks of documentary. But also of those with the power to show: the broadcasters and distributors. This is what could really be called – and should be part of – the deontology of (public) broadcasters: showing what is behind the surface of reality, and setting the ‘right’ priorities when it comes to programming. It may be utopian, but it is at least worth a thought.
Act IV: InterpretationA documentary filmmaker, and the broadcaster too, generally considers the target group for who he wants to film or to show his work to. This implies considerations about possible interpretations of the imagery, commentary, editing sequences, etc. He himself – while filming, editing, writing, selecting – is interpreting the world around him. In fact, the spectator who sees the film is interpreting an interpreted world. This not only underlines the importance of a certain ethical (deontological) stance of the filmmaker, but also that the spectator cannot simply be considered as a passive consumer: interpretation is an act – a fundamental act in the process of communication.
In another way, I think that in this time of omnipresent media the spectator is not that illiterate anymore as he may have been when the Lumière brothers’ train came off the screen in 1895. Still, it is not enough; courses in Media-literacy should be an obligatory element in the high school curriculum, and despite the many many lies people get through their TV sets, they still believe – almost unconditionally – in the authenticity of the moving image. But the spectator is not only a stupid victim, he is also an active and intelligent image consumer and knows more and more how to distinguish real from fake, documentary from fiction. Even when a documentary uses fictional elements, most spectators nowadays (except those of the VPRO, maybe) know how to value that. In that sense, it is not only from the documentary filmmaker that we may expect that he is conscious of the relative objectivity of his world view, we may expect the same from the spectator. In a time when moral standards are hammered in by certain world leaders, it has become clear that these standards are more and more disputed (and disputable), and less and less ‘standard’. One of the merits of globalization – in which the media play an important role – is the encounter of different cultures and the growing awareness that ‘different culture’ can also mean ‘different moral standards’ – different world views, different ethics.
The optimistic view is that we, as spectators, learn by this confrontation of different world views to value and respect these other world views and to interpret them in a more balanced way. However, it appears to be very difficult to step back from ones own moral standards when judging the other. A recent incident in the Netherlands, that became world news, shows this in a painful way. On November 2 the filmmaker/writer Theo van Gogh was shot and stabbed to death by a Muslim extremist. The motivation for this appalling act (extremism normally does not go well together with ‘good’ moral values) were his provocative articles in the press and the film Submission, which van Gogh made with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a member of the Dutch parliament from Somalian (and Muslim) descent. This individual act caused several violent reactions (arson of mosques and Islamic schools, in return arson of churches), and emotional debates. The provocative and regularly insulting words of van Gogh regarding the Muslim community, and especially the extremists, did not show many respect; the killing even less. But here I want to concentrate on the film. Submission is a short film showing a veiled woman, praying to Allah. The front of the veil is transparent and we can see the naked body of the woman on which verses of the Koran are written. During her prayer she professes here submission to Allah and her husband and other male members of the family, at the same time recounting acts of abuse and violence by these family members. The images of the praying woman are interrupted by images of parts of a mutilated female body. The contrast between the professed submission and the suffering undergone by that submission is stark and painful. Someone with a basic knowledge of Islam can imagine that this film is provocative, to say the least. But in the Dutch society – a pious society, but also with a long tradition of criticism, parody, and mocking regardless what religious traditions and rituals – this way of expressing oneself is completely protected by the right to freedom of expression (which, it should be said, is nevertheless limited), already referred to earlier on.
Still from Submission - part I
In this rapid and incomplete overview of ethical aspects in documentary communication it should be underlined that these communicative acts are merely distinguished from each other for analytical purposes, and are much more intertwined in documentary practice. I have been exaggerating here and there, and I am guilty of some generalizations. Some might think that I have a grudge against the VPRO Broadcasting Organization, which is not true: they have the most interesting documentary programming of the Netherlands. By no means I have the pretension to know how it all should be, but I do have my opinions. My intention was to give some strands of thought on this still under-exposed topic. It is however encouraging that a recent ‘Introduction to Documentary’ (Nichols) starts with a chapter on Documentary Ethics.
Representation and interpretation are two sides of the same picture. The deontology/ethics involved in these processes is determined by moral standards of societies, legislation, communities and individuals. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are as objective value judgments as ‘truth’ corresponds to the ‘reality of facts’. The valuation of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ is in the hands of every single person (and this has been formalized/generalized by different laws or codes in different societies). But the documentary is in the hands of everybody participating in the communicative acts described above. Ethical issues are the concern of everybody involved in those acts, not only of the documentarist, but also of the broadcaster and the spectator – just to name a couple…
Coming back, in conclusion, to The Five Obstructions, it is worth to say that Lars von Trier not only plays a game with co-director Jørgen Leth, but also with the spectator: in the Bombay-remake (obstruction 2) Leth shows the misery of the people by using a semi-transparent background. If this background would not have been transparent, one could question the moral standards of both directors. But von Trier has undercut that since The Five Obstructions is not only five remakes of The Perfect Human in a row, it is at the same time a making-of of these remakes in which – as in every ‘good’ documentary – the misery has explicitly been shown. At the same time, von Trier and Leth have actively involved the spectator in thinking about these ethical issues.
- Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 2001.
- Alan Rosenthal (ed.), New Challenges for Documentary, University of California, Berkeley 1988.
- Gianni Vattimo, The Transparent Society, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1992.
- Brian Winston, Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries, British Film Institute, London 2000.
- Patricia Zimmermann, States of Emergency – Documentaries, Wars, Democracies, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2000.
Izvrsna reinterpretacija Savršenog čovjeka: Maximiliane Wadler & Stefanie Lockner, na Vimeu