Documentary truth, part 2

"The Arbor" by Clio Barnard

This is an attempt to discuss the assumption that in a documentary the more unfiltered reality is, the closer to truth.

The previous post argued that in a documentary film a public, charismatic personality usually (either consciously or subconsciously) “performs” since being “on” constitutes the core of such a personality. Therefore one should not talk in such cases about “truth” understood as something that is revealed despite the filmmaking conditions. In short - I don’t see much of cinema verite in the documentary about Vaclav Havel.

The documentary truth in that group of films therefore is synonymous with “presenting oneself”, which assumes a certain amount of performing, where performing is not a negative term but the acknowledgment that in order to present something to the public that something has to be dressed up in a form (a bow to Witold Gombrowicz here.)

What about a form when a film deals with more private people or with events or trends that have no self-consciousness of their public dimension or simply do not have any trace of “performing”? I am inclined to say that the similar process could happen there as well.

“The Arbor” by Clio Barnard seems to be a case in which the more reworked (enveloped in a form) reality is the closer it gets to its core. (The core would stand for reaching a basic pattern or emotion or the dramatic origination of the story being told). For example an amazing energy is evoked when two sisters (portrayed by actors) recall their childhood trauma as this very trauma plays behind them in the room. This obvious break with reality only adds up to the intensity of the message.

Some, writing about techniques in “The Arbor” bring up Bertolt Brecht and his “distancing effect.” Perhaps, however many “quotation marks” narrative maneuvers in the film rather than alienating me from the events in order to force my thinking about them, have the opposite effect. By bringing up various “look this is not happening for real” tactics (like staging interior scenes from a play in the square while the neighbors watch or famous lip-synching) the film actually manages to dispense the ever present suspicion with the medium itself. Once the thorn (as a film form inherently fake and therefore untrue to reality) is named and brought up into the open, I the viewer, can relax and am able to travel straight where the storyteller wants me to be.

Therefore as performing of a charismatic individual is a must for his truth to emerge so the narrative that “performs” is often needed to reach the essence of a story.


  1. I'm glad you liked THE ARBOR and found it inspiring! Soon, I will send you a copy of SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE, which (at mere 70 minutes!) manages to question all cinematic conventions of representing "the truth" at once ;-)

  2. Cool! Looking forward to it as I am working right now on my shortest poem ever. The poem (of course) will attempt to reveal the totality of "truth" as well. :-)