Switching to a more specific, personal testimony: the easiest way out of the problem how to show an abstract thought on the screen seems to be to equate a thought with a person and profile that person. I’ve done my share of those documentaries and noticed that they are most effective when their follow their heros’ unique emotions and sensitivities. For example when working on a Zygmunt Bauman documentary ("Lawnswood Gardens") I kept asking myself "how would Bauman direct" - not to assume I would be able to approach the world the way he does (I would not) but to keep myself in check when facing the task of presenting such a person on screen. The documentary cinema clearly loves emotions and sensitivities while approaches the abstract with hesitation.
Aside from identifying and mining the hero’s emotions, also a “negation of the abstract” seems to work well when trying to bring philosophy to screen. In “Philosopher’s Paradise”, a narrator does not understand an abstract idea of the hero of the film. Constructing a watchable screen tale is helped also by the fact that the narrator is the son of the misunderstood philosopher. Because of that, there is a constant and personal tension. In my fictitious 30 min. short “Phenomenology of truth”, a made up philosophical theory (“the truth is only on the surface”) championed by the film’s main character is constantly challenged through opposing its message staging, framing and plot turns. I am mindful however that this “negation” maneuver however, while working in this fictitious area, could for ethical reasons be unacceptable in a documentary.
I am currently working on a yet another “philosophical” documentary titled “The Department of Historical Necessity”. It will be a story of Marek Siemek, the profound, brilliant and esteemed professor of the Warsaw, Bonn, Jena and other universities. (“there are about 20 people on the planet that can think and Marek was one of them” someone says). Yet, in what may be a cop out in terms of the subject discussed in this entry, I have to admit that the “juice” and the drive of the film will come mostly from Siemek's tragic life turns, his amazing charisma and personality as well as from his inner demons. I will of course make an effort to communicate in a clear way his intellectual and philosophical dramas but the overall story will have to be constructed with the classical beginning, middle and end, with the good and the bad guys, with the plot turning and (hopefully) surprising the viewer.
So, aside from choosing interesting or dramatic people who express abstract thoughts, aside from applying various dramatic devices to make stories about the abstract issues fit formulas of the contemporary storytelling what else can be done to further bridge the disciplines of philosophy and documentary filmmaking?
My tentative list of certain film grammatical figures and structural approaches that might help in a less apodictic and primitive screen storytelling that seems to be the norm of today include:
- to allow each (abstract) beat to sufficiently reverberate so that a viewer can absorb it.
- to seek rather than to preach.
- to pose a finding in a form of a question rather than the answer, since each statement pretending to be the full explanation of a given problem invites by default its opposition and by doing so undermines the effort to “seek together”.
- to try not to follow the obvious in exploring a problem. (Aren’t the documentarians charged with the task of showing something that would normally be hidden to a casual observer?)
- to use sound as a driving force for images, rather than the other way around (at present the dimension of sound seems quite mysterious and allowing for forming fresh and unexpected associations)
- to limit spoken abstractions to minimum.
- to seek ways to equate abstract terms or emotional states or intellectual attitudes with spaces. Once that’s done a space can become a representation of an idea (an example from a feature film world would be “dream” and “consciousness” presented in “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. (Yes, despite the main theme of this post, I think the most promising inroads into expanding the film grammar come nowadays from the independent feature film area.)
When all is said and done clearly the bottom line in coming up with (intellectually) satisfying documentary film storytelling is the sensitivity and maturity of a storyteller (not age related) and for that even more than in the subject of “documentary and philosophy” there are not fixed findings, lists to follow or insights to give.
That’s why I was so late.
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