Documentary and philosophy (3 of 3)

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. 

(3 of 3)


Documentary and philosophy (2 of 3)

Usually good philosophical texts exude passion, emotion and underlying dramatic structure of intellectual kind.  Their structure comes from their thesis, assumptions, inner conflicts and the way points are developed.  Therefore one could break down a philosophical discourse into a dramatic grid not unlike the Hollywood three (or four or seven or whatever) act structure.  Once that is done, it would be possible to seek proper emotional or dramatic representations of the elements of this structure and present them visually.   (Various attempts to revolutionize the aristotelian/hollywood structure are still returning to the basis)

A single “philosophical thought” is never a hundred percent purely abstract.   It is so because, language, even when dealing with abstract terms (such as truth, justice, beauty, knowledge, meaning etc), does not leave them in our minds totally abstract.  Each of the above terms (and any other philosophical word) triggers some sort of mental image.  For example when we say or hear the word “truth” it never stays in our minds removed from reality.   It is always a specific truth.  It is always “the truth”.  We may not fully realize the specificity of our abstract thinking but it is always there, obvious or hidden yet always present.  Therefore it is safe to assume that underneath an abstract term lies always a specific image.  Respectively no specific image is devoid of abstract meaning: whatever we see triggers associations in our mind.  
The above point gives hope to the thesis that there is a common ground between visual and abstract: perhaps a translation of the world into a language and translation of the world into visuals both come from the same base. This primal ground would be a pre-language and pre-visual unity. It could become a well from which one could dig out primal “communicative elements”. “The communicative elements” would be the images and sounds laced with pre-cognitive meanings joined by their common origins. They would be the alphabet for a true philosophizing cinema. Would it push the field into a new form? Hopefully, yes.

(2 of 3)


Documentary and philosophy (1 of 3)

I am late. 

Months time ago a colleague of mine, an accomplished documentary film director asked me to write something about the connections between documentary film and philosophy.   In our talk the “philosophy” part came almost as an afterthought, an addition to the main theme which was documentary filmmaking as a genre.  Before our meeting the colleague had attended a screening of “Lawnswood Gardens” and saw a few previous titles of mine, also dealing with philosophy, hence I guess the phrasing of his request.  

In my mind my screen interest in philosophy is really only a skin deep.  It just so happened that during the last decade as a film documentarian I have been hanging out with various academic crowds of “lovers of wisdom”.  It influenced many of my productions dated from the first decade of the 21 century.  Some deal with heavy subjects of “truth”, “universalism” or post-modernity.  Yet, they were always the subjects of filmmaking rather than attempts to philosophize with camera.

Therefore what follows are just loose remarks coming from a practitioner rather than a theoretician. 

It seemed and still seems to me that an exploration of documentary film technologies and its subjects would yield similar conclusion regardless if the discussion was triggered by documenting thinking, object production or character representation.   That is assuming that as my spiritual and professional guru (I’ve never met him) Krzysztof Kieslowski stated documentary filmmaking tends to follow a thought as opposed to feature filmmaking that usually follows a plot. 

Yet, if a documentary by its nature is closer to the process of thinking rather than to storytelling than indeed perhaps zeroing in on meeting between philosophy and film could be interesting for exploring theory of a film-making craft. The distinction between theoretical thinking and following a story would however in itself require a closer examination.  Such examination would clearly exceed the preliminary and sketchy nature of these quickly jotted remarks.   For example the implied assumption that story presentation and its consumption is somehow simpler and inferior to “pure” thinking would need to be closely analyzed in terms of what is “story”, what is “thinking”, how they differ, how overlap and perhaps influence each other. 


I was delaying my response, dragging my feet due to difficulty in voicing something that would not seem obvious, banal or too esoteric.   Finally the pressure to deliver has outweighed the hesitations.  I have decided to put forth a few intuitions accumulated during those long hours of exasperation when I racked my brains trying to give screen justice to abstract subjects.  They come as points to myself, indications of potential ways to proceed in practicing the craft rather than (God forbid) rules, which of course I don’t know.   So here we go:

(end of part 1 of 3 )


Universal in Red with Black

"Red with Black" 
written/directed by Pawel Kuczynski

A mystery conjured into a cow.  Reflections on the margins of “Red with Black”, a film by Pawel Kuczynski” is an essay by Aleksandra Drzał-Sierocka in “The contexts of art, the contexts of aesthetics” (in Polish, just published by Authors and Officyna”.)

The author is kind to my 2008 effort portraying painter/sculptor Henryk Musiałowicz.  The essay title refers to Musialowicz openness to nature: “this great artist is enchanted by a cow and does not hide it.  To him art is a road to self discovery and as such should be based on a watchful and courageous search (...)

The director does not respond to questions about the meaning, mystery and rebirth which are posted every now and then by Musialowicz.  Instead he leaves them hanging and allows to reverberate.  Clearly sometimes more power comes from stating the uncertainty than from solving it.  

All that composes the unusual climate of “Red with Black” which is a very intimate and reflective film.  Even though it presents a specific person, it attains a certain degree of universal dimension.” 

I am glad that the reviewer talks about "universal".  However never during the making of this project I consciously attempted such a response.  Rather, I was just trying to offer my purely emotional reaction to the Maestro and his art.  

The question arrises where does the "universal" come from: is it the result of a subject, a narrative approach (conscious or unconscious) or does it, to a large degree, result  from a viewer's sensitivities?  

More information about this project and links to a trailer: http://www.directing.com/red.html