Documentary Facts and Lies | Double Dialogues (2022)

Sometimes you have to lie. (Robert Flaherty, maker of Moana, the first film to be described as having ‘documentary value’)

Well a lie, it depends, you know, whether you like it or not. I mean it’s an interpretation. If you don’t like it, it’s a lie. But everything about these kinds of movies is a distortion. (Fred Wiseman, observational film-maker)


A decision in the Federal Court of Australia to restrict my recording of a court proceeding, invites me to reflect on my filmic contribution to a research project I am currently engaged in. This paper presents those reflections.

A Courtroom of ‘Facts’

Saturday, 14th July 2007

I am sitting to the side of the meeting room of the Wunthulpu Cultural Centre in Coen on Cape York. The room has been turned into the Federal Court of Australia through an arrangement of the worn, community-centre furniture and a large banner displaying the Australian Coat of Arms. An old Lamalama man is giving evidence but terminal illness is robbing his body of the energy he needs and his performance is meandering.

I have just re-travelled three thousand kilometres to film this sitting of the Court at which Cape York Land Council lawyers are seeking to ‘preserve the evidence’ of four Lamalama elders. This evidence maybe used in later court proceedings should the Lamalama’s claim for native title go to litigation. Old man Sunlight Bassani is the first up. He has been ‘fighting’ to get his country back for most of his life, believing this possible against those odds that have taken purpose and hope from others, the hurdles and barriers that so many white Australians struggle to comprehend.

The hurdle today is to provide evidence of a continuing connection to the land through establishing a continuity of tradition between his life experiences and those of his forefathers. Over the past few weeks I have been listening to my senior colleague, Professor Bruce Rigsby, and the barrister for the Cape York Land Council, Susan Phillips, discuss this concept of tradition and its use in the Federal and High Courts of Australia. Aboriginal people’s use of modern technology and their non-oral sources of acquiring knowledge have revealed disagreement between judges on its meaning (Rigsby, 2006:114).

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As is the process of the court, the Lamalama elder’s evidence needs to be ‘tested’ for it to be accepted in later proceedings, so arranged opposite Sunlight are barristers for ‘the other side’: the State of Queensland, Cook Shire Council and other interests. The Land Council lawyer and barrister made an application to the Court for me to film these proceedings at a sitting in Brisbane a week earlier. The Judge, the Hon Andrew Peter Greenwood had reserved his decision pending my response to concerns raised by the State of Queensland. The Land Council lawyers were optimistic the decision will go in our favour so I have come back up, one day after returning home to Melbourne. The matter was dealt with first thing this morning. The Judge listened to our clarifications and the State’s continued opposition, and then said he would let me film but … a ‘but’ we had not considered. I could film for only ten minutes each day, without sound, for the ‘fact’ of the court’, and the ‘flavour’ of this sitting of the court in remote Northern Queensland. I am shocked and stunned. I did not travel three thousand kilometres to film the court’s ‘appearance’. What the judge has invited me to film is of no value to me.

The Court is interested in evidence from which it will establish facts. What evidence can Sunlight provide that his life experience is continuous in its traditional-customary connection to land with that of his grandparents? The Yorta Yorta people of South Eastern Australia lost their claim because the Court did not consider that the evidence supported a fact of continuity between current generations and their foremothers and fathers. Bruce keeps reminding me that we all change to stay the same, and that tradition is a quality of ‘continuity and stability’ between objects of experience (see Rigsby, 2006). Susan is trying to help the court see that the continuity between past and present is not dependent on things being exactly the same. The film I am making is about Indigenous participation and use of museum collections. I wanted to film theperformance of the old people giving their evidence. I’m not sure I can film facts.

The implication that I am here to film facts has not improved my view that a ‘factual’ basis for documentary is a very unhelpful starting point in understanding the kinds of responses we have to the way that worlds are represented in documentaries. The filming I am doing in Coen is part of a research project, but if the kind of knowledge we were pursuing were one only drawn from facts, there would be little point in me being here. As the Judge suggested, the court proceedings are being audio-recorded and then transcribed, so the evidence is already being documented and I would merely be duplicating this.

I am making assumptions about the Judge’s concept of facts. I am taking this from the proceedings around me; they are about generating the kind of knowledge that a court wants to deal with, that is, the establishment of a single interpretation of ‘evidence’ called ‘facts’. I am interested in evidence too, and I accept an empirical basis for the knowledge that this film will impart, but the process of filming and editing does not produce singular knowledge.

Documentary Anxieties

Documentary can be as much defined by the anxieties that accompany it as by form or reception. David MacDougall has noted that ‘ethnographic films and photographs may be considered dangerous in ways that written texts are not’ (MacDougall, 1998:69). Some of the State of Queensland’s objections to me filming were that they did not want the footage to ‘turn up’ out of context at some later time, and that my presence might inhibit the witnesses (I had been filming with the four witnesses for the previous four weeks). Such an anxiety is never applied to writing. I would not have to seek permission from the court if I wanted to take written notes. The direct relationship between a written article and its author allows for the veracity and authority of the written word to be readily evaluated. It is much harder to accuse a moving image of being a lie than it is to accuse a written statement, and consequently it is much harder to see its authorship. This lack of transparency leads to a level of mistrust with documentaries that written texts are not subjected to. The fabrication of the historical basis for stories such as Helen Demidenko’s The Hand That Signed the Paper – not just in the material supposedly drawn from her family, but in her construction of social forces and relationships (see Manne, 1996) – or Norma Khouri’s autobiographical Forbidden Love, have not lead to the kind of genre angst that a fabricated account in a documentary would provoke.

The oft cited indexical bond between the profilmic and filmic seems to offer the possibility of a veracity that is independent of authorship and ideological taint. But the theorising of this potential then seems to lead to a disappointment in the genre as its authorship is identified. Ultimately the veracity of documentary is judged by the integrity of the author much as it is for written texts, and the relationship between film and its author should be kept in mind. Documentaries are also consumed in various contexts, and these contexts allow audiences to engage with the text on the basis of the kind of statement the film is attempting to make about the world. For instance, documentaries in a time slot such as ‘Australian Story’, 8pm Monday on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (A.B.C.) Channel 2, are constructed and marketed consistently with its nationalistic agenda. This can be contrasted to the variations and diversity of films screened in the Australian Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) Channel’s ‘Hot Docs’ slot. Furthermore, Peter Loizos argues that a film such as Tracey Moffat’s Nice Coloured Girls, which has been classified as an experimental film in some contexts and certainly doesn’t comply with Karl Heider’s ‘attributes’ of an ethnographic film (or many of the conventions of the most common types of documentary), is a work of visual anthropology when considered from a specifically informed perspective (Loizos, 1997:98). Indeed, Heider’s principles in regard to ethnographically truthful film are based on the anthropologist’s expectations of written work (Heider, 1976:11-12).

The physical form of a documentary is fragmented and dissembled. Its assembled form is entirely in the audience’s minds, and is dependent on both their degree of concentration and also on the much broader field of their experience and competency. The variety in the kinds of documentaries made, and in the strategies used by documentary film-makers in constructing their texts, includes a variation in the degree to which they expect the audience to work to make meaning and the degree they expect the audience to bring knowledge and competency to the viewing. Of all the film making traditions, perhaps the ‘observational’ film making tradition, following on the direct cinema and cinema verite tradition, have been the least anxious about the openness of interpretation this leads to.

In 1963 Richard Leacock foreshadowed the films of the Maysles brothers such as The Salesman and Grey Gardens when he said, ‘At the moment we can deal with intense situations, but we have greater difficulty dealing with less intense situations. As we get smarter … we shall be able to deal with situations of far less intensity, because it is our conviction that every aspect of life contains its own drama’ (MacDonald & Cousins 1998:225). The action in the films he was referring to, such as Primary and Paul,provided the classic narrative structure of a beginning, middle and end, a structure in which a situation or problem is resolved. In 1964 in an interview with James Blue, David Maysles said, in response to a criticism that direct cinema films lacked structure, ‘Ideally we’d like to have a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end, a logical structure’. He then goes on to identify and value another unifying principle: ‘I think you come out of the film feeling that you have been involved in something that you didn’t know about before’ (MacDonald & Cousins 1998:263). Leacock also noted that films did not necessarily need the classic narrative structure to be ‘interesting’. On his film Nehru, he commented that Nehru ‘wasn’t involved in anything that came to a conclusion. He was just doing what he usually does day after day’ (MacDonald & Cousins 1998:257). The implication here is the same as that in Maysles’ statement, namely that structures that ‘involve’ the audience in constructing meaning can be successful strategies in documentary filmmaking.

In the James Blue interview, Maysles said, ‘Ideally, part of our whole purpose is to make the viewers their own commentators’ (MacDonald & Cousins 1998:263). Ironically, the directness of ‘direct cinema’ allows for greater ambiguity. In 1963 Richard Leacock commented, ‘you make up your own mind, and the strange thing about our films in general is we get extremely varied reactions to them’ (MacDonald & Cousins 1998:257). MacDougall writes, ‘It is the viewer who discovers connections within networks of possibilities structured by the author … this produces a highly interactive and interpretive relationship to visual works, qualitively different from interpreting expositionary text …’. This is also a cause for anxiety, and as MacDougall explores, particularly in the use of film in ethnography. There is the possibility of misinterpretation and the ‘onus falls upon the film maker to control any misinterpretations of the material – not upon the viewer to be a better interpreter of it’ (MacDougall, 1998:70-71).

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Testimony and performance

The processes of dealing with evidence in a court are about eliminating variations in interpretation to arrive at ‘the facts’. Ambiguity will invite cross-examination to seek further clarification. The reliance on the written record (the transcript) to arrive at judgements removes the physical context of the evidence. How differently would a film, an anthropological written account, and a court proceeding deal with the testimony of a witness? Of these it is the film that is least likely to provide a single interpretation of what they said.

Sunday, 15th July 2007, Port Stewart.

I am sitting under a marquee that has been set up by the Land Council for the gallery to watch the Court that has now convened under the tin roof of the new picnic shelter, on the ‘old camp’ site at Yintjingga on the banks of the Stewart River estuary.

In 1928, Donald Thomson spent several weeks at this site and referred to the people living here as Yintjingga. This is now accepted as the name of the site and refers to a type of tea tree found here. The people Thomson worked with and photographed are the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of those who now identify as Lamalama. He also photographed Bobby Stewart when he was only a few months old.

Here in 1962, the last community of Aboriginal people on the east coast of Cape York Peninsula still living free of the administrative control of the Queensland department of native affairs and not on a Reserve or a mission, were forced onto a boat and removed 400 kilometres north to the Aboriginal reserve at Bamaga. Within ten years most of the old people who had been born and raised on their country in the certainty that they were the owners, had died. This act is now a central motif in the Lamalama story.

The court is sitting here in the belief that this place will be the most appropriate and comfortable for Florrie Bassani, Sunlight’s wife, and for Daisy and Bobby Stewart, to give their evidence. Florrie is a short and shy woman. She is a Liddy, and shyness runs in the family. Some Liddys have made it clear that they don’t want to be filmed. Others seem comfortable with my presence but they don’t collaborate or respond to the camera’s presence. They are a big family and Florrie and her brothers and sister Joan still speak to each other in their father’s Umpithamu language. Florrie and Joan are also two of the few remaining who speak or understand several of the other traditional languages of the Lamalama people.

Florrie and her family were part of the group that were removed in ’62, and remembering those events is very emotional for her. She has to break off her testimony and leave the shelter. I also have to walk away at times. The strategy of holding the Court here is working. The performance of her knowledge and memory has been confident and forthcoming, something I have not seen from her by her fire at the Bassani camp in Coen so far. Yintjingga is a powerful place for her. As I drove her around her country several weeks before, I witnessed her deep knowledge of her country and heard her call out to the old people and to the stories of the place. But I didn’t film this because I was driving. Here, in the court, was to be an opportunity to record a performance of her knowledge of her country and life as a Lamalama woman.

Performance in direct cinema

I regularly return to the films of ‘direct cinema’, such as Gimme Shelter where the editor, Charlotte Zwerin, runs Albert’s single of Mick Jagger for most of the song ‘Jumping Jack Flash’. Most of the shot is MCU (medium close up) to CU (close up), with the black backdrop of the stage behind, excluding all other elements of the stage and the rest of the band. The sequence is all about Jagger and his performance. There are only six cuts, despite the number of cameras they would have had covering the concert. Five of these cuts are of audience, cut to interact with the performance. These shots are not there as observations of audience, they are shots used to enhance the perception of the performance by using concert audience reactions to direct the film’s audience reactions. Likewise, the ‘Wild Thing’ sequence in Monterey Pop remains totally focused on Hendrix. The other 3 camera angles used are adjunct to this. The sequence begins on a close up of his face but then stays wider, holding the frame to include his body and guitar.

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In both cases, the framing is influenced by and directed to, the centre of the performance. For Jagger, it is his face that pouts and contorts in unison with his dance. His face dances as much as his body and tells as much about him and his performance as would be revealed in a longer or wider shot. But more importantly, his face contains the self assuredness of his stage persona that can convince us that this extravagant posturing of the rock’ n roll singer is a ‘natural’ expression of musical emotion. With Hendrix, it is all about his body interacting with his guitar. His face does not express his performance. It is his virtuosity with the instrument that he then exaggerates into a series of acrobatic stunts, such as playing with one hand behind his back and while somersaulting, that is the focus of his performance. In a part of the main shot of the sequence, a large hair flickers on the footage, enlarged as a result of being trapped in the camera gate. We would expect that this faulty shot would normally be left out, and the editor would find an alternative angle for this part of the song. We can therefore assume that no other shot recorded the performance, and the film-makers preferred to keep the hair than lose the shot.

So here two of the seminal cinematographers of direct cinema demonstrate what captures their attention when looking through the lens of a camera. It is humanperformance. It has been noted by others that much of the films of direct cinema are about performers. Politicians, musicians and actors were all good subjects, as the view of the world that is made possible through portable recording equipment favours performance.

Leacock used the expression ‘pressure situations’ to describe those that yielded, for the early observational film-makers, the material from which to make a story. His expectation that with experience would come the knowledge of how to find the material in less pressured situations, has on the whole been true, but dependent on a central, or as film makers call it, a ‘strong’ character. What makes them ‘strong’ is usually a combination of the characters undergoing a quest or struggle through which the themes of the film can be apprehended, and an ability to enact their quest in a way that can be captured within the limited space of a camera frame. In other words, the ‘strong’ character ‘performs’ the quest. Considering a sample of films such as The Salesman,Grey Gardens, Sherman’s March, Photo Wallahs, Cannibal Tours, Waves of the Adriatic, City Beautiful, the early direct cinema films of entertainers and politicians, and my own experiences in making Kotla Walks; Performing Locality, it is clear that the ‘real world’ that film-makers capture is a performance before the camera.

It is also the camera itself that makes the performance. It can foreground a subject and remove the distraction that, in the experience of the moment, masks the nuances and layers that are later received as the strength of the performance. In Grey Gardens the Beales live in isolation; there is little in their world to provide a distraction or suppress the performances, and this is the set up of the film. The Salesman, however, wouldseem to be about people engaged in the world around them, but the camera is so focused on them that very little of the wider world is included. Even in the sequences where Paul is driving around in Florida we glimpse only a small part of the world outside the car. The only other people we meet are those that are directly involved in the salesman’s selling pitches. Albert Maysles’ camera work is remarkable in the way he excludes anything that is not the focus of his interest; the camera is so intense in its focus on Paul that audiences do not notice that this strategy has isolated the performance from the world around as effectively as the world of the Beales is isolated in Grey Gardens.

Back in the Courtroom outside

The afternoon grows warm, and the Court grows warm to the old people. I have to walk away as Daisy Stewart gains the measure of the barristers and Judge and has them laughing. It is too painful not to be able to record this. The importance of court sittings to the Lamalama should not be under-estimated. Such proceedings are often the first time indigenous people have had a chance to explain their experiences, ‘their culture and traditions in relation to land in a white man’s forum’, and they welcome such opportunities (Maurice, 1994:19).

I go and sit with Sunlight who is resting in my car. He never fails to rouse himself from his fatigue to wise-crack. He seems to have the measure of whitefellas. I filmed him walking around Coen, giving me a tour of the town and its white community. He knows everyone and is known by everyone and he loves to talk. He maintains the agenda through his self-effacing and self-mocking humour. He is first in with a joke and he sets the pace. The other old Lamalama people I have observed are very tentative in the company of whites. They seem intimidated in shops and every interaction seems to involve them being told what to do by the shopkeepers. Not Sunlight. At other times when the camera is on, Sunlight is very serious and looks down into the lens and talks to an audience. At times it is an audience of outsiders who know nothing about the Lamalama, at other times it seems like it is to the future. I like it when he ignores me completely, particularly when he talks with Florrie. Sunlight spent his childhood in the town of Coen, Florrie down at Yintjingga, ‘on country’. Florrie has a vast store of knowledge of her country; Sunlight knows how to deal with whitefellas. I find it hard to understand the Creole they speak to each other in, but the respect between them is clear.

The world I experience and see through the camera is the world that an outsider with a camera gets to see and experience. At times this includes collaboration with those I am filming and a commitment by them to getting a film made. At other times I am excluded. As Eliot Weinberger suggests, such are the conditions of a ‘Westerner making an ethnographic film’, conditions that are perhaps more like the surrealist aesthetic of ‘chance, improvisation and the found object’ (Weinberger 1996:160) than the scientific enterprise Heider argues for.

The question of how the empirical basis of realist film making influences the veracity of a film continues to dog documentary. It certainly remains confusing for filmmakers who have resorted to describing what Heider calls ‘cinemagraphic demands’ as lies. Flaherty and Wiseman (among others) were not of course talking about what their films had to say about the worlds they filmed. They were trying to account for the strategies and techniques used to arrive at what they believed to be truthful. The continuing use and standing of their work demonstrates that ‘cinematographic demands’ do not invalidate films, and the substantive criticism of what they were saying in their films – that Wiseman emphasises the brutal and dehumanising aspects of institutions, and that Flaherty is a romantic – are dealt with by the inclusion of such insights into viewing the work.

The Court seeks to take evidence, weigh it and interpret it on its own terms to produce a single interpretation of facts that can stand alone. This is not what a film does. What films can do is make available for consideration and contemplation those aspects of life that the Courts discards. This consideration and contemplation is the activity of an audience who will bring to their viewing, among other things, knowledge of the filmmaker and the filmmaker’s intentions.

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The Lamalama people are in a process of having their property rights established within Australia’s common law system. This is a new situation for all those involved and has reached back in time to the field notes, genealogies and photographs of anthropologist Donald Thomson whose Collection is at the Museum of Melbourne. For some years now, collections such as Thomson’s have been very important in establishing Native Title, and while this engagement with museum collections has a practical and immediate impact, there are other impacts and new relationships developing between collections and source communities. In particular, the collection makes available past cultural knowledge to be reinvested by the Lamlama in their future (starting with the winning of property rights). A key aspect of using video – and using it in the cinema verite recording method – in this project is to incorporate indigenous perspectives on the agency of the collection. This is emergent and dynamic, and is the way it happens that I seek to film.

References

Karl G. Heider (1976). Ethnographic Film (Austin & London: University of Austin Press)

Peter Loizos (1997). “First Exits from observational realism: narrative experiments in recent ethnographic films”, in Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy (eds) (19997).Rethinking Visual Anthropology (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Kevin MacDonald & Mark Cousins (1998). Imagining Reality. The Faber Book of Documentary (London & Boston: Faber and Faber)

David MacDougall (1998). Transnational Cinema (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press)

Michael Maurice (1994). “Practice Directions”, in Proof and Management of Native Title. Summary of Proceedings of a Workshop, conducted by the Native Title Research Unit (Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies), pp.17-19

Robert Manne (1996). “The Strange Case of Helen Demidenko”, Australian Humanities Review, Issue 1: April – June 1996 (http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/AHR/archive/demidenko/manne.1.html; viewed October 18th, 2007)

Bruce Rigsby (2006). “Custom and Tradition: Innovation and Invention”, Macquarie Law Journal, vol 6 (2006), pp.113-138

Eliot Weinberger (1996). “The Camera People”, in Charles Warren (ed) (1996). Beyond Document. Essays on Non-Fiction Film (Middletown Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press)

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