Category: Film Critic

Is traditional observational documentary still wanted?

Technological Exploration of Documentary Cinema: Contrasting “Youth (Spring)” and “Knit’s Island”

  1. Introduction and Personal Experience

During film festivals, attendees often find themselves rushing from one screening to another, hoping to catch the most spectacular films of the year. Amidst such rushes, I watched two movies at the 2024 Luxembourg Film Festival that captured my attention as examples of exceptional cinematic experiences. I was not sure if I was enjoying the fact that I’m watching these films or not. At times, I questioned why one should watch them, yet I found myself unable to leave the hall – something compelled me to watch until the end. In the final sequences of both films, I realised that my perception of reality had shifted during each screening, and this is what makes them interesting. These experiences prompted me to reflect also about if the old-school observational style in long takes is still up to date next to the new-age technologies, and this is what we’re going to discuss in this article.

2. Simple structure and complex ideation behind the “Youth (Spring)”

The poetic observational documentary “Youth (Spring)” by Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing was shot between 2014 and 2029, the runtime is 212 minutes, and it simply shows the daily life of young people working in an industrial region of clothes production. The simpler is the syntax of the visual narrative, the more complex is the idea behind it.

Through observational shooting and simply editing the long shots without too much intervention, the director clearly reaches his goal – to make the audience become a part of these people. The area of factories that don’t correspond to the modern standards of privacy, business ethics, healthy lifestyle and many other important for us stuff transforms into a laboratory of life. In other words, though young people are coming here to earn money to build their future, they also share each other’s life and wisdom, they play, flirt, create or terminate relationships. In other words, they come here to collect money, but they also collect some skills, knowledge, dreams, and people for the rest of their lives. This transformation is invisible – one can never understand when it started or happened, just the feeling stays in the unconscious level. Probably this is the reason why in the announcements of the LuxFilmFest Wang Bing is presented as China’s poet of observation.

There is another contradictory element in “Youth (Spring)” and it’s about the dreams of the young generation. One of the girls tells his co-worker that they can’t get into a relationship as her family expects her to marry a boy from a rich family to help their economic predicaments. This kind of talk that appears in different parts of the film seems to be just simple and honest conversations, nothing more. But in fact, those create an emotional windmill inside the viewer. Particularly, the viewer, on the level of the brain and heart, starts to perceive different information and becomes confused – are these people happy, is there any chance their dreams will come true, what’s the aim of their life? Subsequently, these thoughts and feelings slide onto another level – what’s the difference between the life of those protagonists and ours, the viewers, by and large․․․ Are we, the viewers happy, what were our dreams and what happened with those, what’s the aim of our lives.

3. Technological Exploration: Contrasting “Youth (Spring)” and “Knit’s Island”

Reaching this emotional impact through simple real-life filming techniques is the point where the documentary “Youth (Spring)” contradicts another documentary presented at the LuxFilmFest. The directors of both films aim to document human souls by visualising (materialising) their feelings. This can be considered one of the most essential missions of documentary cinema. Both films managed to reach this level by totally different artistic and technical means.

In “Youth (Spring)”, which is a co-production between France, Luxembourg and Netherlands, the characters appear in front of the camera physically, which can create a need to “act themselves”, in other words- to make efforts to look natural. In another documentary included in the festival program, “Knit’s Island” made by Ekiem Barbier, Guilhem Causse, Quentin L’Helgouac’h, the protagonists seem to be more secure in showing their honest thoughts and feelings, emotions, and beliefs as physically they’re invisible, also because they don’t see a camera. In a game environment – a virtual world where almost all the film is made, they’re allowed to do whatever they feel like, so they will not be punished for anything they do.

From the above-mentioned point of view, this French film-experiment has an important role in documentary film history to showcase an additional method of reaching honesty and open talks in front of the screen without having a feeling that someone is filming you. It’s interesting that the same team of French filmmakers – Ekiem Barbier, Guilhem Causse and Quentin L’Helgouac’h in 2018 made a 34-minute documentary called “Marlowe Drive” that is entirely shot within the game GTA V using the camera angles in Director’s mode. This can be one of the reasons how the film crew acts so professionally in a virtual environment. Another important thing to explain it is that the crew spent 963 hours in the DayZ game environment where the story is developing.

Even though the presence of the camera in front of protagonists we call a contradictory point in these 2 films, but both films are valuable for exactly what they gained – in “Knit’s Island” the point of view and judgments are not hidden and human characters are transparent. In “Youth (Spring)” the viewer needs to rethink if there’s something hidden behind those simple actions of characters.

In both films, the protagonists of stories are the generalised characters. In one case it’s the young person working in Zhili – one of the textile industry centers in China, and the other is the human of civilised world trying to actualise their imagination of possible ideal life in the virtual world. And both are static characters – the aim of the films is not to show the change of protagonists during the film but to make the audience feel their environment and reality.

While we spoke about the technical realisation of the “Knit’s Island” movie, it’s important also to mention the specific way of filming “Youth (Spring)”. During the same Q&A session that followed the LuxFilmFest screening of the film, Wang Bing informed that he made the film with a tiny camera and the sound is taken from the camera only. This is an important factor for the documentary, and it aims to reach the level of what we were discussing about the film “Knit’s Island” – to minimalise the feeling that someone is following you in order to retell your story and show your actions to others.

Youts (Spring) Documentary Poster

4. Societal Interconnected Narratives and Characterization

Both films are about people who try to live their lives in the way they want. The difference is that in the case of “Youth (Spring)” young protagonists have some hopes about their future and they work to collect money for those aspirations. The protagonists of “Knit’s Island” are more adults and they have no hope of changing anything in their real life in the future to the better side, therefore they’re settling into the virtual reality that they can form in the way they want. They can even be considered continuation of one another – young people, who have dreams, usually end up adapting to what they have and finding (escaping) ways to survive the reality they haven’t dreamt about.

5. Ethical Considerations in Documentary Filmmaking

In both films we can see ethical considerations that generally should be important for any documentarian. In the film “Knit’s Island” we can see how the filming group by meeting new people asks permission to record and use the recording (particularly the real voices of players) for their documentary film. In the film “Youth (Spring)”, we can see the presence of the observational camera in the lives of the characters, capturing both personal and business insights of the people around. This means that the camera didn’t try to hide which is admirable from the ethical point of view.

The same thing can also be misleading from the point of view of credibility. It’s difficult to believe that the film is a true documentary while the protagonists are so open in front of the camera which is in the center of actions. Only after knowing that the film was made within 5 years – from 2014 to 2019 – it becomes clear that this is not a pseudօ-documentary. The long-term shooting technique can achieve such a result as people get used to the presence of the camera.

Knit's Islant Documentary Screenshot

6. Film Length and Emotional Effect

The length of the films can be considered as another aspect of ethical implications as it has a direct influence on the emotions of the viewer and also it’s about asking one of the most valuable resources nowadays – the time. In the case of “Youth (Spring)” during the film it’s not very clear why it’s 212 minutes and gives an impression of a loop or a static action. On the other hand, we’re speaking about a poetic documentary which means we can’t discuss it in the same way as we can’t say that the poems of Dante Alighieri or Homer could be shorter. Only at the end of the movie “Youth (Spring)” we can understand the influence of the long and repetitive work-related sequences. After 3 hours of watching and becoming a part of the working environment, the home village environment of one of the workers seems to be uncomfortable both for the protagonists and the viewer. In other words, this freedom feels like a deadlock of uncertainty and lack of possibilities, while the workplace was also had the same feeling of deadlock for young workers but in a happier mood.

Continuing the topic of the length and the emotional influence, here it’s worthy to note that the film “Knit’s Island” reached to the same level of sub-conscious impact in 2 times less length – 96 minutes. Particularly, after watching on a 2D screen the film shot in virtual reality, at the end the few shots from the outdoor real-world environment appear strange to our brains. So, at the end of the film, we can experience what gamers feel when they switch off their game – they’re back to a stranger world that is not as comfortable and welcoming as the virtual one.

7. Conclusion: Reflections on Documentary Cinema’s Evolution

In conclusion, the juxtaposition of “Youth (Spring)” and “Knit’s Island” within the 15th edition of the Luxembourg Film Festival provides audiences with a valuable opportunity to appreciate the diverse and creative richness within documentary cinema. These films, along with others featured in the festival, serve as a reminder that despite the emergence of new creative approaches facilitated by technological advancements in documenting human emotions and thoughts, traditional documentary methods remain highly relevant. The unique storytelling methods employed by both documentaries underscore the versatility of the documentary in conveying powerful narratives. While “Youth (Spring)” immerses viewers in the daily lives of young individuals working in an industrial region, prompting reconsiderations about societal norms and personal aspirations, “Knit’s Island” leverages virtual reality as a canvas for exploring the unfiltered thoughts and emotions of its characters, offering an alternative yet equally compelling perspective. The festival’s curation encourages audiences to embrace the diversity of cinematic expression, fostering a deeper appreciation for the profound impact that documentary films can have on our understanding of the world and ourselves in the middle of evolving cinematic landscapes.

Seg Kirakossian

PhD researcher in Documentary film aesthetics at the University of Luxembourg

Nanook of the 21st century

A review about the documentary film Makala (2017) by by Emmanuel Gras

A man is sitting near the huge tree that he just cut, and the leaf shadow is moving on his head as it strokes him. Such scenes are the core of the film Makala by Emmanuel Gras. It has more to show than to tell.

“Nanook of the North” was the first film about which, in 1922, the term documentary was used as a movie characteristic. Nowadays, when the film Makala is shot with a similar topic (the daily struggle of the “man of nature), there is a worldwide tendency to erase the border between fiction and documentary as it’s difficult to define. And really, if the story of Makala wouldn’t be too simple, it would be less likely to believe that that it’s a documentary. Everything that happens in the film is more than natural, more than well-prepared. The only scene when the camera gets into a documentary panic is when the heavily loaded bicycle falls down on the road and obviously, the protagonist can’t fix it alone.

It’s usual to say that films are good if they create a feeling of identification and empathy in the audience with the protagonists. That makes it easier to follow the story. The author of Makala – Emmanuel Gras, didn’t try to follow this principle: who would like to work hard to make coal and get paid for it almost nothing, as the protagonist does? On the other hand, there are not many obvious conflict situations. So why it’s still interesting to follow the flow of time showing nothing special? The secret is the HOW. First, it’s joyful to follow how the camera plays with objects, lights and shadows. For example, the bike is overloaded with an impressive big-size shipment. It’s riding on a sand road. Its shadow is sliding on the ground and the wheel shadow close-up can make the spectator emotionally experience the suffering of the bicycle. There are also hidden conflicts throughout all the film – a conflict between man and the rules of the world where he loses and which is metaphorically shown in the road scene when the protagonist is lost in the dust made by cars driving nearby.

Though the peaks of the storyline are on-the-road scenes, but the key point is in the end, which makes the film complete, reasonable and independent from being called a remake of Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook”. It’s about the Christian church gathering scene, especially the sentence with the following message – if you are an honest man, then the torture of daily life will not affect you, if you are not honest, then it will.

So the film is about honesty – the protagonist is no t stealing to build his dream house, not taking taxes from other workers like he is being stopped on the road. The director created so an honest character that even the tree he cuts is “stroking” his head.

The work with people shot in the film is another subject worthy of paying attention to. There are 3 main ways to make people not be constrained by the presence of the camera:

  1. hidden camera;
  2. task giving (like actors);
  3. long-lasting shootings.

The director didn’t leave signs in the film to understand which one he used. For example, in the scene where another man (antagonist) asks the protagonist to pay a tax and the camera is shooting from a distance a doubt can appear – does the tax collector knows about the camera? If yes – is he acting, or why did he let them shoot? Usually, people don’t welcome the idea of being filmed while doing illegal actions. If he doesn’t know, then how the flip-on microphone and the camera (probably with a tripod or steady-cam) were not noticed by the people around. But such kind of doubts during the film don’t harm the documentary value of Makala (the word means coal in Swahili) as love and an honest look of the author are present in the movie, and they are dominant compared to the hardly noticeable issues.

At the end of all, Makala is here to prove once again that the documentary cinema didn’t change its nature within 1 century – as worse it is for protagonists in real life as better for the documentary film. It’s crucial to accept but in the 1920s, Flaherty didn’t help his protagonists anyhow to survive the heavy living conditions but only captured it. 2 years later, after the premiere of the film about himself – Nanook died because of hunger. A century later, Emmanuel Gras still captures heavy living conditions and it’s so beautiful on the screen, so poetic.

Seg Kirakossian

The review is written in frames of the film critics’ workshop by Olivier Pélisson during the Golden Apricot international film festival 2019

Identified Desires of the Audience and the Protagonist

A review of the documentary film “Amy” (2015) by Asif Kapadia

In Armenian cinema theaters documentary films are considered as not profitable. But how does Armenian society understand the term “documentary film”? It is associated with the usage of archive materials, interviews with protagonists and their relatives, arrangement of visual material in chronological logic, captions introducing the speakers, etc. Documentary filmmakers, who are usually going to make a film, are primarily thinking about these simple methods. In some cases, the authors contrive to find a solution of creative and correct storytelling form, which is evidence of their professionalism. On the other hand, sometimes documentaries can be built with grammatically correct editing, shots full of aestheticized approach, and scripts with creative bases, but still, they are passed by the film history as regular films and not making dialogue with the audience. The documentary film “Amy” (2015) by Asif Kapadia is not such kind of example. In this work, the director succeeded in making a biography film that creates a dialogue with the viewers, excites them and makes them feel empathy for the protagonist. And this is achieved using mainly the seemingly simple tools and methods mentioned in the beginning of this review. This phenomenon is described by the word “art”, around which people are thinking and debating over the centuries in different parts of the world.
In this film, which is spreading light on the life story and character of Amy Winehouse, the author collected visual footage from her childhood, teenage and youth ages shot by her family, friends and journalists. Each of these is interesting as they show whatever we can’t usually see on the TV screens, but a direct combination of them would not become a work of art. Therefore, interviews with the people appearing in the archive materials come to tell about the protagonist’s inner world, excitements, joys and problems from the distance of time. A merger of audio-visual material occurs – the image and sound, independent from each other, would have an archival, document nature, but they become an invulnerable structure together.
The simple style of new areas’ addressing shots (by drones) is in line with the general style of the film, which strives for simplicity. By their inner logic and form, these shots serve as the final solution of the dramaturgical line – the protagonist’s death, which is mystically interpreted as leaving the Earth, rising to the heavens, and seeing the environment from above.
The logic of the above-mentioned dramaturgical line is similar to the track record of a cardiogram device working in a balanced pace, which is from time to time coming out of the norm, creating a shock for the viewer.
As a witness, the audience becomes a participant in the intimate and cherished moments of her life; and at the end of the film, even knowing the reality very well, we get emotional again. Probably all the spectators know that ominous news before the screening, but for an average statistical viewer, the feelings of regret here are different than listening to the news program on TV: taking part in Amy’s life situations, feeling that she is not manipulating or hiding from the screen for us, a close-friendly connection feeling arises in the audience. It can be highly connected with the author’s courage when he brings the audience to the cinema hall and, from the very beginning, shows technically bad quality shots from family archives. Before our eyes, the teenage girl is growing, evolving, and becoming a popular and beloved artist, so even Tony Bennett kindly endures her whims. It provokes a feeling that she is going to abrasion side. During the film, the subconscious anxiety costrel and the feeling of inability to change anything are increasing at equal rates reaching the top marks on the emotional scale. The audience is aware of that abrasion, but the protagonist is not aware of it. But at the end of the film, the desires of both sides are identified – both of them do not want such an ending. In this tragic story, the British self-ironic humor can be noticed, which means that the film authors are free of pompous behavior and complexes, like the characters who appear in the movie. “There’s no point in saying anything but the truth”,- Amy Winehouse said.
The Yerevan screenings of “Amy” with full cinema halls allow drawing a number of conclusions about the Armenian audience demand as well as the trends in world cinema. Of course, the large interest in the film is directly connected with the scandalous and popular personality of the protagonist. However, to keep the audience in the hall for 125 minutes in a way not to get boring is only possible in case of understanding, solidarity and love between the director and the main hero (in this case, with the footage presenting her). The evidence of the benevolent attitude of the singer is the success of the movie and its emotional power. Although from another world, where she now lives for the lovers of her songs, Amy agreed to enter into a new game, which her friends had begun in their teenage years by recording each other. Art is the beautiful image of an object and in this film, it’s obvious the love of the author to the singer, also the regret and grief towards her tragic fate.
Claims that in the modern changing world, where everything happens very quickly, the documentary film should be as short as possible not to lose the audience halfway are disproved with this film. This also proves that three Yerevan screenings in a hall of 350 seats were free of charge and the audience wouldn’t mind paying money if they decided to leave the hall. This case also rejected the impossibility of bringing the audience (especially Armenian) to the cinema with documentary film. What the Armenian film viewer wants from documentarians is honesty. They expect a film that is not detached from reality and not overloaded with aesthetics. In such kinds of films, according to the authors’ approach, even the dirty wall, messy room, or scene satisfying the biological requirements is perceived as an artistic element.
Analyzing the documentary film “Amy” with Armenian screenings in the background, we can see a bilateral process. On the one hand, the film gathers the audience thanks to the original story, unique topic and famous protagonist, and keeps them in the screening hall for more than two hours thanks to the exciting, competent and sincere work that is done. On the other hand, it brings to the cinema the specific audience, which made drawn up an opinion on a documentary film by the TV movies made just as report and interview. It also shows the real nature of documentary cinema and excites people. This process makes more people to be curious about documentary cinema. If national or international films increase such examples, documentary cinema can form its audience and arouse theatrical demand in Armenia.

Seg Kirakossian

The review won the main award during the Review competition of the British Film Festival (Yerevan, 2016)