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The documentary filmmaker, working as a medium, is essentially a character that is passionately involved in a struggle with story, evidence and facts. It is important that all three of these are taken seriously, mindful of the fact that what is accurate is not always true, and that what is true is not always compelling. To enter the drama, one must be aware of and deeply involved in the dynamic conflict between accuracy and truth. Only in this way is it possible to have any chance at all of making a film that can become a fact in itself.
- Billy Marshall Stoneking
The Cambridge Dictionary tells us that the word, “documentary”, comes from the Latin "documentum" – meaning ‘a lesson, example, or warning’; from docere, which means ‘to teach’. But apart from those documentaries whose purpose it is to impart raw data in the form of procedures, processes, methods and techniques (e.g.: “how to build an ant farm”, "improve your golf swing"), what does the documentary – any documentary - offer by way of instruction?
In a word, it offers EVIDENCE; and when done well, it does so compellingly.
The art of documentary is the facility to compel an audience’s imaginative involvement with its subject by promoting an intellectual and emotional engagement with what is "actual" Whatever its subject matter, the dramatic documentary seeks to enlarge or enhance in its audience a more complete understanding and appreciation of actual people, places, and events, by making them as fully present as possible. Sometimes, as is the case with cinema verite, the documentarist assumes a “fly-on-wall” perspective, purportedly recording the life and living experience of its subject as it actually occurs, though the verite element – unless executed in secret – is often impacted or polluted by the presence of the filmmaker (“observer effect”), and almost always by the decisions that the filmmaker/editor makes in the edit suite.
Perhaps the simplest description that can be made concerning the documentary film is that it is the cinematic application or assignment of meaning to reality, in distinction to “fictional” narratives that tend to assign “reality” to meaning (premise/theme).
Because reality is essentially unknowable, people seek clues to it in the life around them. Documentary filmmakers tell their stories to make sense of their experience and of their feelings for that experience. However, there is also an ironic side to it. No doubt, the experience of making a documentary impacts upon the filmmaker’s understanding of that experience, but so too do the meanings that a filmmaker assigns to the film and its subject (his/her prejudices, assumptions, expectations and secondhand knowledge) determine the nature and variety of the evidence that is available and accessible to him/her.
There is also a sense in which one realizes that the most potent elements of any documentary are invisible. One might even go so far as to say that a filmmaker examines the visible in order to find the invisible; employing the sayable and heard in order to express the unsayable and unheard.
What is visible belongs to time and space – to history: the naked details of measurable actions and reactions as these are described and quantified by any sociologist, statistician or historian – but film documentary, when conceived and realized with the grammar relevant to drama, creates a sense of participation, involvement, and interaction by applying meaning to reality in the form of story. If a story is to be effective, however (i.e.: emotionally compelling and memorable) – indeed, one might say if it is to be a story at all! – it must not only be dramatic, but must also provide evidence – dramatic evidence – about something that actually matters.
In terms of documentary film-making, the filmmaker’s chief concern must be with is CONTENT, and content is “newsworthiness” – that is, any action (or series of actions) that is momentous, rare, or arresting.
As storytellers we are the custodians of many 'dreamings'. Those dreamings that offer unusual insights and inspiration concerning who and what we are; that provoke ideas that impact on our well-being and the well-being of those with whom we identify, are newsworthy. They impel our sympathies and rouse our courage and curiosity. In short, they have value, offering lessons in living in the form of dramatic actions and events that show us what life is like - or has been like – and what it might become.
If a documentary is to compel our interest as well as our sympathies, the story finder/filmmaker will need to navigate the actual with some instinct for drama. He/she must be able to recognize it wherever it appears, in whatever guise, and enter it, re-construct it, and work with it, whilst all the time managing the anxieties created by its appearance and provocations. It is a task ill-suited to those who have little faith in “the withness of the Universe”.
As is nearly always the case, the primary issue at the heart of almost every dramatic story – including dramatic documentaries - involves a relationship, or several relationships, that provides the emotional context for the evidence presented, and whose ultimate success or failure commands our attention by provoking both hope and dread. Whether the focus is upon a family (Brother’s Keeper, Grey Gardens), an organization (Enron, the Smartest Guys in the Room or Titicut Follies), humanity's problematical and unpredictable associations and struggles with its surroundings (Up The Yangtze), or that complex web of dynamic conflict and collaboration by which the physical environment prospers or is impoverished (Darwin’s Nightmare), the dramatic documentary provides much more than the naked “facts”.
The Cove documentary (above) epitomises documentary evidence embedded with problems, goals and plans.
The dramatic presentation of evidence is the presentation of evidence embedded with problems, goals and plans, as expressed and given form in the living words and actions of those "characters" with whom the documentary is concerned.
As with other forms of drama, the central questions are: Who wants what? Why do they want it? Who (or what) is (or has been) stopping them from getting it, and why?
The issues raised by these questions and the strategies employed by the characters in order to solve or overcome the problems or opportunities with which they are faced, form the grammatical spine of every dramatic documentary. As the filmmaker uncovers the emotional energies that lie buried in the characters' needs, hopes and fears, the grammar facilitates in the apprehension of the emotional significance of the so-called facts, continually guiding both filmmaker and audience back to the impetus for action – to the characters’ needs and objectives, as well as the risks. It also assists the filmmaker in becoming ever more sensitive to the selection and rhythmic ordering of events, thus enabling the effective building of emotional energy. As is the case with any drama, as the emotional relevance of the evidence builds we begin to care about what we are seeing and hearing.
At the heart of every dramatic story is a problem or opportunity that must be overcome, addressed or exploited if one is to have a chance of achieving one’s goal. Stated in another way, the effective chronicling of relationships requires conflict or disconnection to make it newsworthy.
Conflict is what separates the dramatic documentary from home movies. In the dramatic documentary there is always something at risk. The higher the stakes the bigger the drama. Every dramatic rendering of factual events - in contradistinction to the "dramatized documentary" - works to draw the audience into the matrix of relationships, and thus, into an emotional relationship with those whose actions are driving the story. It is the drama that gives us a chance to identify with the characters, what they are doing, and what is happening to them.
Dramatic, factional storytelling, like fictional storytelling, requires characters that, in the act of grappling with a problem or opportunity of some magnitude, are actively pursuing a plan of action that will enable them to overcome their problem or seize and make a success of an opportunity. The key word here is “grappling”, because the quest must provide a challenge that includes risk, threat and the possibility of failure.
The quest need not be world-shattering. It can be intimate and thoroughly insidious as in the endless and subtle power struggles that transpire between mother and daughter in Grey Gardens. Or in the seemingly impossible quest for approval, partnership and love as presented in Sherman’s March. What is important is that the human or human-like characters are striving to attain perceivably important goals or objectives, whether it be to win a spelling bee (Spellbound), a court case (The Staircase), to get down a mountain (Touching the Void), or to help a disabled relative become independent (Best Boy). Unless there is someone in whom we can invest our hope and belief, someone who carries out the “good fight”, who risks all for justice, or truth or love, or life, there will be little reason to care.
In the film, Bus 174, a former street-kid bails up a city bus in Rio de Janeiro, taking a dozen hostages and demanding a weapon and a flight out of Brazil. The film presents not only the chronicle of the siege – one young man surrounded by hundreds of armed policemen and countless television cable news services – but also an intimate look at the life and times of the hostage-taker and the relationships and disconnections that led him to board bus 174 on that fateful day. What it shows us is a man in need of a gun and a ride out of down; what it conveys is how society makes victims out of what it perceives as its weakest, and how the absence of human understanding and love is the crime of the century, every century.
In 1947, Frederick Lewis Allen wrote: “One of the strangest things about the Depression was that it was so nearly invisible to the casual eye (and to the camera for that matter). To be sure, the streets were less crowded with trucks than they had been, many shops stood vacant… and chimneys which should have been smoking weren’t doing so. But these were all negative phenomena. There just didn’t seem to be many people about.” One could “almost feel” the Great Depression, but it was not something that you could automatically see, simply by gazing out your window.
We examine the visible to find the invisible, the sayable and heard in order to discover the unsayable and unheard.
The art of documentary - as is the case with cinema generally - is to make the invisible visible.
Re-printed with permission from Eliezer Yudkowsky
What is evidence? It is an event entangled, by links of cause and effect, with whatever you want to know about. If the target of your inquiry is your shoelaces, for example, then the light entering your pupils is evidence entangled with your shoelaces. This should not be confused with the technical sense of "entanglement" used in physics—here I'm just talking about "entanglement" in the sense of two things that end up in correlated states because of the links of cause and effect between them.
Not every influence creates the kind of "entanglement" required for evidence. It's no help to have a machine that beeps when you enter winning lottery numbers, if the machine also beeps when you enter losing lottery numbers. The light reflected from your shoes would not be useful evidence about your shoelaces, if the photons ended up in the same physical state whether your shoelaces were tied or untied.
To say it abstractly: For an event to be evidence about a target of inquiry, it has to happen differently in a way that's entangled with the different possible states of the target. (To say it technically: There has to be Shannon mutual information between the evidential event and the target of inquiry, relative to your current state of uncertainty about both of them.)
Entanglement can be contagious when processed correctly, which is why you need eyes and a brain. If photons reflect off your shoelaces and hit a rock, the rock won't change much. The rock won't reflect the shoelaces in any helpful way; it won't be detectably different depending on whether your shoelaces were tied or untied. This is why rocks are not useful witnesses in court. A photographic film will contract shoelace-entanglement from the incoming photons, so that the photo can itself act as evidence. If your eyes and brain work correctly, you will become tangled up with your own shoelaces.
This is why rationalists put such a heavy premium on the paradoxical-seeming claim that a belief is only really worthwhile if you could, in principle, be persuaded to believe otherwise. If your retina ended up in the same state regardless of what light entered it, you would be blind. Some belief systems, in a rather obvious trick to reinforce themselves, say that certain beliefs are only really worthwhile if you believe them unconditionally— no matter what you see, no matter what you think. Your brain is supposed to end up in the same state regardless. Hence the phrase, "blind faith". If what you believe doesn't depend on what you see, you've been blinded as effectively as by poking out your eyeballs.
If your eyes and brain work correctly, your beliefs will end up entangled with the facts. Rational thought produces beliefs which are themselves evidence.
If your tongue speaks truly, your rational beliefs, which are themselves evidence, can act as evidence for someone else. Entanglement can be transmitted through chains of cause and effect—and if you speak, and another hears, that too is cause and effect. When you say "My shoelaces are untied" over a cellphone, you're sharing your entanglement with your shoelaces with a friend.
Therefore rational beliefs are contagious, among honest folk who believe each other to be honest. And it's why a claim that your beliefs are not contagious—that you believe for private reasons which are not transmissible—is so suspicious. If your beliefs are entangled with reality, they should be contagious among honest folk.
If your model of reality suggests that the outputs of your thought processes should not be contagious to others, then your model says that your beliefs are not themselves evidence, meaning they are not entangled with reality. You should apply a reflective correction, and stop believing.
Indeed, if you feel, on a gut level, what this all means, you will automatically stop believing. Because "my belief is not entangled with reality" means "my belief is not accurate". As soon as you stop believing "'snow is white' is true", you should (automatically!) stop believing "snow is white", or something is very wrong.
So go ahead and explain why the kind of thought processes you use systematically produce beliefs that mirror reality. Explain why you think you're rational. Why you think that, using thought processes like the ones you use, minds will end up believing "snow is white" if and only if snow is white. If you don't believe that the outputs of your thought processes are entangled with reality, why do you believe the outputs of your thought processes? It's the same thing, or it should be.
How a Town in Wisconsin Went Mad
It may not have a headless horseman charging murderously through a Gothic forest, but James Marsh’s film, Wisconsin Death Trip” frequently suggests a semi-documentary offshoot of Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow.” The movie, which opens today at Film Forum, is a visually audacious riff on Michael Lesy’s macabre 1973 cult classic book of vintage photographs and news clips chronicling the human tragedies that engulfed the rural farming community of Black River Falls, Wis., in the 1890’s.
Faced with economic depression, a brutal climate and a diphtheria epidemic that decimated its infant population, a good number of the town’s citizens (most were recent German and Scandinavian immigrants) went berzerk. The murder, suicide and arson rates skyrocketed. Religious and occult fanaticism ran rampant, and many citizens of Black River Falls found themselves incarcerated in the nearby Mendota Asylum for the Insane.
The heart of the book consists of formal portraits of Black River Falls’ upright citizens taken by the town photographer, Charles Van Schaik. Their stony death-mask visages (precursors of Diane Arbus’s most disturbing work) suggest that in the worst of times the town had deteriorated into a real-life village of the damned. The accompanying newspaper accounts of the violent acts of the townspeople are so dryly factual in their understated way that read alongside grim photographs, they convey a mood of gallows humor. The very term “deathtrip” has an aura of sardonic hippie nonchalance.
Mr. Marsh’s film uses the pictures and reporting as springboards for reenactments of some of the most notorious crimes described in the book. Filmed in smudgy black and white and underscored with spiritually exalted music (everything from Arvo Part to Faure’s Requiem), they are staged as silent-movie tableaux vivants. The sardonic tone of the book is accentuated by the voice of Ian Holm reading the newspaper accounts of the murders and suicides in an insinuating voice that conveys an attitude of sly, supercilious amusement. Occasionally he dramatically lowers his voice to a hissing conspiratorial whisper.
Among the grisliest true vignettes is the story of a 13 year-old boy who shot an old hermit for kicks, then inhabited his property until his crime was discovered, after which he fled and engaged in a gun battle with a pursuing posse. Many of the other murders were crimes of passion carried out by rejected lovers.
In addition to recounting individual murders, the movie has several stories of notorious local loonies like Mary Sweeney (Jo Vukelich), a schoolmistress who traveled around Wisconsin snorting cocaine and breaking windows. (She claimed to have destroyed $50,000 worth of glass.) Then there is Pauline L’Allemand (Marilyn White), a once-successful European opera singer who arrived in the area nearly penniless and unsuccessfully tried to find patrons through a series of musical soirees. She was eventually carted off to the Mendota Asylum, from which she later escaped.
When the movie is concentrating on the book, it is a creepily enthralling document that illustrates the susceptibility to breakdown of what we think of as sanity and civilization. But the film stumbles in its color sequences, which examine life in Black River Falls today and imply that the toxins of the 1890’s are still present. As evidence that life in Black River Falls and in thousands of similar small towns across America is potentially deadly, the movie focuses on local parades, beauty contests and other small-town rituals, and relays newspaper reports of recent crimes that recall those of a century ago.
But the comparison seems shallow and forced. Life in Black River Falls may be bland and homogenized, but it doesn’t appear uncomfortable. Only one scene in which the camera studies the stony faces of the residents of an old-age home as they are serenaded by a male chorus singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” does the contemporary imagery mirror the book’s grimmest photographs.
Framing these tales is a vintage Chamber of Commerce-style pitch that extols the joys of life in Black River Falls and states that “nowhere in this great continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence.” (Stephen Holden)
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Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out to climb the west face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. It was 1985 and the men were young, fit, skilled climbers. The west face, remote and treacherous, had not been climbed before. Following a successful three-and-a-half-day ascent, disaster struck. Simpson fell a short distance and broke several bones in his leg. With no hope of rescue, the men decided to attempt descent together with Yates lowering Simpson 300 feet at a time in a slow, painful process that could have potentially been deadly for both. One further misstep led to Yates unknowingly lowering his injured partner over the lip of a crevasse. With the gradient having gone from steep to vertical, he was no longer able to hold on. Certain they were about to be pulled jointly to their deaths, the only choice was to cut the rope.
How Simpson survived the fall, and made it back to base camp is a story that will astound and inspire. In Touching the Void, Yates and Simpson return to the Siula Grande for the first time to retell their story. If nothing else, this film is a terrific lesson in effective dramatic screen storytelling, with heaps of great "advice" on the importance of writing "active characters".
The film begins with a black screen and white text outlining the basic facts and figures concerning the mountain and the journey. This is followed by a slow-paced, visually compelling sequence of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes with a number of sublime shots of the mountains and our first look at the principal characters, anchored to sound, which has been amplified to create an emotional sound-scape that echoes through reconstructions of the journey. The story begins in earnest as we cut between this and the interviews with the main characters. The editing emphasizes important phrases which are clues to what is to come; “…at some point you have to rely wholly on your climbing partner…”.
Touching the Void provides an excellent lesson in sorts of ways about the basics of dramatic, screen storytelling, and this starts with the opening hook: the story is vividly set-up, we know the goal of the characters, we know the conditions they will need to overcome and there is a dramatic presence (and embodiment of a problem) that drags in the viewer.
The film adheres closely to a three-act structure, a narrative that is of course aided by the chronology of days and actions with their ever present and building energy. The dramatic problem (the fall) quickly evolves into a major crisis - a crisis that appears unresolvable, except for the that fact that the character, Joe, realises almost immediately that he must do something; he must ACT, even in the face of seemingly impossible odds. In classic dramatic form, the main character “encounters obstacle after obstacle that (him) from achieving (his) objective (i.e.: to save his life). Indeed, everything he does merely places him into a more challenging and complicated situation, albeit ever closer to the base camp.
What develops is a series of problems and actions that are aimed at addressing or overcoming those problems. The men are still on the mountain as it is getting dark, so they hurry; in hurrying, they make a mistake that results in one of them breaking a leg. The one with the broken leg falls over a precipice and is dangling in mid-air. The other man cuts the rope that attaches him to the man with the broken leg so as not to be pulled over edge. The man with the broken leg falls onto a ledge, precariously perched at the side of the yawning crevasse. He cannot climb out and at the same time he has no idea of just how deep the crevasse is or if he has enough rope to get to the bottom of it. What can he do? HE ACTS, and in the V/O interview the real character tells us why. It is a salutary lesson for any would-be storytellers. He has to do something; he can't just sit there. So he lowers himself deeper into the unknown. Each time he acts a whole new set of particular problems face him, and his ingenuity as well as his physical endurance is tested again and again.
Touching the Void has very little in the way of illustration. Almost everything we know about the characters is a result of what they do and say and what they tell us about what they've done. It's also interesting that the film manages to keep the audience in a state of tension, an amazing feat considering the fact that we know everyone survives the experience; they are, after all, narrating the film! The writer does not tell us much about the back-story or the interior/exterior life of the characters, this is possibly because the characters are not created and the characters tell the story.
It is a story that is made present by the fact that the characters are driven by clear objectives, and everything that they do have clear consequences requiring further action. Their need to climb the mountain – and later the need to survive - tests them and brings out the truth of not only who they but more importantly what they are. Touching the Void is masterful in telling us facts about the characters at pivotal parts of the screenplay, so that they are dramatised rather than didactically explained.
We meet Joe, the main character, closely linked with Simon, his climbing companion. We learn about the pair mainly from the “third-wheel” Richard. We learn quickly that Joe is 25 and Simon is 21, they are both incredibly young, self-claimed ambitious, remarking that climbing makes them feel “alive”. Richard speaks of how he had a great bond with Simon but not so much with Joe. This causes the audience to wonder if Joe is an unpleasant person, which is thought provoking as later we learn that Simon is the character who feels no guilt and seems emotionless.
The use of the handheld camera work is also extremely successful, giving the audience a sense of being there with the characters. Dramatic tension is also created by the use of shots; at the start of the story the shots are very wide, but as things become tense, the shots are very close, particularly in the character interviews. This level of extreme-close-up allows us to look past the public face and to see - or sense - the underlying emotions. Further to this is the use of dramatic irony, as the audience feels they are ahead of the climbers. The dramatic tension is mainly created by the use of sound effects. In times of struggle and loneliness the sound is amplified.
where television meets cinema
compiled by Billy Marshall Stoneking
On Valentine's Day 2000, a disturbed young man boards and hijacks a bus in the Jardin Botantic district of Rio de Janeiro, sparking a protracted hostage situation, a police stand-off and a regrettable conclusion.
Documentaries tend to live and die according to the interest one brings to the subject matter. All too many filmmakers think they simply need to point the camera at someone, shoot hour upon hour of footage, and then magically discover something revelatory in the editing room. The magic usually fails, producing something shapeless and artless.
In contrast, director Jose Padilha put a great deal of thought into this film’s look and structure. He may be the only documentarian ever to kick off his film with a helicopter shot.
The story itself begins on a lazy summer afternoon in Rio when something goes wrong. Sandro de Nascimento takes a bus hostage, and threatens to start killing its passengers at 6 p.m. if the police don’t give him a hand grenade and rifle.
The film’s director, Jose Padilha, had access to plenty of footage of the crime scene, captured in real time by the news media. The narrative of Bus 174 alternates between the hijacking and an exploration of Sandro’s past.
Sandro suffered a childhood from hell. He never knew his father. His mother, pregnant at the time, was murdered in front of him. Afterwards, he became shy and introverted. He joined a gang of homeless street kids. Witnessing a massacre of his friends, he became even more embittered. He got addicted to sniffing glue and cocaine, and was probably on a coke binge when he hijacked the bus. In 1996, he was sent to reform school, and two years later, received a three-year jail sentence for robbery but escaped on New Year’s Day, 1999.
While most TV news coverage stresses violent drama over the root causes of social problems, Bus 174 strives to see Sandro’s crime in the broadest possible context. The opening helicopter shots introduce this larger perspective, beginning at the beautiful, inviting coast, but moving on to the teeming slums of Rio, where every square inch not covered by a tree is occupied by a house, before ending up in the less densely populated business district.
Padilha’s wide focus is all the more essential against the context of the hijacking’s news footage itself. It was a chaotic affair, with Sandro and his hostages shouting out the window. One hostage paints Sandro’s death threat on the bus window with lipstick. The captives readily comply with his instructions to behave as histrionically as possible, while he periodically screams at cops.
The police have no idea how to handle the situation. An ex-SWAT team commander tells Padilha that the Rio police force is mostly made up of long-term slackers who can’t find any other jobs. They’re badly prepared for such a crisis. The police chief forbids them to shoot Sandro in the bus, although several cops claim that it could be done safety.
On a moment–to–moment basis, it’s difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on. If anything, Padilha heightens this confusion. When he uses slow motion and overhead shots in the finale—a resolution to the crisis that made little sense even to those carrying it out—the advantages of Padilha’s storytelling technique are obvious.
Rather than depict the hijacking simply as a bizarre true story—as Sidney Lumet did to darkly comic effect in Dog Day Afternoon - Padilha passes judgment on society at large for failing Sandro. He places particular blame on the police and jails. Marginalization turns street kids, most of whom are black, although the film doesn’t emphasize this point, into petty criminals. The penal system’s brutality returns their violence in kind, making them angrier and even more likely to resort to murder and robbery.
On the most superficial level, Sandro’s hijacking is never fully explained; on a deeper one, it feels like a desperate attempt to make a mark on a world that detested him.
Conservative viewers are likely to get fed up with Padilha’s sympathy for Sandro. Undeniably, there’s something a bit too deterministic about the film’s worldview, especially its conviction that Sandro’s decline began with his mother’s death.
Nevertheless, Padilha builds a convincing case without suggesting any easy answers. His two tours through Rio jails are particularly horrifying. “Bus 174” manages to glean wide-ranging implications from one finite incident. The film should strike home for American viewers—homelessness, poverty, and racism are hardly confined to the slums of Rio.
DRAMATIC STRUCTURE IN BUS 174
The film tells two parallel stories.
The first is the story of a bus hijack that took place in the centre of Rio in June 2000. Because of the location, and poor handling by the police, television cameras were allowed to get unusually close to the action. As the hijack became a siege, with the hijacker taking the passengers hostage at gunpoint, it quickly became a television sensation, bringing the country to a halt, and generating the highest ratings of the year.
The second story is that of the hijacker himself, Sandro do Nascimento, which the filmmakers piece together through interviews with participants in the siege and Sandro's friends and family. The director, José Padilha, investigates why the hijack took place, and how the example of Sandro is indicative of the broader social problems in Brazil. We learn that Sandro was just a child when his mother was murdered in front of him, leaving him destitute and traumatised, like hundreds of thousands of other street children in Brazil.
Homelessness is terrifying enough, but to have any understanding of the plight of the street kids we also need to factor in the total lack of prospects or state support, the near impossibility of finding a job, and the routine beatings and worse from the police.
Astonishingly, Sandro had been part of one of the last national scandals in Brazil, the Candelária massacre of 1993, when police killed dozens of street kids with machine guns, following an altercation earlier in the day. 62 of the group survived that night - we're told that 39 of these had since been murdered by the time of filming.
Counter-pointing the siege with Sandro’s life as a street kid, the film “argues” that the invisibility of these children is just as damaging as the poverty and physical danger. They form a section of Brazilian society that it is unseen and ignored by the mainstream, and we feel this alienation both in the street jugglers performing at traffic lights, and the criminalised teenagers concealing their faces from the camera. In one disturbing and effective sequence, we see the horrendous, hothouse conditions in one of Rio's juvenile prisons, where children are routinely held for months without trial. Padilha shoots this segment in negative sepia, making the children look like ghosts, or monsters.
Importantly, Padilha is obviously aware of the dramatic potential of this story, and moves the story to its shocking resolution via an ever-increasing build up of emotional tension.
Most of this debut film from Brazilian director Jose Padilha is culled together from footage shot by Rio de Janeiro news reporters. By no means should that take away from the remarkable job that Padilha has done in crafting a documentary that is more intense and thrilling than most Hollywood thrillers.
Bus 174 is the harrowing story of a street kid named Sandro. One of many children orphaned and cast aside in the sprawling city of Rio, Sandro makes his way through life as a petty thief. Bus robberies, like one Sandro committed on the fateful day chronicled here, are so common that one of the hijack victims describes in a post-event interview having called her boss at work to say she would be late. Little did she know, and little did Sandro know that there were several police cars right around the corner from the 174. Neither did they know that the police were so poorly trained, that what should have been a simple arrest, would turn into an intense four hour standoff that would lead to the deaths of two people.
The police were so poorly trained, in fact, that they never thought to cordon off the area around the bus, allowing television reporters to walk right up to the edge and film the events taking place inside. It is this fiercely close proximity that gives Bus 174 its edge. One of the hijack victims describes how Sandro is two different people - one for the victims, and one for the police. She talks about how he would warn the women that he was going to hold a gun to their heads to scare everyone outside, but wasn't going to hurt her. He only asks that they play along and act afraid. The cameras actually get you in close enough to see each side of this petty criminal caught in the most difficult circumstance of his life.
And what a life. At one point, Sandro rages to the TV cameras and the police: "This is for Candelaria! This is for what you did to my friends!" What, you may ask, is Candelaria? Padilha takes the time to tell us. We get an interview with a social worker who had worked with Sandro when he was younger. She describes, and we have shots of, a young Sandro and sixty-or-so other children who live on the steps of a Cathedral called Candelaria. They had camped out there for years. Until one night, the police arrive, and when the children - some as young as six - resist, the police open fire and suddenly 13 of the kids are massacred. Padilha goes even further, examining the plight of Rio's street children in general. He chastises his homeland for its lack of care for orphaned children. He describes how wealthier Brazilians cheered when the children of Canelaria were killed. These kids are little more than garbage to the society as a whole. The police merely cleared the streets of trash. Thus, when a young man - who had lost his mother at the age of 6, struggled to survive, and had no public identity - suddenly has the eyes and ears of nation, he lets loose.
Unfortunately, the police have no idea how to handle what they are facing in this outspoken young criminal. They also have no idea that he has been reassuring the women on the inside that he has no intention of harming them. Unfortunately, that's a recipe for disaster. As the film races towards its harrowing conclusion, you will likely find yourself on the edge of your seat, only to be shoved back by the horror shot live on television.
There is only one real drawback that hampers Bus 174 and that is its length. At nearly two and a half hours, it is either too long, or too short. This feels as if it has been culled from a ten-hour miniseries. Thus, one is left feeling as if they wanted to know more. Alternately, that may be because Padilha tries to tackle one subject too many. Sandro's history seems utterly necessary. The experiences of the hijack victims is certainly vital. Perhaps the extended trip inside the poor training of police officers is explained in too much depth.
Regardless, the core story of Bus 174 is so intense, that you won't need a bus driver to tell you to stay in your seat. You won't want to get up.
Earlier in the year, Brazilian cinema found its way into the international spotlight with the release of Kátia Lund & Fernando Meirelles's gripping feature film City of God (Cidade de Deus). Critically acclaimed and commercially successful, the film is an unflinching look at the lives of young boys from favelas, or slums, who become involved in the violent, drug-dealing gangs that populate Rio de Janeiro. Although the film does not shy away from portraying the squalor of the favelas or the brutality of the streets, its protagonist is a young boy whose obsession with photography gives him an outlet to detach himself from these harsh events and to ultimately escape from the slums.
What makes José Padhila's powerful new documentary Bus 174 so disturbing is precisely this lack of redemption on display. In addition, however close City of God comes to depicting the realities of life in the favelas (indeed, the film does not shy away from a documentary-like approach at times), at the end of the movie those reassuring credits appear before us, reminding us that these were only actors (albeit some who had grown up in the slums), that this was only a movie. In Bus 174, we receive no such comfort. The events that unfold onscreen are lifted directly from news footage on the day in July 2000 when a young man named Sandro highjacked a bus full of ten people.
In a recent article in Cineaste, Paul Arthur pointed out the tendency of "cutting-edge" documentary practitioners, such as Andrew Jarecki, Michael Moore, and Steve James to "pump the dramatic quotient" of their films by imposing a "grossly manipulative dramatic structure" on their subject matters that often distorts their actuality. In Bus 174, there was no need for the filmmakers to create a sensational dramatic arc; the events of that day told a riveting story all their own. In this case, Padhila's role is simply to fill in the blanks, to provide a back story for a simple event that became a symbol of a national catastrophe.
Interspersing interviews with hostages, SWAT team members, and friends & family of Sandro with news footage of hijacking itself, the filmmaker creates a spellbinding picture of a city in urgent need of reform. As it turns out, Sandro first entered the streets around the age of six, shortly after witnessing the brutal murder of his mother. With no other family to speak of (besides an estranged aunt and sister), he swiftly fell in with the gangs in order to survive. As he grew up, drug addiction and jail time followed.
A former street kid who knew Sandro is on hand to relate stories of passers-by who would drop heavy rocks on the heads of sleeping homeless kids, and also recounts the details of a still-unsolved massacre of street kids witnessed by Sandro and most likely involving the police. The rage of the surviving street kids is palpable as they speak of the vast discrimination they face on a daily basis. They claim that they have become invisible to the society at large, and that their only way to grab people's attention (not to mention survive) is to revert to a life of crime.
This is where the media comes in: due to police incompetence, local news crews swarm the bus just as the hijacking is beginning. Although he initially tries to shield himself from the cameras, Sandro is soon staring into them defiantly, asking the reporters to take a good look at a face that has seen more violence and abuse than most people could ever comprehend in their lifetime. He specifically mentions the street massacre he witnessed, and overall seems to crave his newfound attention as antidote to the vast neglect he has experienced for most of his life.
While Sandro uses the cameras as a soapbox, the media winds up complicating things considerably in terms of SWAT team intervention. As one of the SWAT team members explains, standard procedure in such a situation would usually call for a sniper to target the hijacker. In this case, however, the government is vehemently against such an action, as they do not want Sandro shot dead on live national TV. The complications that ensue ultimately prove tragic.
Having had no previous knowledge of this incident, I felt absolutely shattered upon watching the outcome. Still, one cannot help but marvel at the way Padhila has managed to turn the country's overwhelming animosity towards Sandro into a riveting, sympathetic narrative of the social injustice that threatens to consume Brazil if it continues to go unaddressed. Bus 174 is a step in the right direction.
Note: Paul Arthur, "True Confessions, Sort Of: Capturing the Friedmans and the Dilemma of Theatrical Documentary," Cineaste Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, p. 5.
All the important ingredients are included in Bus 174:
Think about this the next time you stumble onto the 380 to Bondi.
In his book, Introduction to Documentary (Indiana University Press), Bill Nichols defines the following six modes of documentary:
· The Poetic Mode - 'reassembling fragments of the world', a transformation of historical material into a more abstract, lyrical form… In the Street, a short, lyrical documentary film, directed and photographed by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, James Agee… whose precursors are found in the 1920s and with early modernist ideas.
· The Expository Mode - 'direct address', social issues assembled into an argumentative frame, mediated by a voice-of-God narration… Educational and training films, propaganda films, esp those focusing on the rhetoric and polemic surrounding WW2. Ken Burns' documentary series, The Civil War, is an example.
· The Observational Mode - as technology advanced by the 1960s and cameras became smaller and lighter, able to document life in a less intrusive manner, there is less control required over lighting etc, leaving the social actors free to act and the documentarists free to record without interacting with each other) e.g.: Titticutt Follies
· The Participatory Mode - the encounter between film-maker and subject is recorded, as the film-maker actively engages with the situation they are documenting, asking questions of their subjects, sharing experiences with them. Heavily reliant on the honesty of witnesses - e.g. Shoah, Dancing Outlaw.
· The Reflexive Mode - demonstrates consciousness of the process of reading documentary, and engages actively with the issues of realism and representation, acknowledging the presence of the viewer and the modality judgements they arrive at. Corresponds to critical theory of the 1980s. The Stan Brakhage film, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes, is an example.
· The Performative Mode - acknowledges the emotional and subjective aspects of documentary, and presents ideas as part of a context, having different meanings for different people, often autobiographical in nature. e.g.: Night and Fog, Paris Is Burning.
These roughly correspond to developmental phases in the genre, when new generations of documentary makers have challenged the forms and conventions that have gone before, and re-invented what documentary means for them.
Documentary is CONTENT and CONTENT = NEWS WORTHINESS… in the same sense that the poet Ezra Pound meant when he defined Literature as “News that remains News”.
Why is the story of a savage dog attack more newsworthy than the hundred or so stories about 3 people who died in automobile accident? Because the record of any day is built on rarities. And a rarity has a special emotional value. When finding any story – documentary or otherwise – look for what makes it unusual, rare, out of the ordinary – there is E N E R G Y in this!!!
And by emotion one doesn’t mean ghoulish thrill, a frisson at the abominable – though one probably does feel this as well.
Because reality is essentially unknowable, people seek clues to it in the life around them… and the most potent clues are those that are contextualized in the form of stories. We tell stories to make sense of our experiences and of our feelings for those experiences… in short, we tell stories to make the invisible, visible!
In 1947, Frederick Lewis Allen wrote: One of the strangest things about the Depression was that it was so nearly invisible to the casual eye (and to the camera for that matter). To be sure, the streets were less crowded with trucks than they had been, many shops stood vacant… and chimneys which should have been smoking weren’t doing so. But these were all negative phenomena. There just didn’t seem to be many people about.
You could feel the Depression, Caroline Bird remembers. But you could not look out the window and see it.
The documentary vision is not peculiar to filmmaking either – it informs all creative enterprises that are founded on story. Consider the following poem, for example:
(a found poem)
wellington, dec 10 -
police here are seeking
a person who placed
three steel spikes
on the judge’s chair
in wellington supreme court.
when mr justice o’regan resumed
a sitting after lunch
the needles pierced him
but did not cause serious injury
the chair was later checked
The poem makes use of documentary details – the facts, ma’am, strictly the facts – to create an impression of something that lies beyond and behind the words of the poem. Through a relationship of images/facts one derives a MEANING that is not revealed in any single fact/image taken in isolation from the others. Hence, one seeks to find relationships that are also uncommon, rare and unexpected.
When Duke Ellington was asked by someone what to explain the concept of JAZZ, he replied : It’s what you leave out. In other words, it’s what’s NOT played. Or more to the point, it is what the music allows us to imagine by virtue of what it doesn’t tell us. Again, there is the idea of the unseen, the unheard – the invisible and inaudible power that stands behind all creative acts.
All art – and certainly the very best of documentary art – transcends the facts, events and issues that inform and define its material being. Whatever denotative meaning one draws from the presentation of documentary facts and issues, a doco’s essential meaning – if it is to have any enduring meaning at all – resides in its ability to serve as a catalyst in eliciting our emotional involvement, in encouraging response-ability that connects us not only to the subject it presents, but that allows us to better apprehend our own human-ness and humanity in general.
"Whatever may have been the case in years gone by, the true use for the imaginative faculty of modern times is to give ultimate vivification to facts… endowing them with the glows and glories and final illustriousness which belong to every real thing, and to real things only."
– Walt Whitman
In short, documentary films provide lessons in living and dying, and warnings concerning all those elemental forces that obscure our vision, that would deceive us into believing that the only reality is the one that is right in front of our eyes.