Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Johan van der Keuken

REINVENTING THE DOCUMENTARY CINEMA: A DISCUSSION BETWEEN JOHAN VAN DER KEUKEN AND RON BURNETT

Ron Burnett

So much of what you are trying to do in your films is a response to the history of the documentary, the way in which the documentary has tried to set up a false window/mirror on the world and presumes itself to be showing what is happening in the reality around us but never really trying to bring out the complexity of what it is showing, never self-reflexively bringing out the political, economic and social context of which it is a part. The window presumes a clarity on the part of the filmmaker, a unified view of the world, a homogeneity, a lack of contradiction--all these are perspectives which I think you are trying to work against. There are two levels at which I perceive you operating. One is at the level of the reality that you are trying to depict and show and the other is a level of discourse in which you try to comment upon and politicize the way reality is understood and seen. I would like to understand how you are affected by what you are filming and then how you feel you are, politically, influencing the images which you are show. You are trying to include two sets of complex elements simultaneously in the act of filming, does the history of representation, the history of the documentary, overwhelm the spectator's capacity to recognize the level of critique which you are trying to construct?

Van der Keuken:

In SPRINGTIME, the economist Claude Ménard plays a crucial part. The documentary for me is only part of what I am trying to do. I am trying to account for a thinking process. The portrait of Claude Ménard is a double process: my inquiry into a certain set of problems and his self-reflexive attempt to formulate an answer to these problems. Film as a finished product only presents, the strongest stages, the most effective moments, of a long process; that is, it puts together strong points, and this does not allow for insight into the whole itinerary. Claude Ménard's interview-section in the film contains moments of uncertainty, where you may feel that he is not in the right setting perhaps, but I include that uncertainty so that the spectator may see where the whole process comes from--mine and his. Everytime I watch SPRINGTIME with an audience I get tense because I don't know if it works, whether or not people will accept this intrusion on their normal viewing experience. Audiences expect results, polish, they cannot accept weak phases in a product. This is where the history and ideology of representation is so strong. To me it was important to transform the process and go through these uncertain phases and try and give the audience a place in any discussion of the film by in effect opening the text up to them, reinventing its premises, relocating the viewing experience.

Ron Burnett

Why is it so important for you to disrupt the audience's desire for a finished product?

Van der Keuken

That depends on the phase you are in yourself as a filmmaker and for me it changes from film to film. SPRINGTIME brought resistance when it was shown on T.V. and in the Cinémathèque in Holland, but my next film was well-received. All my films have breaks within them to try and alert the audience to the fact someone, in this case a filmmaker, is presenting them with a point of view but the images also have to touch the audience and ironically that may contradict what I am trying to do.

Ron Burnett:

Do you try and provide the audience with tools to unravel the ideology of the documentary? Or do you think that it is the way documentary films structure meaning, frame enunciations which determines the unraveling? In THE PALESTINIANS there are alot of events presented in terms similar to what we might see on television. How do you try and make the audience understand that what you are presenting them with is a construct--your construct--and not just an objective representation of reality? Is there a means within the film itself for understanding the woman who stands besides her bombed out house for example? (ed. note: there is a crucial scene in the film during which the camera examines a bombed out house in Lebanon; we see some older women crying and moaning, they talk of having once lived in a house that is now rubble; the shot is a relatively conventional one and seems derived from cinéma-vérité.)

Van der Keuken:

From one film to another you may even diametrically change your own point of view. I feel there is a strong theme of unity between my films. In fact I sometimes get the feeling that I am doing the same thing in all my films! Always the same story, but taken in different directions, from different viewpoints, and even different viewpoint inside my self...although each new film starts at a point opposite from the last one.