Review of The Sublimity of Document: Cinema as Diorama by Scott McDonald

Review of The Sublimity of Document: Cinema as Diorama by Scott McDonald


The sublimity of Document: Cinema as Diorama is a compilation of interviews conducted by Scott McDonald with documentary filmmakers and visual artists from US, Canada, Iran, Brazil, Spain and Russia. Various ages, backgrounds, interests, and styles come together in this volume to explore motivation, techniques, the possibilities of the medium, and the experience of documentary filmmaking. Within this kaleidoscope of people, the interviews themselves converge on the subjects’ mutual curiosity about the world, and about the human condition, and the need to tell those stories. 

Every art has personal roots. Something within artists fuels their curiosity and need to explore. For some of the filmmakers interviewed for this volume, this personal dimension reaches much further. Their stories are deeply personal. Carlos Adriano’s films, for example,  are a tribute to a colleague (Carlos Adriano), and Yance Ford’s Strong Island is an exploration of his brother’s death, its effect on himself and on his family, and on their trust in the justice system in America. Personal stories are an exploration of oneself and a way to explore and come to terms with personal events, but also a powerful way to connect with the audience. The interviews conducted with these filmmakers touch not only on the stories behind these personal films, but on the process and the experience of creating and sharing such narratives.

Another aspect of filmmaking these interviews focus on are how changes in available technologies and equipment affected filmmakers’ creative choices and their ability to access and film remote locations. Digital cameras, which are smaller and more portable enable the development of films that would otherwise be too expensive to make. Abbas Kiarostami’s Five, for which he filmed a series of landscapes, is a contemplative rather than a commercial film. As such, it received little funding. Nevertheless, the film was still possible, due to the reduced costs of these newer technologies. Shooting in digital also enabled a smaller crew with less equipment to access distant areas, like coastal villages in Indonesia and Thailand.

Digital filming is not the only recent change in documentary filmmaking. The use of “found footage” and specifically Youtube as source material for films is a new development fostered by the wide spread of the internet. Maxim Pozodorovkin used Youtube for finding news coverage and propaganda videos for his films Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013) and Our New President (2018) exploring ideas of “fake news” and the impact of the internet on democracy. For Carlos Adriano, Youtube was beneficial as a source of music and various musical versions of “La Mer” for his film Sem Título #2: La Mer Larme (2015). As these examples show, reusing existing footage to tell new stories offers exciting possibilities for innovative filmmaking that these creators are keen to exploit.

Alongside its potentials, “found footage” also throws up a number of ethical considerations. These ethical questions are explored in the interviews concerning filming in less privileged or vulnerable environments. Gustav Deutsch, for example, used found footage from family videos of vacations by the Adriatic Sea in his film Adria (1990). To make sure those family films, which were originally intended for personal use, were handled respectfully, Deutsch made sure that, as much as possible, family members were present at the premiere, and that their responses to the finished film were favourable. Ethical use of found footage can also be achieved through securing the appropriate rights from the people appearing in the footage. This was, initially, the practice that Fred Wiseman implemented with his films. However, as a documentary filmmaker, he maintains that by choosing to film in public institutions, his films fall under the First Amendment, as audiences have a right to know what happens inside those institutions.

Some of the filmmakers interviewed film in unusual places. Janet Biggs joined the Arctic Circle Program to film Fade to White and In the Cold Edge (2010), and later filmed in Indonesian sulphur mines for A Step on the Sun (2012). Exploring these underrepresented territories allows filmmakers like Biggs to explore popular documentary themes, such as labour and working conditions in contexts that aren’t often explored, broadening our understanding of the world and its communities. Biggs, along with other filmmakers who have worked in similarly unusual places—Ron Fricke who also filmed Indonesian? sulphur mines for Samsara (2011) and Ben Russell who explored Brazilian salt mines in Good Luck (2018)– talk about the importance of spending time with the people one films, and getting to know the area. On a more practical level, they also discuss how to gain access to these areas in order to film there, and how they adapted the filming to the terrain. As Biggs says, “plans always change once I have feet on the ground” (315).

The subtitle of the book is “cinema as diorama”, and indeed the filmmakers construct, through the medium of film and video, a diorama of human condition and in various parts of the world. The interviews contained in this volume present their subjects’ various interests in exploring current topics, from labour to the internet, their concerns over the ethical use of found footage and open platforms like Youtube, and the impact of digital filming on the possibilities available within their medium. The Sublimity of Document is a love letter to the documentary film. Bringing together a wide range of contemporary voices in the field, it lifts the lid on the emotional, practical, and creative elements of documentary filmmaking in a way that is accessible and engaging for anyone with an interest in the form and its future.

The Sublimity of Document: Cinema as Diorama edited by Scott McDonald. Oxford University Press. 2019. 504 pp.

Review of The Sublimity of Document: Cinema as Diorama by Scott McDonald
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Julia Stolyar

JULIA STOLYAR is a PhD researcher at SOAS, University of London. She graduated magna cum laude in English Literature and East Asian studies from Tel-Aviv University where she received a first-class MA in East Asian Studies. Her PhD dissertation explores the representation and construction of national myths and identities in transnational television drama remakes.

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