What's up, doc(umentary filmmakers)?

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From Louis Malles Calcutta (1969), which screened last night at Doc Films
  • From Louis Malle's Calcutta (1969), which screened last night at Doc Films
Watching Louis Malle's Calcutta last night at Doc Films, I thought that someone could organize a neat repertory series of documentaries by narrative filmmakers. The selections might include Michelangelo Antonioni's Chung Kuo China, Luis Buñuel's Land Without Bread, Sergei Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico!, Jean-Luc Godard's Ici et Ailleurs, any number of shorts by Werner Herzog (La Soufrière, God's Angry Man, etc), Shohei Imamura's A Man Vanishes (which screens again on Thursday night at the Siskel Center, incidentally), Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up and ABC Africa, Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls, Roberto Rossellini's India: Matri Bhumi, Agnès Varda's The Gleaners & I, or Orson Welles's F for Fake. These examples cover such a wide range of filmmaking styles that I'm impressed there's a single generic designation that can encompass all of them. Perhaps the term documentary, with its connotation of hard factuality, fails to suggest the possibilities of nonfiction cinema. (Conversely, imagine if Stagecoach, The Seventh Seal, and National Lampoon's Animal House were all lumped together as "story films.")

There still isn't a term for the gray area in movies between documentary and fiction—a subject that several of the aforementioned titles explicitly address. Both A Man Vanishes and F for Fake climax with the director revealing that a seemingly true sequence was in fact staged (and, in the case of Fake, entirely made up). Close-Up remains mum to to the very end about which scenes have been exaggerated and which ones haven't, encouraging the spectator to puzzle over Kiarostami's filmmaking process. In all three cases, fiction seems like a sort of black art that makes the documentary image unaccountable and suspicious.

Even the more straightforward movies on this list employ narrative filmmaking techniques to ambiguous effect. For instance, there's a scene in Calcutta in which Malle depicts a team of men working on a construction site. A 12-man team hoists building materials from ground level to the top of the site, Malle explains, because it costs less to pay all 12 men than to install a pulley. Malle follows the chain of workers through a sequence of shots that presents their process as a little start-to-finish narrative. (It's reminiscent of those old Sesame Street segments showing how a piece of factory equipment works.) This isn't strict observational realism, of course—who knows how long it took Malle to shoot those images, or if he even shot them all at once? But the director's ability to bring narrative logic to a series of images tells us a lot about the men's work: its mechanized order, its efficiency, its dehumanizing impact on those who perform it.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Calcutta (as well as Land Without Bread, ABC Africa, and a few others on the list) is how Malle presents the title location as if it were the protagonist of a story—an accomplishment more commonly associated with novels than with movies. In contrast to the puzzle-docs by Imamura or Welles, this suggests that fiction and nonfiction images can exist harmoniously, if not combine to something more than the sum of their parts.

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