The in-betweenness of documentary spaces

When we finished the shooting of my first documentary feature, Pablo’s Winter (Pereira, 2012), I felt so fulfilled with the meaningful relationships that we have developed with the participants over the 7 weeks shooting, that making a good documentary from the material in the hard drives did not feel so important. Was I giving up as a filmmaker? Rather than the material filmed, what it felt most meaningful were the relations established between us the filmmakers, and the local-participants. The images and sounds now contained in the hard drives were mostly the evidence of those relationships, almost like the memory album of a time lived together. Those images and sounds were the tip of an iceberg that hid underneath an array of social and creative relationships that sustained their creation and were mediated by the filmmaking practices we carried out in the village. But these relations felt only half real. Passing from hardly knowing the participants in the film, to the intense moments shared through filmmaking in just a number of days, did not seem to follow the usual course of “knowing somebody”. Filmmaking provided a time of intense sociability in which the participants’ lives mixed with the filmmakers’ sensibilities, and the real world with documentary conventions. 

Pablo’s Winter by Chico Pereira

I consider documentary fieldwork and filming as a space and time in between. By in between,I mean the combination of certain characteristics that make the space and time of documentary fieldwork both part of everyday life and at the same time removed from it. Before a documentary film becomes a representation (something about the world) it is an event (something that happens in the world) In other words before a documentary film becomes a product that can travel around the screens, it is a creative and social process rooted in the place and time where it happens. Documentary filming is a lived time as well as an imagined, speculative and desired one. During documentary shooting, life becomes an in-betweenness between reality and the reality of the film being made. Throughout the filming of Pablo’s Winter, the film was entering my village, as each place and person could be a potential protagonist for the documentary in progress; and the life of my village was entering film since any encounter and happening in the village had the possibility to take the film in a new direction. I was thinking about the participants’ lives and the village… But of course, about my film. Whereas the images and sounds produced would eventually be explained under the prism of representation, what is the place, and how to talk about, the processes of documentary fieldwork and shooting? My goal is to focus on those processes and their potential for human encounters, social action, and conviviality. 

The in-betweenness of filmmakers and performers. 

My own experience as a documentary filmmaker, which depends on the nature of the films that I make, makes me see documentary shooting as not being totally real, and not being totally fiction. My documentary films usually entail a small narrative intervention that comes from the filmmaker, even though it is very close to the world of the characters, who will then play this slightly varied version of their lives. In the case of Pablo’s Winter, this devise consisted of a clear proposition to Pablo: what if you try and stop smoking during the making of the film? As if it was the rule for a game, he agreed with this proposition, and an exploration of his everyday life began. During the shooting period, the participants got used to this narrative fabrication, incorporated it, and eventually conveyed (or performed) aspects of their lives in an expressive way. Rather than constraining, my experience is that the narrative fabrication unlocks expressiveness, especially when the narrative is close enough to their lives and there is an effort to meet “half-way” between the filmmakers’ ideas and the participants’ lives. 

Richard Schechner has theorized this in-betweenness in performance situations, which can also apply to performers in a documentary film. Schechner argues that during the performance, a performer is “not himself” and yet “not not himself”.1  In the theatre, a performer becomes the character without stopping being the actor. Even when the character and the actor overlap to a great degree, as it happens in documentary filmmaking, the filming situation (camera, sound, action) introduces a mediation that separates, or shifts, the everyday life of the participants from the performing situation. Participants-performers in a documentary film might experience their life in a slightly different way as if they were seeing themselves from the outside. There might be a degree of introspection, self-discovery, or emotional journey, fostered by this gap between life and performance. Performing in a film can be a place for potential transformation, which can be positive, negative, unexpected…

We have seen this transformation happening for centuries in other performative situations such as theatre and ritual. And it also happens in documentary filmmaking. In Pablo’s Winter, we met Pablo from the beginning as a grumpy old mercury miner. As we continued filming with him and revisited the important places of his life, it became apparent that Pablo had a deep wound related to the end of mining and the decay of the village, a trauma that he shared with many members of his generation. Whereas Pablo’s words about the past often showed his armour, taking Pablo to actual places brought to the surface unresolved aspects of his life. Pablo trusted this journey and the filming of some scenes took him to unexpected emotional states. In these moments, when the transformative aspect of performance is clearly felt in documentary shooting, nobody knows for sure where it stands. As the wound of the character opens, an ethical scratch burns the skin of the filmmaker. And for restoration, the process of representation has to fold upon the human interrelationships that sustain it. 

Pablo’s Winter by Chico Pereira

The in-betweenness of filmmaking has also been theorized from the point of view of the filmmaker. Jean Rouch, the French filmmaker and anthropologist, considered the camera as a catalyst of a particular state of mind in the filmmaker, an insight that led him to define his filmmaking as “cine-trance”. Rouch’s concept is greatly inspired by Vertov’s famous dictum “I am the cine-eye, I am the mechanical eye, I am the machine that shows you the world as only a machine can see it.”2 Reminiscent of Vertov’s notion of kino-eye, Rouch writes that, when filming, the filmmaker “he is no longer himself, but a mechanical eye accompanied by an electronic ear. It is this strange state of transformation that takes place in the filmmaker that I have called, analogously to possession phenomena, “cine-trance.”3  Rouch defended the camera, not as a passive instrument for recording, but as an active agent in the encounter between the film-ethnographer and the film subject. Similarly, experimental filmmaker Maya Deren considered her film camera “a natural part of the behavioral space”, creating “a virtually unprecedented relationship for camera and event.”4 Deren believed in the necessary physical involvement of the filmmaker into the action. Deren and Rouch were interested in filming rituals, but more importantly for this article, they were, together with Vertov, interested in the ritual of filmmaking. Here, ritual refers to the filmmakers’ altered consciousness that Rouch identifies in his “cine-trance”, to the particular relationship established between camera and event in Deren’s choreographic approach, and to Vertov’s triumphant notion of film technology as a liberating instrument of perception, inquiry, and movement. 

The in-betweenness of the filming situation. 

My aim is to extrapolate the in-betweenness of documentary filmmaking perceived from the point of view of the performer (Schechner) and the filmmaker (Vertov, Deren, and Rouch) to the “filming situation”. By the filming situation, I refer to how documentary filmmaking can bring people together in a way “not” is not necessarily present in everyday life, even though closely related to it. The documentary filmmakers I have in mind create a situation, orchestrate a set of encounters, outline some rules, in short, design a particular time and space (i.e. an event) to generate new modes of interrelationships between people and the formation of temporary social configurations. These new relationships are bound to the duration and “rules” of the filmmakers’ design and intervention. The in-betweenness of the filming situation is a space between representation and event.

Mehran Tamadon’s Iranien (Tamadon, 2014) is a good example of documentary filmmaking that aims to create encounters between people in a manner that might not be observable in everyday life. In Iranien, Tamadon convinced four members of the Iranian religious authority to spend a weekend with him in his family countryside house as part of an artistic and social experiment. In this house and during this time, the four mullahs and the atheist Tamadon discuss the religious and social norms of Iran. During the two days, these norms are brought up for debate and the different viewpoints are exposed. The discussions are intersected with moments of conviviality, in which all the participants, occasionally including the mullahs’ wives, cook, eat, laugh and share trivialities of their lives. Iranien represents an artistic gesture towards something missing in Iran: an inclusive public sphere where many different voices can be heard and taken into consideration. In Tamadon’s countryside house and for the period of a weekend, a more dialogical and inclusive relation between the regime and its opponents is suggested. 

Iranien by Mehran Tamadon

Lola Arias’ Theatre of War (Arias, 2018) brings together Argentinian and British veterans of the Malvinas/Falklands War for the making of a documentary film. The film is composed of reenactments of war episodes which are based on the participants’ testimonies and performed by them. The film also includes reenactments of some of the participants’ traumatic events after the war. Moments of conversation between veterans from each side create a sense of togetherness, but tensions are sometimes felt. Theatre of War is primarily about bringing together veterans hit by the war and the subsequent trauma in the context of art and documentary filmmaking. Arias speaks about the therapeutic role of the film process, based on remembering together and articulating those memories in performance. During the film, one realizes that, as war veterans, they have more in common than what made them enemies during the 1982 war. 

Theatre of War and Iranien share important characteristics with art as social practice. In Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud studied the genealogy and characteristics of the socially engaged art of the 1980s and 1990s. Whereas in 1960, socially engaged art was a response to the commodification of art and a critique to capitalism, the 1980s and 1990s saw a socially engaged art more focused on creating spaces of encounter in a society that, according to those artists’, did not give enough platforms for meaningful human encounters. As in Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, some documentary filmmakers aim to put in motion social and artistic processes that, moving beyond the realm of representation, generate space for encounters, dialogue, interactions, and conviviality between people, as well as social and political work. Socially engaged art and activism often mix in these projects. 

Instead of starting from something that is, these documentary filmmakers start from something clearly fabricated, a “what if”. The “what if” implies a design of a time and space for interaction and, as if it was the beginning of a game, it often implies a set of rules that the filmmakers establish. The “game” might consist of spending a weekend in a countryside house where some taboo subjects can be opened up for discussion (Iranien); or the design might consist on bringing together veterans from each side of the war to share and recreate their memories from it (Theatre of War). But, as we will see in these examples; game, and playing can be a very serious thing. 

Theatre of War by Lola Arias

The concept of play can be useful to explain the in-betweenness of the filming situation. Developing the notion of play, Caillois finds six essential qualities of play activity, namely, that it is not obligatory, that it is circumscribed in time and space, undetermined, materially unproductive, rule-bound, and concerned with an alternative reality.5 Some of these filmmaking initiatives share many of these characteristics. As it happens with play, these activities happen within our ordinary life, but they are also differentiated from it. Like in Schechner’s performer (”not himself” and yet “not not himself”), the filming situation can create alternative realities that are both real and fictional. For instance, the four mullahs in Iranien accepted the game that Tamadon proposed because the political debates were going to happen within the context of the film being made. In Frame Analysis, Goffman explains how within the frame of play social events can “take on a different relationship to normal life and normal responsibilities than the same or similar events would have as “untransformed reality” outside the confines of the frame.”6 In other words, “within the play frame, all messages and signals are recognized as in a certain sense not true.”7  However, the fact that it took Tamadon two years to find mullahs willing to be part of the film, also shows that the experiment was still bond to the real Iran and its social and political norms. There were some real stakes in the game. In Iranien, the playground combines the desire of the filmmaker for creating a shared dialogical space with all the participants’ efforts to defend their own ideological positions. Similarly, Theatre of War incorporates some scenes in which participants talk about their relationship to the veterans from the other side. Bringing people together does not mean eliminating tensions, and in fact, we can hear some participants’ reservations towards each other, and towards Arias’ film project. The clearest example of the seriousness of play is that Iranian authorities confiscated Tamadon’s passport, prevented him from leaving the country, and once he was allowed out of Iran forbade him from coming back to the country. Play has a limit. 

Overall, these film works highlight how documentary fieldwork and filming can turn into engagements with an alternative life, with imagining a different way of relationships between individuals as well as other social configurations. In other words, they explore the in-betweenness of the life that “it is”, and the life that “it could be”. These works also show how contemporary documentary filmmakers increasingly move in the space between the representation of reality and the creation of it, a space where transformation and danger are prone to happen.

Arturo Delgado Pereira (aka Chico Pereira) is a documentary filmmaker/researcher working as Professor of Practice in Documentary Film at Aalto University, Finland. PABLO’S WINTER (2012) won awards at DOK Leipzig, IDFA and Full Frame and opened the 2013 MoMA Documentary Fortnight, NYC. DONKEYOTE(2017) premiered at 2017 International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) and won several awards including Best Feature Documentary Film at 2017 Edinburgh International Film Festival, and the 2017 International Documentary Association (IDA) Creative Recognition for Best Writing. His current film project, ENCIERRO (LOCK-IN) mixes documentary reenactment, experimental ethnography and art as social practice in a former mining town.

Pereira's photo by Siobhan Ni Choileain

  1. Richard Schechner Between Theatre and Anthropology, Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985, 4.
  2. Jean Rouch, “The Camera and Man” in Cine-Ethnography: Jean Rouch. Editedand translatedby Steven Feld. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2003, 38.  
  3. Ibid, 39.  
  4. Moira Sullivan, “Maya Deren’s Ethnographic Representation of Ritual and Myth in Haiti”, In Maya Deren and the American Avantgarde, ed. Bill Nichols, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001, 7. 
  5. Marvin Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction, London: Routledge, 25. 
  6. Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis, Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1974, 157.
  7.  Ibid, 157.

This article was commissioned by the CCL for the Moving People and Images Journal (the MPI Journal)