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What makes a documentary durable?

Michael RabigerCILECT North America’s Docu-Day conference opened at American University with a manifesto-like volley from professor emeritus and field leader Michael Rabiger, who asked, “What makes a documentary durable?” His answer: Film art, featuring creative use of elements ranging from cinematography, sound, and editing, bringing to viewers “the meaning and weight of experience.”

Too often, he argued, film professors let students believe that documentaries, unlike fiction films, are primarily about communicating ideas, a branch of journalism, rather than an artform that brings viewers empathically into someone else’s experience.

A doc you can watch again.

Why would you watch a documentary more than once, add it to your treasured experiences, remember its moments and tell people about it?

Rabiger has many such films in his personal library, such as Night and Fog, Hoop Dreams, Stevie, Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, The Farmer’s Wife, To Be and To Have, Act of Killing, and anything by the Maysles brothers.  He celebrated their commonality: “sustained, appreciative attention to the telling details of the life close at hand, that we all lead in common, the small wonders in everyday existence, the creative struggles behind what we call ordinary life.”

 Too often, he said, documentaries lean too heavily on interviews, narration and the word, over image, sound, metaphor and the poetry of experience. And so, he said, too many film are “like those well-meaning people who can’t stop talking.” Soundtracks can bombard viewers, “so we just stop listening,” and obscure revealing moments and insights.

 Film schools to the rescue. 

 It’s up to film schools, Rabiger said, to make a stand for documentary art, against the forgettable run of wordy, didactic documentaries, which lean on b-roll and patronize both their subjects and their audiences.

 “We need to teach our students to value the intuitive and to engage with their subjects,” he said. Too often both professors and students suffer from “equipmentitis,” which lets them hide behind equipment rather than develop a relationship with their subjects that can lead to revelation.

 Close looking is crucial; so much is revealed in small gestures and interactions. Looking at cinematography as an art, and experimenting with ways to make image express metaphor—visual poetry—is important. “Look at what is done in nature films, how observation reveals so much,” he said. “I want more visually driven films, which drive their interpretation from studying image and metaphor, which after all is the substance of poetry. “ And sound can develop character: “Look at the sound in Night and Fog and Jules et Jim, which have minimalist sound tracks, reflecting only the foreground perceptions of the main characters.”

 Rabiger suggests classroom exercises that take an element or two away from the students, to make them focus more on those that are left.

 Finding one’s own voice, though, is always a challenge. There are time constraints, and ironclad curricula, and student expectations. But Rabiger noted that technology constraints have dramatically lowered, enabling new teaching opportunities. He challenged the international group of representatives from film schools to find ways to teach students to develop their own perspective and voice: “Let’s ground their studies in exploring the world and their own preoccupations, to develop their own authentic voice and camera sensibility.  Shouldn’t we try to develop what is special about our students?”


 “There currently is no documentary school for poetic scrutiny,” he said. “But I believe the initiative has to come from schools. What we need now is manifesto—maybe developed with our students. The manifestos should be discussed, and circulated, and debated.”

 Rabiger as well challenged the audience to take on the values promoted by granting agencies for film. Too often, he said, the granting agencies don’t reward a poetic sensibility. “They are good people and doing what they have to do, and we have to engage with them, but remember that we are a separate institution and voice. We have to stand up for what we believe.”

 Rabiger concluded by celebrating diversity in film as well as encouraging greater emotional and experiential richness. “There’s room for all kinds of voices. There’s also room for what’s missing. And all too often what’s missing is the human, the intimate, which you get with engagement.”