Response To ‘Transcendental Realism In Documentary’ By Dr. Erik Knudsen

And please do keep in mind, this is only a response to the first few chapters (which was plenty to allow me to get the idea).

Regarding the mini-interview thing I just did, it seems quite ironic that we have been set the task of reading this piece. It is irony in the way that, although Media Production is in no way and easy course to take on, occasionally we get faced with something like this, which makes everyone groan, and makes people thankful that such academic reading is usually minimal. One of the opening paragraphs states:

“I hope to speak as a filmmaker and not an academic; for the motive is to try and understand how,

in practice, one may evolve the documentary form – indeed, the cinematic form,

generally – in such a way as to deal with experiences not sufficiently touched by the form

as it is currently generally practiced.”

Did you get all that? He hopes to speak as a film maker, and not as an academic. If this writing was anymore academic, Einstein would have a hemorrhage. The bit from ‘indeed’ onwards in that quote basically sets out what the rest of this extract reads like. Sifting through the reams and reams and REAMS and general ‘stuff’ that seems to have no bearing on anything, I do manage to bag the central point of the article:

“If the language of documentary does not evolve and change, there is a real danger

that the form will become a hollow expression, built on clichés and that it will cease to be

an effective tool of understanding and knowledge.”

So, in a nutshell, the style of documentary needs to change the same way that cinema does, otherwise documentaries will be repetitive and boring (nay, they may already have). The purpose of this written piece is to investigate ways in which we can change the way we decide to report on the world around us. I immediately name two big ones – coincidentally mentioned in our documentary module last year – United 93, which was a to-the-minute accurate account of an incident occurring on 9/11, and Man On Wire, which involved standard interviews with cutaways of re-enacted drama mixed with real-life footage and photographs (in similar vein to Touching The Void, which I analyzed last year).

“The problem, and the solution, to the different kind of documentary I am suggesting in

this piece starts with the question of reality and the question of why we are making

documentaries in the first place.”

Thus concludes the prologue. Transcendental Realism is obviously at the heart of this investigation. Our author believes we have preconceived notion of what reality ‘is’, and therefore we should set out to change what realist is, so that we can thus alter the way we report ‘reality’. This is consistently hammered home by the use of case studies of films, and by the science of psychological studies.

“…since the documentary form is steeped in debates and discussions about fact, fiction, proof, imagination and reality, it is important to at least question what we mean by reality.”

The thing that the writer obviously goes up against is the fact of this concept of the misinterpretation of the term ‘real’. In my own mind, I created a fictitious event where a suicide bomber had attacked Luton airport. Now, if that really happened, and one was to make a documentary about it, surrounding the events, and the aftermath involving those affected, would the concept of reality be the first thing you’d think about? Sure, you can re-enact some of the scenes. You should interview the people, because they would have a lot to say, and their words would have meaning. It would be very real.

“If we, as human beings, are made up of mind, body and spirit working seamlessly together with such faculties as logical thinking, imagination, feelings, emotions and a propensity for mystical reflection and superstition, why should all of this, in its totality, not be considered as part of the reality of the real world?”

Around about this point, films start getting referenced. Much to my humour, the films sound really bad. If I recall correctly, some documentary about a load of bread in a supermarket? The camera just sits there staring at the loaf all day, with occasional cutaways of the people in the supermarket. Yeah, it’s different, but perhaps not the most exciting and innovating thing since *ahem* sliced bread. However, right now a film has been released called The Arbor , which innovates the documentary style by using actors to mime over previous recording of interviews that have occurred in the past. Having not seen it, I wont dwell on it, but innovation is indeed occuring, and it sounds a lot more interesting than the ‘bread’ one (especially given that The Arbor is about the woman who wrote ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too!’ – awesome film!)

“Documentary, on the other hand, has too often been bound by boundaries of fact

and authenticity.”

The author goes on to write that emotion and feeling are two different things – one is internal, one is external etc. He throws in a bit of history, a bit more psychology, and repeats the word ‘paradigm’ to the point that you actually wonders he knows the meaning of the word. He goes off so far from the subject in question that you wonder if you’re reading about documentary at all. But then he brings it back, simply claiming that we can use feeling and emotions to varying effects in documentary. Yes, that is really the conclusion of the first chapter as far as I could read it.

“…there is a strong reality; but it is another side of reality than we are used to seeing. It is more mystical, transcendental, as it fills us with feelings of awe and sorrow.”

Ultimately, I appreciate what the man is trying to say. I agree that documentary is, as with most media, an art form. It is entirely open to interpretation, and it should really change over time to represent our culture at the time the artefact was produced (one of the main purposes of art if you ask me). However, his ideas of changing the style of documentaries largely depends on what the subject is about. My example earlier would not go down well if a surrealist artefact tapping into ‘fight or flight’ responses was made. At the end of the day, documentaries are made to inform people, so they will always need to report something. As this is their primary purpose, this does to a degree limit what you can do, and what rules you can bend or break.

Audience also affects his ideas, and to quite a great degree. Given that ITV just contracted The X Factor for a further three years, it is a sad truth that the majority of the population do perhaps enjoy repetition. They enjoy being comfortable, and knowing where they are with things. Alternative documentaries may not sell, and be solely aimed at the smarter people who have the effort to decrypt the arty meanings behind it. Or perhaps, nobody would want to watch the documentary at all.

Documentaries are an art form, and that point I agree with. But they are an art form that needs to be respected, just like paintings. Everything was hunky dory until photography came along. Photography is another art form entirely. If you keep changing a concept, it will eventually cease to be a documentary and become something else. Documentaries need to tick certain boxes with the mass audiences it’s aimed at (always masses, as they usually have a message or point to get across). Therefore, it is questionable if documentaries need to change. They can change, and they can be done differently, with mixed results. Whether these ploys will be proven successful is something I’m not entirely convinced about. After all, if you change a documentary so much it becomes something else, nobody will watch it, and thus it will defeat the purpose of making the documentary in the first place.


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