Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy - that’s the name that comes to mind when we talk about documentaries. Admit it; your mind jumped to it, too. And her Oscar-winning work – Saving Face and A Girl in the River, the only Pakistani to have “made history”. Sharmeen divides the country in two groups, with half the population supporting her films and the other half, irked by her chosen topics, arguing she chose only to focus on the negative stuff of our society.
So, what exactly is expected from documentary filmmakers in the film market? Who sets the rules for the stories you want to tell, who determines what stories are worth being told? Manuel F. Contreras, a Colombian documentary filmmaker, explored these questions recently at Habib University in a 90-minute masterclass on documentary filmmaking.
According to him, the typical topics associated with Colombia (or Latin America for that matter) – cocaine, football, guerrilla movements, gangs and organised crime, dictatorship, indigenous people, poverty, and Pablo Escobar – are not an accurate representation of his country. Just as we don’t feel that the documentaries made here aren’t a fair representation of Pakistan; poverty, street crime, honour killing, etc. exist in the society, but it’s not like these are the only topics worth highlighting. You feel something is not right; you feel that there is always more to say.
The film market unfortunately has a set of imaginaries for stories from every part of the world. Since its origin, documentary filmmakers were supposed to “observe what this other person is doing”. In most cases, the “other” is the poor. Why? Because the one owning the camera is privileged. And then you see documentaries being made nowadays and realise things haven’t changed much. The focus is still very much on the “remote” and the “distant subject”. Never the other way.
A coherent way to make documentary films is the search for an honest approach in which we can explore a point of view that is not repeating these formulae. How do we not adapt to the gaze of the other? For instance, the breakthrough in these Latin-American and Colombian documentary films came when Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo started asking the same questions: “Our cinema, especially documentary films, was all poverty. Poverty was prized in the international markets and documentary films for Europe without the poor had no reason to be.” So they made a fake documentary The Vampires of Poverty (1977), a satire on pornomiseria (poverty porn) i.e. a type of documentary film funded by the Colombian state to meet the demands of international market for images of poverty.
The film also observed the relationship between the one filming and the one being filmed. It was normal for foreigners (citizens foreign to the location or even individuals from other countries) to go, film the poor, and then leave without any emotional connection to them whatsoever. Of course, issues of representation were bound to ensue. The audience believed that this is Latin-American cinema.
This sort of reductionism happens in other regions, too. The cinema never questions the actual situation, ignoring several concepts that wouldn’t support its derogatory tone for the country. Basically, in order to have a successful career as a filmmaker, you have to make things that belong to the market. In other words, you have to deal with the same topics (poverty, drugs, etc.) given a majority of film festivals take place in Europe and USA.
And while the powerful feel it is okay to talk about “others” in this manner, they won’t allow “others” to talk about them! Brazilians, for instance, can’t talk about the North. Speaking from experience, Manuel F. Contreras added how his film Acting Lessons was edited by the news channel to show their respective point of view. “I wanted to do it right. I wanted to dignify the person. [She] agreed to this film; but [they] added the typical stuff about Colombia (war, prostitution) in the beginning and I felt like my work was completely gone! Watching that video, it felt like the situation’s the same all over the country, like this woman could be any woman in Colombia. But it’s not like that! The edited version just reinforced the clichés I was trying to avoid.”
Similarly, when he started shooting Boys of Buenaventura, “people were so paranoid because filmmakers previously had gone there only to shoot the violence. They’d ask me about my project and what I was going to say about the city.”
This should not be the case for “every film is autobiographical in some subtle or not-so-subtle way.” The story being told is actually the story of the one behind the camera. It may not be a conscious effort; however, the fact remains that the one being filmed is the mirror of the filmmaker. For Manuel F Contreras, filming the prostitute, for instance, was a fixation with her single-mother status; his father had died when he was six years old and Maria, the lead character, reminded him of his mother’s efforts. The three talented high-school graduates reflected his own fears and confusions when he was of that age.
You know what? Some of you might have made documentary films already; some of you might be interested in making one in the future. Just remember, whatever you do, it has to be about you, about something you know. You’re the one asking questions, which makes it your story. Acknowledge that; otherwise, you’re just another foreigner observing people.