“Where all think alike there is little danger of innovation.”
–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
There seem to be so many music documentaries these days. The Wrecking Crew, Twenty Feet From Stardom, Muscle Shoals, Montage of Heck, What Happened, Miss Simone? But despite the range of subject matter–from backroom jams to grunge rock to soulful vocals–these films all adhere to the same unwavering approach in style and structure: a parade of talking heads interrupted by brief music clips that segue into a slapdash montage followed by another parade of talking heads. Rinse and repeat.
I’ve noticed a similar trend with the historical documentary, the celebrity doc and the bio-pic, and I often wonder if this stylistic repetition among high profile (re: mainstream distribution) documentaries is due to myopic funders, bottom-line focused distributors, cautious film festival programmers or unimaginative filmmakers. Or parts of all of these elements put together.
I think of these things while editing our documentary, Zona Intangible. I battle the voices in my head, the voices of the marketplace, as I struggle to make aesthetic choices that turn unexpected corners, that travel briefly down visually exotic alleys, that lead us into layers of story and image, while purposely steering clear of the signposts of the three-act structure, dramatic conflict, and the penultimate climax.
I’ve found the best way to quiet the voices telling me “what I should do” is to ignore them altogether. While editing and writing our film we are focused on kicking aside the dogma of documentary conventions, or at least twisting them into new forms. For example, I try to pay no attention to the old phrase, “kill your darlings.” If I’m fond of an image–a man walking with a shovel on a dusty ridgeline or an old woman hobbling down a colonial alleyway–or I can’t bear to delete a lively, shaggy-dog sequence–a handheld ramble through a marketplace–then we will try to find a way to shape the story to accommodate these personal favorites. As we work slowly, meticulously, through our story, I find myself repeating a fresh new mantra: “Spare your darlings, kill your conventions.”
I’m working with the usual materials that make up a documentary film: two or three central characters, unique access to them and their surroundings, interviews and b-roll, photographs and archival film, music and narration. But what I’m attempting to do as I cut, snip and splice, is to find a fresh way to introduce and express these tried-and-true building blocks.
I’m trying to avoid displaying our characters in typical talking head fashion, not only covering their statements with b-roll but using them on-camera in the form of silent portraits. With our b-roll, I’m experimenting with letting a single shot run for 10, 20, 30 seconds (or even longer), inviting the viewer to immerse themselves in the scene, challenging them to patiently await the next edit.
Our photographs, a combination of personal snapshots and photojournalism (shot by photographers during the time of Peru’s Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso) are not presented flatly, filling the screen from edge to edge, but shot in context, taped to the walls of shacks, lying face up in the rocks and dust, or snagged in barbed wire. The archival film we’re working with, of Peruvian fishermen hauling in anchovy from the Humboldt Current, will appear first on the screen of a ‘70s model portable TV, plunked down on the shore of the Pacific with a blazing sunset behind it.
Our soundtrack will not be a tasteful and expensively composed menu of music tracks, but a series of public domain-era Andean folk music songs, raw, beautiful, and handmade. And our narration (the sacrificial lamb of documentary narrative, too often eschewed in favor of onscreen text) is written in the form of a personal essay, delivered by writer and co-director Ann Hedreen, a weave of the ruminative and the reportorial.
We are also trying to tame the voices that require a film to be presented in a classic, easy-to-follow structural arc. Too many documentaries, like far too many feature films, come to us already pre-packaged, resembling a movie trailer that gives away the whole plot. I’m not sure why documentary filmmakers spend their precious time making a film that feels and looks like other films. The advocacy doc, still in vogue after all these years, is particularly egregious in this regard (Ann Hornaday echoed some of these thoughts in an article for the Washington Post). To counter this tendency, I admit that I sometimes go too far in the other direction, putting style ahead of content (this is when Ann must coax me out of my own myopic, hermetic pretentions).
But narrative and artistic risk is, for me, the juice. If I’m going to stare at my FCP timeline for hours, days and weeks, I need it to surprise me, entrance me, challenge me. That’s why we’ve chosen to tell our story in the form of a dense, layered, slightly askew non-fiction novella, a story spanning time, history, personal memory, and the global future. There is of course an arc to the story, but the arc is more of a series of jagged Andean peaks, rather than the rounded curve of a perfectly presentable hill.
I can’t say Zona Intangible will bust all of the documentary film conventions, nor will our unconventional tactics be all that radically daring. And we know that our choices may make the film less palatable to distributors and festivals. But I’d rather push out to the edges of the aesthetic envelope rather than churn out a film that will look and feel like too many other films.
The quote at the beginning of this post was written by one of America’s orneriest, opinionated iconoclasts, who liked nothing more than to sit in the desert for hours gazing at the fire he built from juniper branches, inhaling its fragrant smoke, and watching the embers glow. Our film may not end up being radical or daring or even all that innovative, but it will be, first and forever, our fire.