This article is the result of a series of theoretical discussions coming out from my research in the cinema-documentary field. These lines are meant to suggest a broader lecture of documentary-making activity. Through the relations that the idea of documentary establishes with photography, fiction, identity and performance, I would like to deconstruct its meaning and make it a source of philosophical research, opening discussions about technical matters that lead to new styles and methods of realization.
The living experience is, since time immemorial, characterized by a metamorphosis of itself under the guise of memory and narration, image and language. It is always in search of those unspecified forms where to keep on recreating itself. Reality captures concepts in their very instantaneous moment, making them hard to decipher for the inexperienced eye. Sometimes it is reality itself that forces the eye to absorb concepts. The documentary, or better to say, the extraction of images from the world’s source, is then none other than a matter of perceptive attitude, the incarnation of a life style, a thought that comes to life. Thought itself is no doubt a matter of perception, point of view, and our adaptation to the world’s rules may be the origin (renewed day after day) of possible (as well as simultaneous) speculative attitudes towards it.
And yet such attitude may harden with the concept’s disposition to abstract from the world and observe it from above, breaking free from the burden of becoming and deceiving itself to be able to dominate it. That is what usually happens in TV documentaries, where the linguistic schedule of the plot is often rigid and aimed to cage reality, as shown by the film-like style of these kind of works. It seems text precedes image and concept dominates that very reality the camera tries to shape, rather than flowing with it. But images claim their independence from language and our relation with them is always fluid, clear and constant rather that discrete, formal and discontinuous.
The un-documentary is meant to suggest using the eye of the camera on reality with no desire of possessing it: the un-documentary topic is always late in relation to its variation, and it is continuously lost and found, it undergoes many metamorphosis. To narrate an experience always means to recreate it, and never to document it. Mimesis is denied since the very anti-intuitive core of the (un)documentary image, which always requires a perspective, an oriented part. The un-documentary is never a spatial-temporal copy of the state of things it refers to, but rather the discovery of a spatial-temporal dimension, parallel and alternative to the real one.
The shot image, seen as practice and instrument of reperception of the surrounding world, has the chance to interact with concepts in a more flexible way than the rigorous and punctual thought can afford to do. The ideas contained in it risk to act as particles of a solid body. They seem rigid, almost still, instead of being nearer to the point they really are at the moment of their appearance, as if they were in a state of never-ending boiling and ferment. They are like organic ideas inserted in the pinball machine of the state of things, never neutral nor decipherable, just because of this infinite genesis of rules-concepts they create.
The un-documentary’s goal is therefore to create simultaneity between perception, expression and representation. It aims to reduce the gap between thoughts and actions, conceiving the tale through a series of images as a starting point for the development of concepts. The un-documentary shows that state of things are only thinkable from their simultaneous vision-representation-recreation: perception is already an expression of its own, language ready to born, sensitive idea. There is no extrinsic relation between idea and expression, but instead mutual involvement. Such is the simultaneity the un-documentary is working on.
The un-documentary tends to seize the instant and reach a performative gesture, but is not capable of filling the overwhelming and asymptotic gap. It lives through an extended present where the immediacy of gesture becomes simultaneity of action and thought.
Sequentiality and simultaneity live together, like in memory and imagination, starting from an idea of representation seen as survival of conscience, immediately exposed to itself and the world. Representation is considered as mnemonic and retro-projective placement, as well as myth of identity sharing, always late in relation to the stories to be told. In the un-documentary, pre-production is only present in the contemporaneity of the subjects involved (filmmaker, technicians, actors-narrators). There is no screenwriting, but a simple principle of action-reaction to the surrounding world, linked to an unwilling impulse of selection that gazes upon something, bringing its research into focus.
Such focus is not to be intended as a goal to reach, but rather as a research path of focus itself, like the almost present image of the relations occurring in the state of things that must be revealed. Even off-screen and the number of actions and reactions preceding and accompanying the shooting moment are part of it. The negative that can’t be seen but is surely there, in the position of the camera, in the way the cameraman holds it, in the characters’ reactions before it. I like using the idea of tuning when I’m talking about the interaction between subject (object)-camera-subject (object), just to underline the relational aspect and the time of tuning, always in the becoming of the moving image and instead frozen in the photographic one. (See the extreme tuning video in Iran’s Neda http://www.digicult.it/digimag/article.asp?id=2122).
That is why I usually associate un-documentary practices to performance: the un-documentary is more like a life-style than a mere, even though precise, record of the world, pure utopia coming from a metaphysical distinction between concept and world which dates back to Ancient Greek Platonic philosophy.
The un-documentary is the filmmaker’s impossible transformation of the stories he narrates, the desire to let them flow through his body rather than controlling and shaping them. There is neither salvation for the stories’ characters, nor immortality for the storyteller. And least of all there is any attempt to explain, form, colonize or improve reality. On the contrary, one could witness the author’s regression and loss of identity, his will to be transparent while becoming the very stories he wishes to tell.
The un-documentary world is never located before the camera. It is always off-screen, unseen and unheard. It is the performative act of a pragmatic epistemology where subject and object fade, with the camera becoming the means of this transformation. The un-documentary is the unwilling reflex, an escape from a conscious analysis of the shooting act. It is the filmmaker in ambush, waiting for the transformation to happen in order to unveil it.
In the current codex of Western artistic culture, then, the concept of documentary becomes indissoluble from performance. During montage, in the same way, its expressions cannot be conceived as sequential fragments any longer, but rather as parts of a whole to be coordinated in sight of the concepts one wishes to explain. Yet this principle should concern shooting as well: nobody works on a single project only, for it is impossible to know exactly what could be done, being such project a mere reaction to circumstances and not a true attempt to shape them. In this sense, it is a principle of opening towards reality, a sort of infrared to discover background noises and micro-perceptions of its own and the world, enabling discussions that could be the launching ramp for parallel projects, as if they were the result of unexpected events. All the more so given that more and more often the author ends up using the same tool to accomplish different actions, like filming and photographing.
Therefore, when shooting of taking photos, it takes a higher sensitiveness to seize the moment tuning is at its peak. It also takes to be careful understanding whether tuning is stronger when recording sounds (just to be less intrusive and spend more time witnessing rather than shaping) or simply talking, and in case taking notes during the experience or soon after it. Do not forget that in order to narrate the same experience one can use different tools (in the field of digital recording), such as micro-cameras applicable on the characters’ body, thus deleting the filmmaker’s figure in a certain way and letting people identify themselves better with their character. As you can imagine, there is no mediation when the actor himself is the first person narrator.
The un-documentary’s goal is to invert the relationships of subordination between concept and world, image and language. It aims to fill the gaps, to stay on border lines, where distinctions and belongings defy any barely liveable definition.
The creative process is always a sort of unbalance between a centrifugal force, tearing experiences and concepts, and a centripetal one which on the opposite tries to deposit and gather what remains of them. Creation always means tension between a core, that must turn into something else and preserve a trace of itself to find its expression, and a burst material, reactive, contingent, surrounding, that tries to reduce itself to iconic forms, self-sufficient, without losing anything in opening and variation.
The unnatural posing of the concept, in search for a stable form where to reflect, turns out to be a lame dictatorship in relation to the reasons that made it start. A sort of retaliation to the unbearable mutability of the surrounding world. The concept is unthinkable. Its stability is proportional to our incapability to see its never-ending shifts. It is continuously retroflexed and identified, but never completely, and so it is quite unrecognizable. The concept does not reflect. Should it do that, it could not recognize itself. And the un-documentary is not the comforting surface of this Narcissist metaphoric concept; in it, thoughts come and go like sparkles of a flame, or echoes of a monad through a well.
Yet among the infinite mirrors of expressed forms and shot images we could see a glimpse of that shadow, always broken, elusive, twisted, promised in all the relationships and betrayed by each and every single expression. Concepts become something new, turn into something new, and stop being found by algorithms through endless mutations; they become liveable at the most. It is in the nature of the exposition of the concept to rape, expropriate and evict, just to be raped, expropriated and evicted in turn. The concept lives suspended in a never-ending state of performance, and so does the un-documentary.