First steps

Welcome to the world of documentary filmmaking!

You’ll find authors’ points of view, extraordinary creative freedom and a wealth of diverse forms – very different from what we’re used to as television or drama viewers. It can be surprising or even disconcerting, so to accompany you as you take your first steps in this universe, and to encourage your exploration, the Tënk team has devised this introductory journey. What’s ‘direct cinema’? How do stage directing and dramatisation work in documentaries? How do people make movies in their sitting rooms? Or using only photos from archives? We present four films, short or long, and give you a few keys to interpret them to help you enter into these new forms and to get you off to a good start in the pleasure of watching documentaries!

A documentary buddy movie!

Buddy movies are usually dramas that follow several (usually male) characters who have an improbable adventure during which their true natures are revealed, their relationships are enriched and they become firm friends… Watching “Alive!” is like watching a good buddy movie. Here, the shared adventure is preparing to skydive… will they be brave enough to jump?

Together, they encounter failures and victories. The action sequences are captured in direct cinema, in other words with a camera placed in the centre of the scene, letting events unfold in front of it and filming them just as they occur. These sequences allow us to figure out their different natures – it’s a bit like a well-tailored script: there’s the shy one, the crazy guy, the awkward old man, etc. This is an initial way to meet the characters.

But if we take a closer look, the film isn’t made exclusively of candid live scenes. Several sequences bring all the characters together for conversations that are at times very personal and private. It’s during these moments that we get to know them more directly, through their words and their stories. They talk about their lives, their experiences of the disease and their love lives. It’s highly likely that Vincent Boujon, the director, orchestrated these scenes, gathering the characters together and perhaps advising them to discuss such and such a topic… This is also part of documentary stage direction and dramatisation.

When you think of it, how come these men are all together and a camera’s there to film them? The answer is simple: it’s all been organised! It was the director who had the idea of the skydiving course – because he guessed that more intense things would happen than if he just interviewed them, and above all, because it would allow the viewer to identify with the challenge, following these characters with passion, and liking them more!
It’s all about dramatisation, even in documentaries!

Documentaries can take any form they wish, and that’s where their great strength lies!

“Election Day” is bold enough to use extremely minimalist dramatisation: in his living room, a man tells the story of what just happened to him in the street. He films a few rough sketches that he draws onto a piece of paper. He films his bookshelves and a bit of the street from his window. We don’t see his face. We only hear his voice. But how can you make a movie out of so little?

This is a far cry from the motion and spontaneity of the sequences in “Alive!”, and a very far cry from recording events live, which is not a documentary criterion! Describing does not necessarily involve showing in the present, head-on or directly. Leaving a little to the viewer’s imagination can make stories even more dramatic (as every good horror movie director knows, astutely hiding the terrifying “thing” in the cupboard). This is suggestiveness at its best. The extreme economy of means adds to the tale’s intensity. And it’s also a striking dramatic choice: to describe the fear that’s taking hold of the city, the director makes a film that locks itself in, in safety, far from the shouting in the street.

And then, there’s also the fact that documentary is sometimes – often – the poor relation of the arts. Here, we sense very clearly that this is an act carried out in an emergency, in the heat of the moment, something very spontaneous that adds to the film’s intensity. The filmmaker has got his camera out, and with the resources at hand, finds a way to shout out a warning… It’s simple yet powerful.

Do you know why sand dunes sing and how they move? Do you understand the logic of how leaves are folded into their buds? Did you know that scientists are interested in this kind of question, and they seem to be having a lot of fun?

The idea for a film often comes from the unknown. We’re intrigued by something. We think “Hmm, what might be going on behind this door?” Here, the directors have opened the door of a research lab, with the idea of finding out what scientist actually do. What goes on inside their heads? How did their ideas progress?

But how do you make a movie about such abstract ideas? A film is made of images and sounds, actions and tangible things… The director’s job, especially for documentaries, is then to find the form that suits the subject.

Here, the directors’ first decision is about the laboratory they’re filming. It’s a mess, strewn with improbable equipment and ongoing experiments… the atmosphere is set. But then, to enter into the minds of the scientists and their “internal” logic, they’ll have to use cinematic means other than just observation. And then, they have to have a bit of fun, to create a little empathy, because the research itself is fun. The directors try different things, just like the scientists who say at one point that research is “always making finds but never being satisfied”. So the filmmakers search, using animation sequences, sketches, fast motion, asking one of the characters to describe his dreams… they manipulate the editing, they inverse or repeat the shots… in short, they’re playing! They play with filmmaking, and it’s very funny! And it’s also a fantastically intelligent way of tackling science!

How can a movie make us feel the power of history in just 10 minutes and without any commentary? This film manages to do just that in a very impressive way! It tells the story of Hiroshima’s A-Bomb Dome, a building that symbolises the city and resisted the blast from the American atomic bomb. But instead of just “telling”, the director makes a remarkable decision: he chooses to try and make us feel the passing of time, the desolation and then the reconstruction. And to do this, again, his job is to find the best means that cinema offers. Which images? Which sounds? He decides to make a film constructed only of photos, still images that follow one another chronologically according to a strict logic that you’ll discover when you watch the movie. These images are set to a song that sometimes makes way for some very identifiable sounds that “tell the story”. The result is a film that captivates us not via our intellect but rather – a little like a song, perhaps – via our experience of the moment, short and intense, and that, unobtrusively, documents the event for us.