By Pablo Gamba
The Distant Barking of Dogs (2017), awarded in Amsterdam’s IDFA, and winner of the Golden Alexander and the Critics’ Prize in Thessaloniki, and Jane (2017), which participated in the same Dutch festival and was awarded the Critics’ Choice Award for best documentary, are prime examples of modalities of representations that still dominate these kind of films nowadays, despite the problems they represent. The first is an orthodox observational film, the style of film where the filmmaker takes the place of a “fly in the wall”. In the second case, it’s a film made with archival footage, and articulated in a expositive manner, based on answers to an interview. They both compete for the Audience’s Award in the Politiken section of CPH:DOX
The protagonist of The Distant Barking of Dogs is Oleg, a 10 year-old boy that lives with his grandmother in Hnutove, Ukraine, just a mile away of the battlefront against the separatists forces of the “Popular Republic of Donetsk”. The film observes how the closeness of war is felt in the quotidian life of the young man, of his cousin Yarik and Kostya, an adolescent friend of both. Plus, we are also witness of the commentaries of an older lady on how the situation affects her.
There are common places in these types of films that are also present here: A talk about the dangers in the surroundings of the school by military men, for example, or the exercise of going to the bomb shelter. Also, how projectiles and mines turn out to be part of the life of the children, and in the middle of that, a game with a little pistol.
But more important are the scenes derived from the title, where combat is a distant noise whose origin is out of visual range, but not the physical reaction that it causes on the characters. The best example is when Oleg takes a bath in the river, when the night closes. One can see how the terror overcomes him where in context one understands that he feels alone, not having to pretend to Kostya. In other scene at the end, a bomb makes Yraik scare jump while he’s dining with Oleg.
But The Distant Barking of Dogs still poses a problem particular to the observational documentary. The film tries to show the spontaneous reactions of the characters towards something invisible that occurs in the distance, but also tries to hide the presence of the filmmakers, which could be closer and have also an effect on them. People don’t behave the same way when they know they are observed by a camera. Thus, some things seem implausible, like the scene with Oleg in his mother’s grave, or in other scenes, like the one in the river. These types of documentaries have an aspect which is similar to fiction, and the “real” unveiling of characters is no different to a performance.
Likewise, the technique of the “fly in the wall” poses the ethical problem of not intervening in dangerous situations that happen not by unpredictable risks, but by responsibility of the crew, as when the main character is grazed by a bullet from Kostya’s gun. Was it really necessary to allow this wound to happen? Couldn’t the adults there act to stop the children playing with a loaded gun?
Jane is a film about Jane Goodall, Pioneer in chimpanzee study in their natural environment. The documentary, directed by Brett Morgan, is based in over one hundred hours of 16mm color film and sound recordings made in the sixties by collaborator and husband of Goodall, nature photographer Hugo van Lawick. The material was untouched for fifty years in the National Geographic archives.
The film is an exaltation of the life and work of the character, to the point of being a didactic hagiography. The film is told (frankly) from a colonialist point of view, where “Africa” is a continent without history or national differences, where science is in charge of Europeans. Despite that, Jane stands out as a result of love for the unique qualities of the registry in film, expressed in a careful restoration, and also, as being a product of love from a filmmaker to his partner. The most striking thing about the film is this independent woman of athletic beauty, who approaches the jungle alone, climbing mountains, trees, crossing creeks –the title comes from Tarzan’s couple- and who evidently enjoys being filmed. The biggest part of the film is a clear reflection of the type of relationship established by Goodall and Van Lawick, when he became his couple and made a project about her, a project that stopped when the funding of National Geographic run out. As he got another job, the photographer wanted his wife to follow him, and that just couldn’t be the case.
If maybe the couple’s relationship achieved a utopian level for moments, the relation of the film with its character is uncomfortably paradoxical. Goodall has the singularity of being a scientist without a university degree, chosen for the work with chimpanzees and willing to travel, since anthropologist Louis Leakey suspected of the capacity of observation of the minds he considered deformed by academia. The opposite happens in the film, which merges the tale of this exceptional life in a model of pre-established documentary molded by the financing institution, with some unbearable commonplaces like an excess of Philip Glass’ score.
That these two films are competing for an Audience Award is the verification of a sad fact: if one is talking about documentary, the majority of spectators understands the genre as it is modeled in these two films. But the real adventure of documentary starts where the filmmakers are aware of the problems that these conventions poses, and try to find a solution for them. In other words, without denying the merits of both films –and particularly the second one, the films merely achieve to get to the starting line of what should be real cinema.
The Distant Barking of Dogs
Director, script, cinematographer: Simon Lereng Wilmont
Producer: Monica Hellstrom
Editing: Michael Aaglund
Sound: Pietu Korhonen, Heikki Kossi, Peter Albrechtsen
Music: Erik Enockson, Uno Helmersson, Erik Enocksson
Directed by: Brett Morgen
Producers: Bryan Burk, James Smith
Cinematography: Hugo van Lawick, Ellen Kuras
Editing: Joe Beshenkovsky, Brett Morgen, Will Zndaric
Sound: Warren Shaw, Joshua Paul Johnson
Music: Philip Glass