15th European Documentary Film Symposiums
Film d'Auteur.
European Documentary Film Symposium. 25 years
Vil Janecek Czech Republic
Re-wring Signs of Reality
Beyond Authorship of Documentaries

1. On words we use in this context

Both terms “creative documentary” and “film d´auteur” were developed in the 60s and produced a lot of theoretical conclusions and also practical benefits for filmmakers, who could use them as a shelter or rather a shield against conventional pressure of cinematographic institutions and later televisions. All kinds of theories of authorship has its common root in the Romantic artistic theory, which distinguishes between originality, rooted in vegetative nature and materialized through a person of a genius (author) and imitations, that mechanically re-produce pre-existent forms and schemes into a final product.

As we see, the consequence of the idea of authorship is a judgment, necessarily dividing people making e.g. films into two groups – authors and conventional labours. We can feel by the light of nature, that this distinction really plays its role, but in many cases it can show up something more precise neither for the future, nor for the presence, but just for the past. Authorship or widely speaking artistic approach are traditionally connected with producing new forms, but when we say that, we can feel this criterion does not meet merits of documentary making, while formal side of a documentary is so often syncretic, as we saw in most cases of films screened here after all.

Furthermore, during the 70ies and 80ies, impulses coming from Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Vilém Flusser´s conceptions started to play their roles and revealed difficulties within seemingly self-standing nature of the author and his prerequisites – all the words, gestures, thoughts and identities are derived from bits and parts of others, however consciously or not. Orson Welles made his – we can call it documentary - F for Fake as a contribution to this idea and a large part of Godard´s works deal with the same problem too.

The lesson of reflection which has been done since the 60s reveals that if there is an author, it is no style, which is significant for him or her, as the style can be simulated on computer or easily seized for advertising or whatever. The style is not the core of authorship or creativity, it is a coat at best, which the author wears, but coats can be very different under different circumstances, which costs for documentary even more. Anyway, we need means for understanding question of style clearly, before we step to discussing the core of supposed documentary authorship.


2. How to describe a style and how to think/talk about it

During discussions and forewords around screenings, I mentioned some categories: observational film, reportage, an essay, a portrait, professional or amateur or student film, creative documentary. All of them give a certain image, but none of these gives us instruments to distinct deeper how the things are, which I can demonstrate for example in case of four even purely “observational films” which we saw here and which has too little in common in case we start to think deeper over them: Vitalij Manskij´s Broadway Black Sea, Russia;  Arunas Matelis´ Lift –Man Albertas; Alexander Gutman´s Frescos  and Frank Herz´s Dear Juliet. Each of them consists of observed situations, none of them has too many narrative structures (first and third has some, built in very different way), nonetheless we feel, that there are more evident differences, than things in common.

Fiction cinema has got its theory of genres and narration, which is a good starting point for possible understanding every concrete film in a broader context.  I would like to share with you very recent and transparent scheme developed by the French theorist Guy Gautier, that could be helpful for anyone thinking over  documentary cinema, as it provides elementary taxonomy for basic signs concerning each film and its author  – therefore the subject of  this symposium.


There are two big aspects related to the author of each film and several axes, that describe it:


AuThor and his subject

Axis 1: relation towards the space

A:   close (a person, that determine movement or the clearly limited place)

Aa: broad (more places, more people)


Axis 2: relation towards the time

B:   presence (shooting happens at the same time as the shot events)

Ba: past (vestiges, footprints, witnesses)


Axis 3: relation between the subject of the film and objects in the picture

C:   direct – grasped materiality develops and assures the theme

Ca: indirect - the theme lies outside of the picture (e.g.the film as a metaphor)



Axis 4: technical means

D:  more crucial for the film is shooting (condition “Flaherty”)

Da: more crucial for the film is montage (condition “Vertov”)


Axis 5: language accompaniment (issue of the speech, no sound in this case)

E:  the film works with a contact sound

Ea: the film works with a commentary


Axis 6: structure of the film

F:  continuity (shots and sequences are in harmony with continuity of the shooting)

Fa: affinity (shots and sequences are in harmony with the concept of film)


Just to understand for sure, let us put two different films from what we have seen here, like for example Barbeiros by Mervi Junkonnen and War by Jens Loftager to see, how we can better distinguish them. (I made it.)

Let me just add once more, that this scheme is just a starting point for considering structure of each film, not touching the deep secret of authorship...


3. Real effects of a documentary (beyond the authorship)

When I in the first part was slightly quoting Derrida, I have omitted one his important conclusions, which partly turns us back to the theory of authorship. However the creativity for most of us is in fact a certain repetition or is absorbed by things which are of repeating, permanent natur. This comes either through multiplicity of creative acts or – in strong cases - through concrete visible people, who bring a light into the whole this process. Even in a classical period of developing lists of (non)authors, there is a release of the ruling mood of that time in one text by Jaques Rivette, where he mysteriously says to the address of authorship: “a man endowed with the least aesthetic talent, if his personality SHINES OUT in the work, will be more successful than the cleverest technician. We discover that there are no rules. Intuition and sensibility triumph over all theories.” I found quite clear contribution to creative authorship in it for now and then: apart from deep witnessing and diagnosing diseases of our world, apart from brining authentic evidence, that there are places, aspects of life and circumstances, that are generally suppressed out of our patience, there is chance for a (documentary) film to become a collector of this SHINING OUT. The shining out is coming from other people, who do not consider themselves to be authors, nevertheless we can feel the evidence of the light, for instance in Tell, the hero of the film Balance by Sverre Galgum and Jan Frode, in fishermen in The Coast by Aivars Freimanis or in the opera singer – that terrible woman who is so good in her depth, on which the film Forty Steps by Semyon Aranowitch brings the evidence. This shining out can be felt on the level of grasped authentic moments like in the film Broadway and it can be also based on the intensity of knots of situations, connections  or paradoxes, like in the films Floret Academia by Kurt Denzer, Day of Moving by Ludmila Stanukinas or Nonstop  by Jan Gogola (that must be so terribly long to provide experience with its playful concept). Finally, this SHINING OUT is the reason, why documentaries considering, for example, Maya West, Marx Brothers or Marilyn Monroe gain the shape of stupid Hollywood movies, just to let their SHINING OUT circulate among people and so re-writing the world into the form containing more light, that the whole play is about.


Short biography (if you need it):

Vit Janecek, *1970, director, scriptwriter, critic and teacher. Graduated from Charles University in Prague, School of Philosophy (MA) and from FAMU, Documentary film department (BA). His creative interest consist in considering transversal aspects of reality - science, politics, society and thought, he contribute to various papers. For several years curated film programmes in Roxy and Archa Theatre in Prague and historical retrospectives on Karlovy Vary Film Festival, nowadays leads the FAMU Centre of Audiovisual Studies in Prague. His filmography include: Family in the Desert (1994), Within the Centre of Film /Within the Luxury of Home/ (co-dir. with Petr Marek, 1997), New Possibilities /To Continue/ (1997), Fungus (2000), Battle for Life (co-dir. with Mirek Janek and Roman Vavra). For his films he was awarded several mostly local prizes.

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