15th European Documentary Film Symposiums
Film d'Auteur.
European Documentary Film Symposium. 25 years
Lauri Kark Estonia
Cinema d’Auteur. Cul-de-sac of Practice

When our dear college Abrams Kleckins arrived to define precisely the topics of our presentations and the Latvian college Agris Redoviès said he would speak about the cul-de-sac of theories in different author films, there was nothing left for me but to say that I, in turn, would speak about the cul-de-sac of practice in author films. Despite that the topic of my short presentation in such a way is very much obliged to the organizers of our symposium, its title still corresponds to the content and ideas I was going to share with you. 

Let us begin with the history. It is considered that the term “authors film” was brought into the film studies literature by the activists of the French New Wave. The author of the author film is named to be Fransua Truffaut  (Fran?ois Truffaut) (“About one tendency in the French cinema”- Une certaine tendance du cinéma Fran?ais, 1954). Truffaut, still being a critic at that time, distinguished films of different character alongside of the traditional cinema and mentioned such directors as Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau, Abel Gance, Jacques Tati ??? Max Ophuls as the pepresentatives of these author films.

The idea about the author film does not appear from nowhere. Perhaps we can project it back on the conception caméra-stylo of Alexandre Astruc. The expression itself had been met before, however the author film as a concrete conception or goal to be achieved should be dated back to the late 1950’s, early 1960’s only. (It is then when the ideas of the author film penetrate into the anglophone literature). And so, the history teaches that in the historic perspective the idea of the author film is not notorious nor present all the time, it is not given us forever, and therefore is not protected from possible alterations in the future.

The author film often implies a film where one person bears many responsibilities, for instance, being both a screenwriter and a director, and in the documentary often also a cameraman. At the same time the author film is interpreted wider and richer in its content (and more indefinitely). From that point of view a director in the author film is not just any interpreter, so to say an assistant in the mise en scéne. However, not every director can straight off consider himself an author. The author film can manifest itself in the bosom of Hollywood as well (Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks or John Ford), but its essence is still something contradictory to Hollywood. The author film is an effort to get over the routine of the cinema production, to save one’s face in this conveyor making everyone level, to remain oneself. The aforementioned directors, who were quoted on the pages of Chaiers du cinéma, are the examples of how to preserve one’s face and style even in the iron grip of Hollywood.

Naturally, the author film prefers free-and-easy rules comparing to the Hollywood one, the author film is inconceivable without a right for an experiment. A short film and a documentary have a better approach to this than an expensive feature film. This is how a manifest of the new German cinema was proposed at the short film festival in Oberhausen in February of 1962. Within the program here we watched a film “Floret Academia” (1962, author Kurt Denzer). The film is dedicated to the anniversary of the university in Kiel. But the Kurt Denzer film is no way a traditional and solid academic point of view on this alma mater. For example, the audience watches all the ceremonial speeches without sound, which prevents the audience from taking them too seriously. Rather, it reminds an anarchic-rebellious film “Zero for behavior” by Jean Vigo.

On the other hand, an extremely author’s vision can arise a question about the boundaries of the documentary cinema itself. For instance, a Hungarian film “Ellegy” (1965, author Zolt?n Husz?rik) we have seen here. It is a poetical film about one horse, which shows the world as if how the horse sees it. Why is it usual to concider this film a documentary, but “Sinbad” (1971) by the same director is referred to as a feature film? Is it only because we’re dealing with the horse in one case and an actor in another one? Or let’s take a closer to us example “XXXXXX” (1984). The mentioned documentary film by Mark Soosaar can be characterized as a feature film as well.

Is there a harbouring danger for a documentary? Hardly is there. Firstly, there has never been a strict border between a documentary and a feature film. From the historical perspective we can even presume that a documentary, like Robert Flaherty creates it, film is a kind of sub-genre of a feature film (dramatic narration, borrowed from Flaherty’s feature film arsenal).

Secondly, a possibility to sense the opportunities of a frontier situation, to attract each other’s artistic methods, a so called mutual blood circulation- all that can give a new impetus for creative work. Despite that there is a certain skill of self-promotion in a Dutch Dogma, the same Dogma makes the documentary re-realize itself in the new situation.

Let’s now pay attention to the author’s film in the circumstances of the former Socialism of State. It is known that in the “Manilaid” Soosaar raised a problem about the differences between urban and rural culture, and in the end of the film touched upon the matter of migration. It would have been a way to much for the soviet censorship and the Soosaar’s film would have never been released, unless the original artistic solution of this film. In such a manner, the author’s film on our side of the iron curtain distinguished not only a unique form of creation, but also an active search of the way to outwit too narrow borders of what was allowed by the Soviet censorship, and still to remain honest to oneself in spite of all the obstructions. 

In order to outwit the system, one has to know the rules of the game perfectly well, there should be a developed and versatile cinematography. The strong point of the Estonian documentary is its versatility, the presence of various creative principles, as it has been formed in 1960’s-80’s. Andres Seyet and Mark Soosaar is not only the Corifies of our documentary, it is also important that their principles of creation are not similar, sometimes they are even diametrically opposed. In turn, such creative individuals as Julo Tamback and Peter Tooming found their place of belonging among them. Rhein Maran’s films about nature and Peiep Puks’s educational films could be a topic of another conversation.

Jury Muura films on the theme of agriculture are very outstanding from the point of view of the author’s film. Today we could characterize them as an investigative journalism. Jury Muura films as if were following the logic of a problem being investigated, but on the other hand they cannot be muddled up with any other analogous films, so obvious the presence of the author is. In general, a wide spectrum of significant possibilities characterized our documentary at that times (1960’s-80’s). On the one hand, imprinting the reality in the manner of a chronicle. And balancing on the edge of a feature film on the other hand.

Although we speak about the author’s film and try to scrutinize Estonian documentary exactly from that position, we cannot underestimate the influence of television. It’s not only the question of the new level of authenticity in depicting the reality. It’s about the author, about a personal opinion about what is happening. It’s obvious that I mean Valdo Panta. Both then and now one can only envy his ability to convey dry information and bare statistics into visual and palpable concrete form. So, speaking about the film “Estonia” (1968) and about how much an Estonian reader reads newspapers, Valdo Panta in the close-up shows a big, more than 1,5 m in diameter roll of paper, which is rolling down the street. Or a legendary TV program “Today 25 years ago” about the World War II events. It’s not only the matter of how skillful he was in dramatizing the historical facts and deliver them to the audience in an attractive form. (For example: “It’s 8:30 now. In 10 minutes Rihard Zorge will get arrested”, among other events, and then looking on the watch: “Comrade Zorge has just left the house, a black car is expecting him around the corner.”) What’s more important, Panta brought a human factor in this sphere of a strict ideology by attracting the participants in War and carrying on a simple and informal conversations with them. And not only in the sphere of these programs, but into the idealized sphere of the Soviet TV landscape in general.

That was much about past, let’s talk about present now. Obvious, that major changes in our cinematography, restructuring the system of cinema production itself in the past 10 years did not provide us with the opportunity to learn new rules, including European rules well enough to allow an author to make a good use out of them. Only the latest years give the grounds for talking about a particular stabilization in our cinematography and its effect on the quality of the cinema production.

However, the fortune of the modern author’s film is not at all joyous and experiences the collapses of the social system. This is not a coincidence that the author’s film is the focus of attention exactly in the 1960’s (despite that we can come across the term much earlier, for instance the German Autorenfilm in 1913). The 1960’s revealed a unprecedented not ever before nor after pleiad of Authors in the cinema: Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, Bergman, Resnais, Tarkovski and many more. The author film presupposes the presence of an Author! Just like that, there’s nothing complicated here. It would have been even strange if the 1960’s were not proposing the conception of the author film.

The following years radically diminish the faith in the author, in his all-mightiness. Roland Barthes announces the death of an author (1968). Michel Foucault contemplating about the topic “What an author is?” a year later is not eager to bring an author back to live. The recurrence of the “golden era” of the author’s film today is pretty unlikely.

In the documentary purely specific reasons are added to that. They used to show documentaries in cinemas before, whereas today mainly on TV. A context where a documentary author can manifest his authorship is different today. In the former case cinema art was the context, in the latter case it was a TV program. If earlier it was possible to talk about a documentary as an example of a feature film, than today it’s only a way to fill a TV program. It is easy to guess which way holds more creative freedoms. (Although, it’s not that easy here either and an Esto TV activity, their pseudo-documentaries and socially acute and provocative films is an example).

One opportunity to see the metamorphoses of the author’s film is the films by Mark Soosaar, for example a film “Father, son and the saint Torum” (1997), which gained a lot of success on many festivals comparing with his earlier films, like “Mundane passions” (1977). The particular restraint of the author’s self-expression in Soosaar’s later creation- how much does it have to do with personal changes, and how much with changes in the author’s film?

There is one more peculiarity we should bear in mind when speaking about the tendencies in the modern documentary. This is that thanks to the development of the technology practically anyone can shoot a film. Anyone of us can be an author of the film text today. On the one hand it can lead to the leveling of an author, and on the other hand it can make express one’s unique originality and authorship much more crucially and in such a way lead us to the rise of the author’s film. At least in theory this perspective is plausible.  

It is worth speaking about the author’s film today? For example, the Urmas E. Liyva films. Modern, having their own style. They could be projected on our conversation, on the modern way of development of the author’s film. But within this symposium I don’t feel any special need to characterize them in the categories of the author’s film. On the one hand, it really seems there’s no need to talk about the author’s film. Modern cinematography breathes something else, exists in some different categories. 

And on the other hand? In due time I kind of didn’t understand why to talk about the author’s film: every normal film is the author’s film, and the rest is just a some kind of the Soviet semi-official organ. Today it’s different: there’s no eminence of the author’s film of the 60’s, but there is Hollywood. It is Hollywood which does not allow us to forget the author’s film today, it even makes us strive for the author’s film once again. 


Lauri Kark


P.S. I didn’t manage to write down names in Russian, hope I can send ‘em later.

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