Documents are tricksters. They frame what they choose instead of what we want to see, begin too early or too late in an event, lapse into indecipherability or overmodulation, fail to contribute to our predetermined storyline, threaten to drag our films into undramatic territory, say too little or reveal too much, offer aid and comfort to our enemies. As filmmakers we proudly manipulate their form and harness them into compliance because they refuse to conform with our sense of what they should show and say. Documents threaten us with loss of control over our films. Documents frighten us.
Documents rarely show up in our films without editing, reformatting, sweetening, scoring. We contextualize them into narratives that are our own, that rarely arise organically (whatever that might mean) from the pieces we stitch into story. Documents are like children we won't let play by themselves for fear they'd be kidnapped or run away.
We rarely show documents directly to audiences without wrapping them in cinema. Most viewers have never seen a whole newsreel, an entire home movie from someone else's family, an uncut documentary interview or the incoherence of a television newsfilm story cut to roll in to a story as aired. We decide what portion of the document we elect to present as truth or as a moment in an argument.
How much better would our films be if we let the indeterminacy of the document inflect, no, bleed into, our final cut? How much more honest would it be to admit we cut out not only fat but meat before putting a meal on the table? How much more literate might audiences become if they witnessed the gambits and transitions that pour into our films on its journey from raw footage to final cut?
And what would viewers think of our painstakingly assembled, scripted and scored documentaries, our silver-voiced narrators and our meticulously composed music if they could also access and watch the unsweetened raw documents before they were stirred into movies?
A wise host lets their guests express themselves as they are. A wise maker steps back from their source materials so they too can speak.
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