"Father, Son and Holy War" amongst 50 all-time favourites in world cinema

Preface to DOX 50

January 2004

"Films are like love stories: there are those you'll never forget, the ones that carried you away, swept you off your feet, shook you up." That is how Suzette Glenadel introduces her piece for DOX 50 and expresses the quintessence of this jubilee edition: 50 (+1) love stories. DOX 50 contains essays on 51 of the kind of films that have made an indelible impression on the 51 authors of this publication, and which for some even became a determining factor in how they spent their lives. (We approached more than 50 persons as we knew some would decline, which is why we ended up with 51 instead of 50).

The authors are filmmakers, critics, festival directors, commissioning editors and film connoisseurs, all of whom are spending their lives making, watching and working for the advancement of the documentary. They were all asked to write about their favourite documentary of all time. In a few cases we have asked them to make a second choice, as we wanted 50 different films - and 50 different filmmakers - to be saluted. It was quite exciting to see what films this would end up with - the result was a selection that includes a wide range of documentary films both historically speaking - from Wopaiz das amazonas (1922) to History of a Secret (2003) - and geographically, as the films originate from almost every continent.

The selection also reflects one of the prime virtues of the genre: its abundance. The short poems (Glass;Seasons), and the long cinema verite films (High School II; Love Meetings), the very political films (Land without Bread; Father, Son and Holy War), the personal life stories (History of a Secret) and those borderline films that usually are classified as fiction (Calendar; Still Life).

The latter are titles that one could arguably assert don't belong in a magazine celebrating the documentary, but since the whole discussion of defining a documentary in relation to fiction has been an issue from the very beginning, we thought it would be natural to include them. And it only stresses one of the most interesting aspects of the documentary: it has so many different expressions that it transcends borders with other genres. It's very much a genre undergoing continuous development that creates debate - not only about its subjects but also about its form.

Richard Leacock remarks in his essay about Robert Flaherty's Moana that this was an issue from the very beginning: "No-one anywhere in 1925 could make films without intervention, and it is important to realize that the man who talked of non-intervention and not writing scripts was not Flaherty, but the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, and he only talked about it and was no more able to do it than anyone else." (Richard Leacock about Moana by Robert Flaherty)

In the early days, this whole issue was also influenced, of course, by the limited technological possibilities. Today when the possibilities seem limitless, it is a matter of a filmmaker's stylistic choice, and there is a tendency to want to use this liberty to move more freely across genres. Sergio Borelli describes it as follows:
"Both doc and fiction are stories. Doc might be fake as much as fiction might be true. A story cannot be anything but a story, and its relation to truth is in its meaning, not its form, in its message, not its style. Let's emancipate our creativity from the moral shackles of pseudo-realism! Even the seal in Nanook of the North was a fake!" (Sergio Borelli about Black Harvest by Bob Connolly)

This is one issue that preoccupies several authors, while others are more concerned with the potential and political impact of the documentary. Throughout history, documentaries have been considered quite powerful. Several of the filmmakers whose works are written about in this publication have been deported or forced to flee from their country or their films have been banned or held back by various regimes or governments. Measures that were taken out of fear for the effect of this powerful medium, which could tell the people about events and conditions the authorities were trying to conceal. Luis Bunuel's Land without Bread was banned, as were Marcel Lozinski's films in the 1970s. Joris Ivens couldn't enter the Netherlands for years as his Dutch passport had been confiscated, Patricio Guzman was arrested by the Pinochet regime and eventually had to flee the country. All because they had been making films the authorities were afraid of. And as DOX 50 can also bear witness to, filmmakers of today continue that tradition by using their skills to document the injustice and wrongdoings of the world:

" Anand Patwardhan keeps watching the madness unfolding before him. He always wants to be a witness to the tragedy and the cynical comedy of our times. I believe that it's one of the best ways for the documentary filmmaker to take action in the world". (Sato Makoto about Father, Son and Holy War by Anand Patwardhan)

Not only witnessing but also the way of portraying what happens is a major concern of the documentary: the ability to show the complexity of the world, instead of the single-minded picture often provided by the news media, which focus on sharp angles and easy answers to everything. Jose Manuel Costa observes:

" Today, this is precisely what political documentary can be: before standardized strategies to shape our attention and reception modes, the radical concreteness and the radical abstractness of Wiseman films - their refusal to provide us with o meaning - are major subversive responses." (Jose Manuel Costa about High School II by Frederick Wiseman)

DOX 50 is a celebration of every filmmaker who has put everything on the line - some have even risked and are still risking their lives, others 'just' their money - to bring us new perspectives on the world we all live in; to provide us with intense sensory experiences, to get us to laugh and to cry - to create great films. We are very grateful to them for continuing to create that special magic which documentaries are capable of, a magic best described by some of the authors:

" Courage, rage, humility and tenderness. They're all here. Real poetry, poetry that makes people listen, surrounding our daily lives, barging into interpersonal encounters, just waiting for us to stand still and look. Profound, all-encompassing humanism. Which says that there is no such thing as 'Them' and 'Us'. They are Us." (Margreth Olin about A Decent Life by Stefan Jarl)

" What I see is not just a group of ordinary Armenian shepherds who save their sheep from death, but infinitely deep and, at the same time, universal images of Man and Creation. Simple, beautiful and inexplicable as life itself." (Sergey Dvortsevoy about Seasons by Artavadz Pelechian)

" They challenge our attention span, rewarding our patience with gentle epiphanies, making us feel like we discovered something all on our own. They pleasure us with a fine aesthetic sense one moment, then confront us with a veritable crudeness the next. All the while they present a story - about being." (Peter Mettler about The Long Holiday and Amsterdam Global Village by Johan van der Keuken)

The above quotes are appetizers for what this issue has to offer, clever observations of and reflections on the documentary - and then, of course, there are also the films. The texts will take you on a first date or be a reunion with 51 documentary film classics. We are grateful to the authors who took up the challenge and contributed their expertise and personal experience. Thank you, all of you.

Ulla Jacobsen, Editor, D0X

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