Filmmaking and truth

A friend and I talked recently about his filmmaking and the way to create things of beauty. We discussed the interesting observation that things which don’t present strong opinions, and instead choose to mirror the world exactly without bias, can be more compelling than those pushing a strong point of view.

Another friend, the best photographer I’ve ever known, traveled the world practicing his craft. He created photos of incredible, paralyzing beauty, often framing perfectly a fiery sunset or unique flower bursting with color. But when he met with a National Geographic photographer to help perfect his shots, the photographer told him to widen his angle, capture scenes that weren’t perfectly prepared, and thus show the world as it really was. That, he said, would really tell a story.

The film Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion recently cemented this for me. The film itself was highly political–understandably, as Tibet is a hot political topic. The filmmakers however also included about an hour of extended footage, presented without commentary and with very simple editing.

Watching that footage made me more empathic with the people of Tibet, more supportive of their crusade for freedom, than the rest of the film had. The scenes allowed me to see the Tibetan people as real human beings, with a full range of emotions, not as the caricatured victims portrayed in the main film. It also made the occupying Chinese seem more out of place than ever.

This might be a vestige of our culture’s adjustments to the growing sophistication of technology and storytelling, but it might also just be a natural reaction to strong argumentation. Hard selling turns us off, while honest, unbiased presentation lets us observe for ourselves and come to conclusions of our own, which will always be more powerful.

I wonder if the way that film technology immediately picked up the baton from staged theater influenced the way it was used. It became an entertainment tool first, and only recently has its communication potential been used to show two parts of the world to each other exactly as they are.

My college advisor taught a seminar on the “Powers of Observation”. In it, we did a lot of sketching, often told to do so without looking at the paper. When we asked how we were supposed to draw without knowing what the drawing looked like, he said “The problem is that you’re drawing what you think it should look like, not what it really is. Don’t interpret–just copy what you see!

I wonder if there exist completely unbiased, unnarrated, lightly-edited documentary films. The closest I know of is Baraka, but even there Ron Fricke does some obvious editorializing–chickens-humans-chickens-humans…