Creatures of imagination

Barnes-&-Mertes-kontrastCARA MERTES & JOSLYN BARNES

CM: I love the question of the subversive quality of documentaries; it made me think about what I was attracted to in terms of nonfiction originally as a form, and it is precisely that. It is one of the things that I continue to both see and seek out with documentary filmmakers and continue to support. So when I wrote you a note about coming to talk with you and being loaded with Vertov, it was really true!

JB: (laughter)

CM: I thought; what are the subversive documentaries that have been around recently, and then I thought, wait, it’s not about recently and it’s not simply about single films. Documentary by its very nature has subversive potential – that has been so through the entire history of cinema. It has a long and strong tradition of providing an antidote to the commercialized narrative; as an art form it’s a place of experimentation and questioning, and certainly making documentary has always been a political act. And so the framework of subversion is something that I really appreciate.

JB: Can you elaborate on Vertov? The early days of documentaries?

CM: Well, Man with a Movie Camera is what came to mind immediately, and the cultural project in the Soviet Union in the 1920s is profound for its quick adaptation of cinema as a tool in re-imagining a modern society. That film is a brilliant intervention at every level – in terms of content, form and structure, and for its prescient commentary on contemporary reality at that time. And it was not well received in many circles. In some ways, its contribution to cinematic history came in retrospect, not at the time, which is often the case with subversive acts. The true value is only seen in retrospect. And if you think about nonfiction and you think about its relationship to journalism and to the political moment in which it is created, which we were talking about….

JB: How do you distinguish that?

CM: …The relationship of documentary to journalism is being redefined as we speak – the precise relationship is unknown right now I think.

JB: Hmm, especially right now in so-called liberal democracies. Edward Said noted some time ago that the ‘news is a euphemism for ideological images of the world that determine political reality for a vast majority of the world’s population’.

CM: It needs a new language, a new articulation of the relationship of narrative to the journalistic function as we know and experience it. Which is why it’s such a topic of concern. There are people living the life of being an independent filmmaker, functioning and providing a journalistic function in a society starved for narratives about lived reality from the perspective of those living through the most tumultuous repercussions, and they are suffering the consequences of the fact that we don’t have the language or a thorough understanding of what cinematic nonfiction’s relationship is to journalism.

But what we do know is that anytime there is truth-telling or truth-seeking on the part of storytellers, and those storytellers are working with visual language, they necessarily are engaged in the political acts. And those political acts are subversive in some way, even if they’re not labelled that way. Any act of culture that is effective or transcends its own time always asks a question about its era – about its time. And that can destabilize the status quo. And that’s…what subversion really is and that’s why culture as a strategy is so important. Culture, in this case cinema, is always asking the next question and trying to express it in some form that’s unexpected or surprising and that’s entertaining and enlightening – but it’s trying to ask that unexpected question. To reframe or transform the paradigm… A.O. Scott recently quoted Joseph Conrad in his review of All Is Lost. He said: ‘this film makes you remember that you can watch something and realize it asks you the truth you forgot to ask about.’ And that’s subversive.

JB: Hmm.

Seeing that reality itself
isn’t static, implies
that things can change

CM: When you’re confounded with the truth you forgot to ask about, that you know is inside, that resonates – but that you might not have been thinking about consciously, and suddenly everything shakes up a little and you’re in a different place of understanding – that’s a powerful moment. And I think documentary, because of its relationship to being perceived as more ‘real’, can have that effect more quickly, more like an earthquake. Fiction can also have that effect, but is very rarely targeted toward that. Documentary does that often and repeatedly.

JB: I think fiction, or rather the way we understand fiction is so much determined by Hollywood or Bollywood and large-scale corporate media – the central model has been a kind of supposed recreation of reality, whereas documentary is something different.

CM: Right.

JB: Do you think that because of the way film is literally made, it can open people up to seeing that while things happen all the time, the way they hold together is in fact an act of imagination, and generally what we agree upon as ‘reality’? Seeing that reality itself isn’t static, implies that things can change. Whereas the subliminal implication of the corporate news media – and I think honestly this is now deliberately cultivated, like fear – is that things will never change.

CM: Yes…

JB: We don’t always see our stories as stories, because we experience the world through them. And our reality is actually shaped by stories. But what that means is that the limits of our stories are the limits of our world. So whether something is fiction or nonfiction doesn’t matter so much, I don’t think – what’s important is that we keep expanding our idea of the world, pushing the boundaries of storytelling. Jeremy Scahill spoke with us recently about this notion of ‘objective journalism’, something he dismisses as absurd. There are facts, and facts can be checked but it doesn’t mean that you don’t bring a perspective to things. And to actually create a framework where there’s an idea but there’s supposedly no perspective, is very dangerous – especially in an age where images are so prevalent that they risk becoming tyrannical in their dominance. Perhaps creative documentary gives us a different freedom, because there is not that expectation.

CM: Yes… Well, it reminds me of the fundamental question around documentary: is it true or is it fiction?

JB: Right.

CM: I’ve never really bought into the idea that there is a clean separation between fiction and nonfiction.

JB: Agreed. In Sarajevo recently I was talking with Béla Tarr about nonfiction and rather idiotically asked him if he had a favourite documentary. He raised his glasses to his forehead and peered at me and said: ‘I’ve never seen a documentary.’


CM: Okay so there are structures and tropes and tools and understandings and rules, but in terms of the emotional and intellectual effect of that storytelling, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction or hybrid, it’s in the spaces where they come together that’s most interesting. And those spaces have always collided since the very beginning of cinema, right? So Flaherty is the perfect case. He’s called the documentarian, but everybody re-enacted their roles in his films. The form has been in flux since the start… What I’ve always been curious about is why it is that people seem to respond more fully to stories that are based in fact. Nonfiction is somehow more emotionally and intellectually satisfying on some level with certain audiences. What is that about? What is it about the relationship to what is ‘real’ that is more profoundly moving for audiences on some level? When people participate in a screening, they seem to walk out more satisfied as human beings after having engaged with something that they feel to be true on some level.

JB: Hmm. Do you think that has something to do with a more immediate identification? With a more direct empathy? I think we do have an authentic need to recognize ourselves in others, which is possibly an intuition of our inter-being.

CM: My interpretation is that it appeals to the whole person, so yes, identification emotionally and intellectually happens more quickly. There is an ‘it matters’ moment with documentary.

JB: Yeah…

CM: And you know, in the West as we have talked about a lot, the whole person is not addressed as the whole person very frequently, if at all. We are bifurcated or sliced up into other identities. But the head, hand, and heart that we all are…the doers, are rarely addressed in the commercial forms which dominate the media landscape.

JB: Yeah.

CM: Documentary cuts through that, it’s still not entirely commodified; it still seems to be an outlier, it’s still a space where you don’t often make money, and ‘profit’ is not the driving principle – so it’s still about story and impulse and the need to tell, to express and to listen. All of those qualities that make us human beings, that still can come through clearly, I think, in documentary; more so than in some other art forms that have been more fully commercialized… Another thing that is changing is that you can get documentaries now more easily, access is increasing and audiences are increasing. You can get documentaries in theatres in a limited way, but certainly on VOD, on Netflix; it’s available as an experience more now than it used to be. And there are many more people that are now saying – ‘I go to films but what I really love are the documentaries.’ And we often neglect to mention that this goes for people across the political spectrum. I was telling someone the other day, in the US, 2016: Obama’s America was one of the highest grossing documentaries during the last election cycle.

JB: Scary.

CM: Over $30 million at the box office. These are people who are quite conservative and they have a very defined ideology in terms of what government should do, and what Barack Obama as President represents, and they went to the theatres and they felt fulfilled intellectually and emotionally with this particular genre. They felt they were recognized, it reified their beliefs, so as a form, it was very effective. That to me is a very interesting phenomenon and speaks a lot about what we can do with this particular visual storytelling form.

JB: Well, that brings us back to the notion of ‘subversive’ and what it actually means. Especially now as ‘storytelling’ becomes literally a ‘currency’. We were asked in this conversation to talk about the subversive potential or nature of documentary, which begs the question ‘subversive of what’? How do you see that? What do you think?

CM: I was actually going to ask the same question of you. What do you see? What attracts you? I’ve been talking about what attracts me to the form, but what attracts you? You’ve worked in both fiction and nonfiction, you’re agnostic in terms of the boundaries, and you’re really interested in representations of truths, right? Broadly speaking in a visual form that’s exciting and innovating – and this cuts across the documentaries you’ve done and the fiction pieces that you’ve done. They come from a place that is always surprising in terms of the artist’s motivation. And that’s why you’re involved.

JB: Well, one element is perspective. When Danny Glover and I started our company, Louverture Films, the impetus was our feeling that certain perspectives, especially perspectives from the global South, from developing countries, were simultaneously horribly marginalized and never more critically needed. And that came from the experience of doing a film in Africa together, which was a fiction film that had relevance to the African debt crisis. We ended up doing two films together about the African debt crisis – Bàttu by Cheikh Oumar Sissoko and BAMAKO by Abderrahmane Sissako – because it was such an important issue and it was being utterly ignored in the mainstream media despite its massive impact on the day-to-day lives of millions and millions of people. There were good books and analyses and reports, and a lot of great intellectual powerhouses addressing this, but we didn’t see it in journalistic reportage or popular culture and we felt there should be an intervention. And, of course obviously we’re aware we are a very small company, and this is a drop in the ocean, but that made it all the more clear to us that filmmakers and producers based in the global South needed to have both a bridge to distribution, so that people would see their films, and to financing sources that were not wholly in the hands of other people – financing and distribution are intimately linked, and both are for the most part in the hands of people living outside of developing countries, especially when it comes to Africa.
Financing frankly in itself makes for a revealing study, especially when it comes to fiction, as budgets tend to be bigger. But also in documentary, and that may be more important in the long run as documentary informs and builds a more active citizenship. The historical legacy of colonization is reflected in a lot of co-production treaties and in the funds that exist to support fiction and nonfiction films. Even though I think the people that are behind those funds are extremely well intentioned, there is to some extent a determination of content, both direct and subliminal, as the people selecting these films are usually from the North. And so, inherently there’s a flaw that’s built into the system and I think this is at the heart of the problem. What stories get told and by whom, is critical to shaping our perception of reality.
So subversively speaking, this means introducing perspectives that have been marginalized, heroines and heroes who have not been recognized, addressing erasures in history, erasures from culture. Where are the stories about Toussaint Louverture, Amílcar Cabral, Simón Bolívar, Paul Robeson, where are these stories? Where are the stories of women? If they are anywhere at all, it is almost always in documentary.
My other impetus was really the cultivation of empathy. I think that empathy does inspire compassion and I think that is what gets people out of their seats. Which is another way of saying, how do we reduce suffering? I never felt like sympathy was enough. This is where documentaries I think are central – people can see their own lives reflected, recognize themselves in others, remember or discover their own worth. Historical misrepresentations, wrongs, or erasures can be redressed, and hopefully in the context of understanding that suffering both begins and ends with recognition of the Other as unequal.

What stories get told and by whom
is critical to shaping our perception of reality.

CM: So the subversive motivation, given the dominant trends…

JB: More conventionally, subversive of ‘Power’?

CM: Well that’s one big motivation. One question is whether documentary is powerful as a tool in that effort given how we live today. And listening to you talk, I think a deeper understanding of profound connectedness is absolutely right, but there’s a whole other strain of narrative influence which is the opposite of empathy, which appeals to the fear, the anger and the rage and the whole other side of the survival instinct. I mean you’ve heard me talk about a very basic kind of narrative impulse which either goes towards your understanding of whom you need to group with to survive, or whom you think you need to dominate to survive. And storytelling appeals to both of those instincts. The question is which one is going to prevail in any given circumstance? And we’ve certainly created systems, vast, vast media and commercial systems that prioritize one kind of storytelling. Yet, we still have the power to create storytelling which looks to compassion, which looks to understanding. We are all linked and I think that we have created a reality in our generation where that’s become very clear … which is the topic of one of the films that you’re working on.

JB: Every film I’m working on!

CM: Well, we’ve both talked about the reality of the survival of the planet… that it’s being affected by the actions of our species. And there is a lot of talk right now about the fact that if we don’t understand the connectedness of our actions, then we will not survive in the next two or three hundred years, the next generations, or if we do survive it will be a kind of delimited circumstance.

JB: You mean, an unimaginable existence.

CM: Well certainly, and that to me is one of the great, great urgencies of storytelling and nonfiction storytelling right now. To put your energies towards that is to understand that who we are is at a crucial moment in history. We’re at a turning point where our understanding of our relationship to the rest of the world and to how we’re going to live in the future needs to be made clearer to large numbers of people very, very quickly. And documentary cinema is subversive because it can question what we understand about the conditions of our relationships, our existence right now. Everywhere I go globally, there are people who relate to it and their first response is to be a part of that, not to be a part of the conforming sort of trends in their country or region, and that’s what inspires me to keep doing it. Because I think there’s the possibility of informing change.

JB: So maybe what we’re talking about then is subverting the idea… that all of these things are written in stone. Hence subverting both fear and indifference.

CM: Right.

JB: That poverty, climate change, war… are inevitable. Or subverting the idea that these are somehow part of our human nature, because to a large extent the story that we tell about ourselves actually comes to define who we are. Johan Grimonprez, the director of Shadow World who I’m working with, told me a great story about Stanley Kubrick when he made 2001: A Space Odyssey – and there’s not a filmmaker I can think of who was as cold as Kubrick… You remember he goes from that first ape-man that clubs the other ape-man to death, to tossing the bone in the air, to the post-apocalyptic space station… He had apparently read some study about early hominids whose remains were found in a mass grave in Australia with holes in their skulls, and for him this became a defining story about the innate aggression of human nature and so forth. Flash forward a few decades and there’s a whole re-evaluation of that find, the ‘mass grave’ was actually a den of a saber-toothed tigers. So these people very likely didn’t actually kill each other, but were rather hors d’oeuvres. So, if we can subvert certain ideas of who we are and open that up to a much more imaginative process, hopefully, those of us who are similarly inspired can find each other…

CM: Right.

JB: And also find themselves and redefine themselves.

CM: I completely agree with that. And I do think that we’re endowed with the gift of consciousness and with consciousness comes the possibility of transformation and these kinds of stories are the triggers for transformation when they’re placed in the right way at the right time – and that’s the real gift, I think, of documentary or nonfiction. People don’t want to change what they believe and yet there’s always the seed of doubt. So it’s the question of triggering that at the right time and right place to actually change the way that you are in the world and the way that you understand the world. You know, there are people who believe that that’s not possible, but there are large numbers of us who believe that it is – otherwise why would you tell stories? We are creatures as you said in the very beginning, of the imagination, and this is where the work that we do resides and is so important. _

Directed by Dziga Vertov,
Soviet Union, 1929. 68 mins.

Directed by Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan,
USA, 2012. 87 mins.

Directed by Cheick Oumar Sissoko,
Senegal, France, UK, 2000. 105 mins.

Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako,
Mali, USA, France, 2006. 115 mins.


Cara Mertes is an award-winning leader in the field of independent filmmaking. She served as the director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and Fund, where she led the effort to expand the field globally since 2006. Earlier Cara was executive producer of PBS ‘P.O.V’Documentary series, where she received multiple Emmy awards, George Foster Peabody awards and a Webby award. This year she became director of Ford Foundation’s JustFilms Initative.

Joslyn Barnes is a writer and Emmy nominated producer and co-founder of Louverture. She is the author of numerous screenplays for feature films including the upcoming Indian feature THE COSMIC FOREST and the award-winning film BÀTTU, directed by Cheikh Oumar Sissoko (Mali), which she associate produced. Prior to co-founding Louverture, Barnes served as a programme officer and expert consultant at the United Nations. She has lived and travelled widely in Africa and Asia, and has written numerous articles covering trade and social development issues, as well as contributing to books on the establishment of electronic communications in developing countries, food security in Africa, and strategic advocacy for the inclusion of gender perspectives on the international development agenda.

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