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Observation and Identity

(Sight and Sound, Autumn 1972)

‘But Cézanne’s apples are a real attempt to let the apple exist in its own separate identity, without transfusing it with personal emotion. Cézanne’s great effort was, as it were, to shove the apple away from him, and let it live of itself.’—D. H. Lawrence (‘Introduction to His Paintings‘ in Selected Essays, Penguin Books)

‘But its true merit [that of Bicycle Thieves] lies elsewhere; in not betraying the essence of things, in allowing them first of all to exist for their own sakes, freely; it is in loving them in their singular individuality.’—André Bazin (What is Cinema?, Vol.II)


The resemblances of thought and language are striking. In an introduction to his translation of Bazin’s work Hugh Gray notes that the critic’s enthusiasm for individuality echoes Duns Scotus, and perhaps it does. Certainly it’s of a piece with Bazin’s generally Franciscan outlook. Lawrence’s predilections are less easily associated with the medieval mind, but even if they could be it’s unlikely that this would explain very much. The fact is that when two such different men speak with one voice on the relation of art to life it’s because they loved life as much as art; and both knew, instinctively, that beyond all questions of aesthetics or epistemology life only resides in the identity of particular living things.

For Bazin, commitment to identity implied also a commitment to time. When he praises the slow-paced scene of the servant girl awakening and washing herself and making coffee in Umberto D, it’s the novelty of duration which fires his mind. ‘The camera confines itself to watching her doing her little chores’ he says, noting that in this way De Sica defied the ‘art of ellipses’ which dictated film structure elsewhere. The attempt to find a philosophic rationale for this preference in Henri Bergson is more ingenious than convincing: what phrases like ‘a cinema of duration’ boil down to is little more than strict adherence to the old unities of time and space, and where these ancient considerations genuinely belong is not in fiction, not even the fiction of neo-realism, but in the observational documentaries of the present day.

In John Marshall’s Three Domestics three police officers visit a woman who says she fears for her life. There has been a lot of drinking: in a small and squalid room a man lies on a couch ignoring police, camera, even the woman herself. The scene would be hard for most cameramen to handle, an irregular three-sided pattern of enquiry and complaint—‘he had his foot here, on my throat’—and to see the way Marshall’s viewfinder effortlessly squares this triangle, inside the cramped cube of the room, is to see the skill and prescience of a man who leads all others in his mastery of the structural integrity of events.

David MacDougall’s film To Live With Herds shows the tribal life of the Jie in Uganda. Here also the camera does indeed ‘watch’, and the scenes have a length which the advocate of durational cinema would surely have admired. Within a fenced enclosure a family is talking, and as their words criss-cross the dusty yard, defining relationships and personalities, the pictorial structure of each image—the surface structure—is reinforced by the deep invisible structure of thought and belief on which tribal society ultimately rests.

Chester Grimes, by David Hancock and Herb Di Gioia, shows the life of an elderly woodsman in Vermont. He knows personally every fold in the hills and every abandoned habitation, and he talks continuously—the talk of a man thinking out loud. Duration of a kind is found here too: the film is built on a series of complete and rounded episodes in which single camera takes often encapsulate whole events. The art of ellipsis is nowhere evident; what one perceives is a series of unities in time and space, and if a comparison with painting were made it would be less with the apples of Cézanne than with the Six Persimmons of Mu Ch’i, a row of intact organic forms embodied within the form of art.

Yet art is a word from which observational film-makers nervously fight shy. ‘The beautiful shot takes away from the subject … it’s the worst trap one can fall into.’ Thus Jean Rouch, a pioneer of modem techniques. Rouch’s work is sometimes pretty rough at the edges, and he could be accused of special pleading. David MacDougall’s is very smooth, yet his attitude is broadly similar: the ethnographic film-maker ‘does not set out to make “art” … art is a by-product rather than a goal.’ According to the American still photographer Garry Winogrand, ‘Photography deals with facts . . . I have nothing to say. I believe the event is better than any ideas I could have about it.’

The evidence suggests that Winogrand has plenty of ideas. So why does be speak like this? In denying an interpretative or anecdotal intention he’s expressing a general weariness both with the cult of personal expression and conventional story-telling. So much photography consists of nonentity snapping a shutter on entity and trying to raise its status by this act. The self-effacement involved in asserting that ‘the event is better’ is a way of drawing attention to the ‘self’ before the lens. At bottom a distaste for smothering the photographed object with the photographer’s interpretative ideas or with an arbitrary style derives from a sense that too often interpretation leads only to a loss of identity, the very thing photography above all else can preserve. For modem documentary photographers, the camera is an instrument for recording evidence of enduring idiosyncrasies of place and person. To get that evidence they have trained themselves to observe.

As a critical term ‘observation’ has distinct advantages compared with terms like realism or naturalism. The latter only describe the after-effects of certain narrative or dramatic techniques, but when we think of observation we’re bound to consider the prior and practical matter of how cameras record what they see. Were two scenes in an actuality film consecutive or not? How were they shot? Have they been edited? To writers this emphasis on technique may seem peculiar; but film differs from literature in that the criteria we use to judge it are continuously updated by technological change.

Realism as expressed in words on paper has changed little over the last 2,000 years: literature stands at a fixed and irreducible distance from reality, the distance of language from whatever it describes. By contrast, photography has a natural affinity for the concrete, and realism in the cinema has been steadily modified by technical developments which have all tended to enlarge the possibilities of observation, to bring the capabilities of cameras and sound-recorders ever closer to the human eye and ear. The result is not just that the ‘effect’ is more ‘naturalistic’. It is that fact can be distinguished from fiction, and true from false.

A zoom, for example, is more than an elastic telescope. It has logical implications as well. While filming in central Australia recently, it was necessary to make plain the relation of the Aboriginal ceremony I was recording to the modem transport which made it possible: in a single sweep I zoomed from a 35-seat Bedford bus to some men on a ceremonial dance ground a hundred yards away. In the past lens changes would have broken this observation in time—a critical disjunction. For an audience can never tell what happened, in camera or cutting-room, when one part of the scene ended and the next began. The inclusiveness of a scene shot with a zoom lens removes all doubt. Watching it on the screen an audience shares with the cameraman one continuous observation which coheres. In such a scene the relation of dements is not merely suggested or implied: it is proved.

To allow others to share observations one has made oneself. This is fundamental to science. And in important respects the aims and procedures of both science and observa­tional film-making are similar. Each admires the habit of truth. Each tries to keep an open mind. This does not imply the priority of observation to theories or goals. On the contrary: observation refines theories and helps to define goals. It is empirical. It helps to identify mistakes and put them right. It has a passion for the specific.


The Island shows the life of Japanese peasants on an island in the Inland Sea. Their lot is miserable. Toil is the order of each relentless day. But what’s chiefly of interest about Shindo’s film is a combination of three things: a difficult location, a low budget, and the absence of all spoken dialogue, so that the peasants seem preternaturally dour. It’s pure conjecture, but it could be that the near impossibility of dragging a ton of 35 nun. equipment about steep hillsides accounts for the lack of any direct location sound; and that the low budget discouraged post-synchronised dialogue.

Desert People also lacks native speech. Between passages of spare and subdued narration general silence prevails. A notable film of primitive life, this hour-long study of the Aboriginals of the Australian Western Desert is a testament to human dignity and endurance, and there’s no doubt that director Ian Dunlop wants to humanise a subject not noted for humanity in the past.

Pictorially he is largely successful; in many scenes the Aborigines ‘live of themselves’. But they do not speak for themselves, and some audiences find the net effect almost surrealistic. Amidst landscapes of lunar desolation a remote and unknown people move voicelessly about, and though there’s strong evidence to the contrary—scenes of children happily at play—the general impression the film leaves is that not only the desert but its inhabitants are bleak, emotionless, and austere.

Ramparts of Clay tells us a story about Algerian villagers. A number of stonecutters rise in protest against low wages, the army is called in, the rudiments of revolt are quickly quelled. Again, except for an indefinite mumble of Arabic ‘rhubarb, rhubarb’, nobody speaks. Reviews of Bertucelli’s film have gravely noted the ‘sombre existence of the desert dwellers’ and the ‘long burning silence of their lives’.

Speech maketh man, so why are these men mute? What evidence is there that Japanese peasants and Arabs and Aboriginals are so silent? Very little. What they have in common is a social order held together by oral tradition, one in which not only daily life but the whole memory of a people is carried along on an unending current of talk. The reason for the pervasive silence appears to be a combination of directorial method and 35 mm techniques. In Desert People a noisy unblimped 35 mm. camera was used which ruled out speech— the only kind of 35 mm. machine then available and manoeuvrable enough for the job. In Ramparts of Clay a blimped and silent camera may have been used, in which case the recording of speech might theoretically have been possible.

But it would in any case have been pointless to try and do so, because the resolutely authoritarian camera style would have stifled every word. Repeated tracking shots sweeping along passages and walls, through doors, shots which always end on people miraculously poised as if waiting for us to arrive, shots which smoothly circumambulate the heroes and heroines on steel tracks, these all mean only one thing: that the wretched ‘desert dwellers’ who appear in them have been virtually nailed down to keep them in place while the cameras roll and pan and pirouette, and long before the day is over even the most talkative Arab will hardly utter a word. Direction inhibits: observation frees.

So the message of all these speechless people is fairly simple. It’s that realism in ethnographic and quasi-ethnographic films —a genre in which there’s always a wide cultural gap between those before the cameras and those behind—is a direct reflection of specific machinery and techniques. This connection is something ethnographic film-makers have been aware of from the beginning. Thus in 1901 we find Sir Baldwin Spencer yearning for a panning mechanism so that he could follow Aboriginal dancers when they danced out the side of his frame. And we find Flaherty making early use of just such a device on his Akeley camera only a few years later.

These men made a remarkable start; but despite their work the observational film advanced little in the following years. This was partly because no radically new equipment was developed. But no one was interested in developing it, for in the 1920s and 1930s observation was held to be less important and certainly less worthy than imaginative interpretation. Not the identity of the subject but its hidden meaning as discerned and expressed by the film-maker: this was what mattered.

The results were more or less didactic or reportorial if British or American (Song of Ceylon, The River) propagandist if German or Russian (Triumph of the Will, The Sixth Part of the World). You don’t turn to such films to discover a unique personal or cultural self as you do with Nanook of the North. You turn to them to find how gifted journalists used film to express the issues and ideologies of the day. The development which marked a reviving concern with seeing rather than assertion did not derive from documentary: it came with the exploration of deep focus photography found in Citizen Kane.

This was a reaction against the photography of the day in which focus was more often soft than deep. Scene complexity or richness, anything which approached the richness of reality itself, this only hampered the telling of the tale. And if the conventions were romantic the formulas were reductionist. They reduced the complex to the simple, the complete to the incomplete, the whole to a series of fragmentary parts called dose-ups whose chief function was to flatteringly display the star. The Hollywood film itself was largely a vehicle for the star, and the essence of stardom was that the complexity of a whole being was reduced to something simple and idealised, an iconic image seen always at a certain angle to the camera and the lights. Whole sequences could be composed from fragments, close-ups of faces, hands and feet, with the result that acting technique became superfluous. ‘I don’t know how to act,’ complains Sergius in Mailer’s novel The Deer Park, only to be quickly reassured by Lulu the movie star:

‘There’s nothing to learn If you’re wooden he (the director) will make it seem like sincerity. If you’re self-conscious, he’ll know tricks to make you look like a small town boy. And if you ruin a scene. . . Well, you know, they always shoot protection. With the way they work you could walk through the part.

And many did. Such a way of working saved the day for the likes of Sergius, but it could sabotage the good actor and in special cases might even destroy his art. Louise Brooks has explained why she prefers the stage W. C. Fields she knew to the man the world knows from the screen: ‘On stage the audience saw all of him all the time. Whereas in the cinema they saw him piece by piece’ Fields was dismembered by medium shots, two-shots and dose-ups. ‘Every time the camera drew closer it cut off another piece and deprived him of some comic effect. Fields could only ‘curse the finished film, seeing his timing ruined by haphazard cuts’.

In the late 19505 and early 1960s the use of wide-angle lenses and the newly introduced zoom was combined with light-weight 16 mm. cameras: at this point the real revolution in observational filming began. Those who had in fact pioneered the development of the new machinery, Richard Leacock and the people at the Canadian Film Board, led the way, but it was where the gap was widest between observer and subject—in ethnographic film—that the new techniques were most needed. Jean Rouch saw his chance and made the most of his opportunities: in his work the gap is very nearly dosed. And it is in the tradition established by Rouch that the finest ethnographic work is still being done.

When discussing technique, the stress has so far been on cameras. But whatever pains are taken photographically to honour the integrity of events, all is lost unless editors observe the same rules as cameramen. To ensure this happens most ethnographic film-makers edit their work themselves, and in this respect the recent To Live With Herds offers an admirable harmony of photographic and editorial styles. It is built up of substantial intact events and coherent units of conversation. The conversations often take us into an inner world of memory and feeling: in few other films do tribal people speak so naturally and informally about themselves. In such work there can be no ‘haphazard cuts’. The cuts follow the continuity revealed by the camerawork, and there’s very little haphazard about that.

Wide and inclusive views, long scenes, editorial integrity: all of these give continuity to action and context to events. That is why they have become a feature not only of modern social documentary but of social drama as well. For the critic of social drama, the more that can be seen of each character’s behaviour within a group the more credible the dramatic relationship. For the observational film-maker, the more social data packed within the frame the more valid the generalisations to be derived.

The dramatist seeks to persuade in order to justify the suspension of disbelief. The observational film-maker seeks to prove in order to validate belief. Both have found the illusive tendencies of old-style fi1m structure unsatisfactory, and though the one is concerned with persuasion and the other with proof, they have arrived at similar rules for testing each.


Animals observe, but only men interpret—if by interpretation we mean the organisation of meaning into language. And if one sides with the rest of the animal kingdom and dares question the transformation of matter into symbolic meaning, it’s because there’s so much evidence of the interpreter’s ambiguous role. Susan Sontag had this in mind when she declared: ‘Interpretation is the revenge of intellect upon the world.’ And long before this ringing judgment we had been quietly warned, traduire est trahir.

This adage also suggests that the central problem is that of language and its conventions, highly relevant in that the common failing of the films discussed below is their impatience to forgo reality in an enthusiasm for verbal and literary forms. Besides, criticism has for so long lopsidedly favoured interpretation that some correction is due. In The Technique of Film Editing (1953) Karel Reisz spoke for a generation when he said: ‘The high esteem in which documentary films as a genre are generally held is due mainly to the films which have probed beneath the surface of mere observation and have tried to convey something of the emotional overtones and significance of natural themes, Dovzhenko, Flaherty, Ivens and Wright spring to mind immediately as examples of this more profound approach to reality. (My italics.)

We’ve seen that the style of Ramparts of Clay is intrinsically hostile to observation. But this style has its raison d’être; it’s the chosen instrument of a man anxious to express a more profound approach to reality of a special kind. A clue to the kind itself appears in the form of an introductory quotation from Fanon telling us that the main problem in underdeveloped countries is the parasitic, neo-colonial bourgeoisie.

After digesting this we’re introduced to Rima, the 17-year-old girl through whose eyes we are supposed to see Algerian life. But there’s a jarring disconnection, What has the quotation to do with Rima? What has this abstract analysis to do with the consciousness of a young girl? Fanon’s words baldly state what the film itself should attempt to prove. But proof requires evidence, evidence requires observation, and direct observation of even the most innocent act is excluded by the very way Ramparts of Clay has been made.

If we concede that the film never intended to present direct evidence, that all it hoped to offer was an interpretation, we are led to ask on what its interpretation rests. This brings us to Duvignaud’s script, derived from a book about his sociological work in a Tunisian (not Algerian) village, Change at Shebika. Both his work and the book are unusual. In a sympathetic review by Clifford Geertz in The New York Review of Books we are told that Duvignaud’s goal in setting out to study Shebika ‘was not social description as such’. Instead it was the ‘total Utopian reconstruction’ of village life. The author himself is described as ‘a Parisian intellectual struggling to reconcile ideas from Levi-Strauss, Sartre and Jacques Bergue . . . without more than a superficial knowledge of Islam, Arab culture, or North African history.’

So what we have is the following: a sociologist disdainful of observation; a novelistic book he produced (nodding modest acknowledgments to such other creative spirits as Flaubert, Joyce, Dickens and Balzac); the film script derived from that book; and a film director who transfers the whole enterprise to Algeria and drafts a peasant community to act it out. As we trace these origins back to their source, we find not the living story of the living scene, but the labyrinthine confusions of the Paris intelligentsia.

If Ramparts of Clay is vitiated by Duvignaud’s need to get a load of notions off his chest, Dead Birds shows that even the simple wish to tell a story can cause trouble. This explicitly ethnographic opus takes us into the mountains of West Irian, where a dozen tribes in unstable alliances are intermittently at war. The photography is exceptional, the scenes of primitive warfare unexcelled, and the film as a whole offers an astonishing view of a world already past.

But the director is not content simply to show us such things. He wants to tell the story of the tribesman Weiak as well. We’re told that Weiak is engaged in some of the battle scenes, and at other times we see shots of him walking along paths or dose-ups of him gazing into the distance. At such moments the narrator informs us that Weiak is on his way from A to B or is meditating his next move. And perhaps he is. It’s hard to tell. The shots could have been taken any time, anywhere. When a close-up is entirely bare of contextual evidence you can make it say anything at all. As the film progresses, it becomes dear that such scenes are merely continuity devices required by a story form into which the material does not naturally fit.

We might ignore this but for a curious declaration at the start of the film claiming that ‘no scene has been directed’. This seems odd because no one would for a moment imagine that the scenes of tribal warfare could have been directed. It must have been added to try to influence our response to other scenes whose validity is less self-evident, to try to make us believe that if the narrator says truthfully of a battle scene ‘a fight took place’ he is being equally truthful when he says ‘Weiak is thinking of his son.’

This ill-concealed strain between the exigencies of reality and the needs of the story-teller is a common enough documentary fault. One welcomes by contrast the openness with which an imaginative fictional treatment like Louisiana Story declares its hand. The script tells us that this is an account ‘of certain adventures of a Cajun (Acadian) boy who lives in the marshlands of Petit Anse Bayou in Louisiana. It is the high water time of the year. The country is half drowned. We move through a forest of bearded trees. There are wildfowl everywhere, in flight and swimming in the water. We are spellbound by all this wild life and the mystery of the wilderness that lies ahead.’

Thus, in Flaherty’s words, the artist’s vision. More to the point is the fact that while Flaherty as cameraman wrote and told us how that early classic of observational film-making, Nanook, was made, it is his editor Helen Van Dongen who tells about the making of Louisiana Story. The change is fitting. Imaginative documentaries are concerned with meaning, meaning is the province of words, and it was Miss Van Dongen’s task to arrange the images of the camera in patterns like the words of a sentence.

In brief, the artistic endeavour was here semantic, and whereas the test of observational cinema is the strength of its evidence, the test of any semantic enterprise is whether it makes sense. Sense for whom ? And about what ? We can of course dodge the question entirely by saying with a contemporary reviewer, ‘Flaherty has pitched away the last mechanics of prose, the result is pure poetry … This is elegy.’ In exactly the same way John Grierson tells us that by juxtaposing the face of Martha and a milk separator in The General Line Eisenstein ‘uses the art of montage, and the assembling of images, to express untold joy; and his achievement is pure poetry.’ (It’s worth noting that ‘pure poetry’ is exclusively an achievement of the cinema. The phrase is rarely found outside the hyperbolical vocabulary of film criticism.)

It would be ridiculous to deny the pleasures of Louisiana Story or The General Line. What’s at issue is the profundity and vision which is to justify the pleasures. It is surely as hard to become excited by a work made in the Russia of the 1920s in which peasants are made to show ‘untold joy’ as it is to enthuse about the operations of Standard Oil in Louisiana. And the main point is this: the cultural meaning of the scenes in a film like Nanook can never date. Their strength is that of the irreducible identity of Nanook the man himself.

The scenes in the highly interpretative Louisiana Story and The General Line have dated. What sort of sense do they make now? What sort of sense did they ever make? It is not merely the hindsight of ecological knowledge and political revelation which makes both these works seem to glamorise ways of life or political policies (the exploitation of resources, the ‘modernisation’ of a conservative peasantry) which had little relation to the felt interests of the people they portrayed.

As for the semantic issue, when we turn to films more closely resembling tracts the results are just as illuminating. In the American documentaries of the 1930s which adopted a free-wheeling editorial approach message and style were often fatally at odds. In The City it’s those fast-cut downtown traffic sequences which excite us—the suburban arcadia of lawns and trees is a bore.

In The River it’s the wild mountain torrents which carry us along—when we reach all those admirable TVA dams our interest settles heavily into the mud. In part this only illustrates the gratuitous kinetic appeal of ‘clever’ editing. But in terms of the contrasting values of observational and interpretative cinema the lesson of these films is this: when film-makers use images of reality as mere words, symbols emptied of specific associations, they easily end up either talking nonsense or saying the very opposite of what they mean.


The relation of a film-maker’s attitudes to specific procedures and techniques has been a theme developed here from the first. So has the notion of photography’s affinity for the concrete. Taken together they imply a responsibility to whatever is before the lens, not merely because of the tactical expedience of such an attitude—that only leads back to the ethics of exploitative use—but because the mutual claims of the identities on either side of the camera must be brought more nearly into balance if either is in the long run to survive.

By this criterion many of the richest images to have come down to us intact are precisely those displaying an equilibrium of trust and respect. One of them hangs on the wall of my office, a snapshot of an Aboriginal family made about fifty years ago. It seems to show some kind of ceremonial occasion in which a woman dressed all in white is flanked by two men. One of them is playing a violin and another rests his hands on the muzzles of two guns. Before the violinist a child holds sheet music on a stand against a buffeting wind. A face peers from a shack behind. No paintings of the period or consciously artistic photographic ‘studies’ are so rich in the idiosyncratic details of Aboriginal life. Such a document only exists because two things came happily together: a geographer with an innocent eye and a camera with its ability unblinkingly to render the concrete.

I wouldn’t go as far as John Fraser in his essay on Atget in the Cambridge Quarterly when he says: ‘If I had to choose between saving the works of Atget and those of Picasso from oblivion, I would without any hesitation choose Atget’s.’ But we see the point. The French photographer has given us a world lucidly seen and respected for what it is, and his perceptions are quite as culturally significant as any paintings transfused with an impressionist’s emotions or transfigured by a cubist’s designs.

Atget’s aim was to reveal the unique identities of his own time and place, Paris in the early years of the century, an aim and an activity which was the natural extension of his own pure self-respect. He must have understood what Cézanne was up to. He would have recognised why the geographer photographed the Aboriginal family. And he would have seen at once what Bazin meant by ‘the singular individuality of things’.

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