Dancing into Documentary


On May 22nd I gave a class for students of Communication from Michigan State University. Every year the university organises a trip to the UK for students to learn about the media here. For the last four years I’ve given the group an hour about documentary in Wales but since by now I’ve formed the impression that for most of them documentary is not an area that is high on their agenda I also offer a sort of basic consideration of what documentary is and what it can do.

As the group left yesterday one of them said, with a brilliant smile, ‘Thank you for teaching us to DANCE!’ So what has dancing got to do with documentary?

It’s not where the hour started. We began with poetry, with Seamus Heaney’s marvellous poem, ‘Personal Helicon’. It’s a poem about inspiration and about why one writes poetry. It’s a poem about the poet’s childhood love of wells, their mystery, profundity, depth; about how some, echoing,  gave back your own call / With a clean new music in it  and how he realises that,

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,

To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring

Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

I read the poem to the group twice. It’s only words and a voice but it creates pictures inside each listener. I asked the students to spend a couple of minutes contemplating what they were seeing – the well, the darkness; and how they themselves ‘rhyme’ – their own artistic endeavour; and the nature of the darkness into which each one  hopes to ‘speak’ as a would-be professional communicator.

This was a very brief exercise and one that they were not asked to share (it’s a meditative exercise and private) but a way of foregrounding the ‘I’.  I am the primary material from which art is born. Yes, there is technique and tools and ‘stuff’ but I is where it starts from and I must respect myself, my creativity.

Then they learned, in super-quick time, an Irish dance. Formed up in two long rows facing each other, each one had someone else opposite him or her and someone on either hand. They got the hand of advancing and retreating, of ‘stripping the willow’, reforming as couples under an arch of hands and galloping the length of the line and back before repeating the pattern till they reached the starting point again.

Each ‘I’ has a ‘You’, or many ‘You’s’ and, interacting in the vitality of the dance, I forget myself, I partner You, and many of You, and something new is formed – Us.




Documentary is one of the ways of artistic endeavour (such as rhyme) in which a person can start from his or her personal perspective or existence and, by engaging with You, with others, create something greater than isolated individuals, the viewing community, the Us.

I call into the darkness of the well, ‘to set the darkness echoing’. I get back my own voice but ‘with a clean, new music in it’.  I learn something about myself.

However, the act of calling out, of self-expression, is a risk because the well can be, as Heaney puts it, ‘scaresome’ (‘a rat slapped across my reflection’). But if that fear is overcome then that utterance sets ‘the darkness echoing’.

That giving of voices to the darkness is part of the work of a documentary-maker. Sometimes it is the voice of the documentary-maker him- or herself. Very often the work is to give others a voice, to assist them in expressing themselves.

The documentary-maker has an effect on the ‘Us’. The dance we did has entered our joint experience. It can’t be un-danced. So the documentary-maker has a responsibility, hand-in-hand with the privilege of having an effect (but more on that in another post).

Catching our breath, we watched a 3-minute film made by one of last year’s students of Documentary on Cardiff University’s M.A. in International Journalism. (I was a professional tutor on this option.) Ahmee Al Hendi’s film was shot on the streets of Cardiff and exemplifies how ‘I’, the invisible documentary-maker, encounters many ‘You’s’ – Fifteen Strangers – and creates ‘Us’. Watch it and see.

Next post: the rest of the hour, including the ‘munus’ in communication


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