Documentary practice – a secret room of golden light

2 doc posters

In the hour-long class I gave to Michigan State University students we had to use a large teaching room in order to have space to dance. On the back wall are four posters which I designed last year for the teaching I did on the Documentary  Pathway which is an option on the  M.A. in International Journalism at Cardiff University.  I stopped teaching on this course last year but the posters are still there so I took advantage of them briefly. The posters were an experiment in displaying some basic principles of practice. I’d like to focus on one of them here. It’s from an interview given by the late great American documentarian, Albert Maysles (Salesman, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens et al).

He addresses something which documentary-makers do not, in my experience, speak about often or readily. Maybe this is merely symptomatic of the fact that I’m of a generation that learned on the job and that revered good practice but talked little about theory. (Perhaps I’ll get a chance to explore that in the upcoming Wales Documentary Day, of which more in another post.)

Maysles talks about the gaze. This term is much theorised about, and rightly, because the gaze is an essential part of human interaction. A gaze has a quality of engagement and attention and Maysles discusses a particular aspect of gaze which he believes documentary-makers can use if they want to arrive at their announced aim – the Truth. He is an old man at this point and he speaks with a lifetime’s experience behind him.

In his short contribution are riches.

Firstly he acknowledges the role of Reality which he describes as ‘providence’. All our subject-matter is there in Reality, in life. And he gives some advice useful especially to the novice. If you want someone to give you the truth only one thing is important. What is that thing?

Well, he describes how he set out to regard film-making and his ‘creed’. He wanted film-making to be,

… a process of discovery rather than invention. We wanted to … make a non-fiction feature film.

… providence… Reality is providence. It provides the subjects… the events…. The controlling factor is your adherence to reality. That’s your boss. And if you’re worried about objectivity, subjectivity, you’re afraid to film.

So what is it that gives you the confidence that you’re gonna be fair and that you’re gonna end up with something that is truthful, that will demand the respect of the person you’ve been filming? It’s the empathy. It’s the love. It’s the respect that you’ve given that person.

This would be run-of-the-mill if it weren’t for the implications of what he goes on to say. He addresses antipathy, though not using that word.

By liking the person that you’re filming even though that person may have ideas and do things totally at odds with your own philosophy and feelings, by giving that person empathy, the way a therapist has to be fair to a patient, you allow that person to be themselves – no better, no different, no worse. That’s my creed.

So, you recognise the degree of antipathy between you and the interviewee. I think that when he uses the word ‘liking’ he is referring to the effort of establishing some point of connection rather than liking in the sense of preferential regard. One may continue to dislike this person with whom one is engaging. I think this because of the distinction that he goes on to make between liking and something else.

They say that “Love is blind”. .. Love isn’t blind. True Love is great respect. And if you have great respect for the people you’re filming you can get access to just about anybody.

Love is not blind. How often this bears repeating for young journalists! They can tend to accept too readily what interviewees offer because of the thrill of discovering that their chosen path is licensing them to engage with people, requiring them to question, and that people reply, fairly readily. It’s intoxicating. But Love is not blind. Love sees. It sees the prevarication and the duplicity as well as the charm. True Love sees everything.

True Love is great respect.

You don’t need to like your interviewee but you ought to love him. There is so much wisdom here and a confident setting of the highest standards.

And you can do it – I think – with the flick of an eye. You look at somebody and they trust you or they don’t. If you give them what I call The Gaze.

Maysles was an old pro. He’d realised, from his own practice what ‘worked’ and ‘didn’t work’.  But this is no cheap trick. An interviewee can tell when they are being used, so it is a true ascetic practice that Maysles is recommending. It will cost the film-maker something, something of himself.

Maysles then demonstrates what he means by The Gaze. It is extraordinary to watch, because we usually don’t see this look presented in such a deliberate way. I’d describe it as a demonstration of the construction of a bounded space, one into which the interviewee would be drawn, one in which he would want to bring out from his interior world something he wants to share.

A poem by the late John Montague came to my mind.

There is a secret room

of golden light where

everything   ̶  love, violence,

hatred  ̶   is possible;

and, again love.

Uppermost in Montague’s mind was a particular kind of love but this image of a room is apt. In the ‘room’ created by the documentary-maker’s gaze the interviewee can say anything, because he feels himself loved. He is not judged. And, most importantly, he is seen.

To be seen. An experience everyone longs for. To be seen with empathy, with a sense that our pathos , our suffering, is acknowledged and respected. That we are understood. This seeing is what True Love does.

This love that is proffered creates a room in which, on offer, is something beyond polemic, beyond judgements of right or wrong. Maysles ‘s gaze is infinitely receptive. He has created a space inside himself by putting his own pre-occupations to one side. He is empty. He is empty of egotism. He waits for You to express Yourself.

But how, in practice, can one sideline the ego? Isn’t that a recipe for disaster? We didn’t have time with the Michigan class to get that far. Maybe in another post.

Albert Maysles interview on The Documentary GAZE in Cinéma Vérité – Defining The Moment (DVD) Section 9 What’s Making Up Your Mind? @ 01’13”19

John Montague: The Same Gesture, Collected Poems