How did you start writing your book about documentary film? How did you select the films?
GG: I started writing this book a long time ago. Since that time I’ve written other books. I wanted, at the time, to concentrate on the fact that documentary film was not recognized as an art; that works of art were categorized by how they integrated the imprint of the author’s personality. I saw many documentaries, but I didn’t go about it in a systematic way. I used random screenings and television programs. Throughout this hunt for documentaries I kept careful notes. And from these notes, I started to structure my book.
In your book you hardly deal at all with documentary film from countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, as well as countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
GG: You’re absolutely right. References to those cinematographies are either completely missing or very sporadic. There are two reasons for this. On the one hand, I wasn’t able to get some films, as was the case with Czech cinematography. I knew that Chytilova, Passer and others had shot documentaries, but these films weren’t available in France. On the other hand, in Latin American countries and many Arabic lands, documentary does not have a continuous tradition. Often we see it only in limited time periods. And when I was writing the book, for example, the current and very interesting stream of Iranian documentaries whose leading figure is Abbas Kiarostami didn’t exist yet. I would structure it completely differently today. Otherwise I am now concentrating on French work. Some months ago I published the book A Century of French Documentary Film.
How do you understand contemporary documentary film? Do you fundamentally differentiate documentary and fiction film?
GG: Today documentary has developed to the point that countless variations exist. At first documentaries were short films. Today they usually last several hours, and short film production is dominated by fiction films. Documentary can be descriptive, it can simply record reality, but it can also take the form of an essay. Like, for instance, Michael Moore’s much-talked-about Fahrenheit 911. And moreover, for me, terminology isn’t that important. This difference is easy to see in Nicholas Philibert’s film To Be and to Have (2002). He was accused of staging events for the camera, but the film is nonetheless documentary, because after the film crew leaves the village continues to exist. Individual characters exist and appear in the film in their real social roles. For instance, if you were to film a baker at work, of course he wouldn’t act totally naturally, but he would also never stylize his performance into what would be, for him, a foreign role. If you were to cast Alain Delon in the role of the baker, it would be something different. He could play that role well and believably, but it would only be a starting point for the dramatic construction of a story.
Translated by Alice Lovejoy