Doc U Drama at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid

I’ve just come back to my desk from a Master Class given at the Press & Media Department (Facultad de Ciencias de la Información) at the Complutense University of Madrid. The class was organized under the auspices of the American Documentary Showcase and the US Embassy in Madrid within the context of the Semana de Cine Experimental that is taking place now in Madrid. The speakers included filmmakers Sandra J. Ruch, former Executive Director of IDA, Kim Synder (Welcome to Shelbyville) and Doan Hoang (Oh Saigon). The material sent ahead of the class was exciting, thorough and lead me to believe that the class would be long and structured, and in the form of a workshop with those of us attending actually walking through some of the exercises. In the end, the presentation was in a looser, more stream of consciousness form, with each of the speakers giving her personal story of involvement in filmmaking as process and as a viewer, allowing for some engagement and questions from the audience.

I have to say that I went with high expectations. I thought “Finally! We will be discussing outreach and social media and alternative distribution and crowd funding on a Spanish campus with young filmmakers or media students and now word will get out about this whole new wonderful world.” To a certain extent, this was the case, as Sandra, Kim and Doan were enthusiastic and passionate speakers and were very open in their sharing, both about their own films and about their experience of others such as Capturing the Friedmans, The Cove, The Thin Blue Line, Project Nim or The Fog of War. Despite their efforts, it soon became evident that, not only were a lot of the terms they used in English, and their advice, somehow getting lost in translation (through the filter of simultaneous interpretation), there is still a large cultural divide between what documentary filmmaking means in the U.S. and what it means in Spain. In this country, and some bizarre and telling questions from the audience demonstrated the situation, documentaries are still understood of as journalistic broadcasts, that are scripted, staged and defined by a higher power (the television channel, the government) and focus on animals, nature or history. Undoubtedly, there were people in the audience who may be about to produce films on urgent social, cultural or environmental issues, or who want to film the story of an unusual character, a group or a town. Unfortunately, they didn’t reveal themselves, even when prompted several times but the speakers, who were of course curious to know how the subjects might be handled in a country other than their own. There is still shyness, reticence, discomfort, distrust and misunderstanding both about the medium and about how to express one’s ideas in public. One young woman, a Biology student, had dropped into the class because she thought she would be seeing films about animals. Another young man thought that applying ratings on films such as “PG-13” meant that there was censorship involved. An older man who is courageously taking on the business of filmmaking after having retired from his previous job, still expressed the idea of the film medium as something previously defined, corseted, controlled, very much in the traditional format of made for TV standards established by the governmentaly financed channels in Spain (he has written a 60-page script with all the questions and answers already written out!). This is through no fault of his own–this is what he has seen, and what apparently is still being taught as “documentary” in the film schools or universities. The question that repeatedly came up in the class was whether actors could be used to shoot scenes, to enact events. The speakers consistently defined this as more “docu-drama” format and not what they do or what has become the more open form of documentary filmmaking, which means following real characters as they live or discuss their real lives. Sure, at the end of the day, anything goes. And there is always a fine line either in the filming or the editing process between narrative and non-fiction, especially as filmmakers allow themselves more creative freedom, but my understanding, and I believe the speakers emphasized it as well, is that the documentarian finds a story, a dramatic event or moment, and follows it, allowing this moment to reveal itself with its changes and surprises. In the editing room, other changes will happen. Some of the footage will look very different than what the filmmaker had thought he or she was shooting, some will have to be moved around to express his or her point of view, to uphold his or her mission or message if there is one. However, I agree with two comments that Kim made. In one case, quoting a psychology student who was writing a thesis on documentary filmmakers and what makes them tick, she said: “The documentary filmmaker has a high tolerance for uncertainty.” In other words, they have to let go of control in many cases, so that the stories can truly tell themselves and the beauty of them can be revealed. And just to allow things to happen. She also stated, following her own experience and methodology, that “making a documentary is like a giant jigsaw puzzle.” You look at your characters, your story, your travels, your hours and hours of footage, and the idea (preconceived and also shifting as you go) that is in your head, and you try to make some sense of it all–this is the creative process. A far cry from the rigid and unnatural formats that clearly are understood as “documentary” in Spain. There is still a long way to go here. And I suppose what was indeed most interesting for me at the end of the day in this master class is having had this situation revealed to me, having understood and seen before me the extent of the drama in Spain and in Spanish university–that film, certainly documentary film, perhaps is not yet being taught as it could, allowing for subjectivity, creativity, surprise, even for firm and outspoken individual ideas. And no doubt this is the case in many other countries around the world, even to a greater extent, and in other artistic mediums. This speaks to the greater need of classes such as the one that was given today (perhaps which require more indepth explanations that take into account cultural confusion and differences), and the space for greater distribution of all the documentary films that are being produced elsewhere and are not coming into countries such as Spain where the society might have access to a completely different approach to film making and film viewing and even the discussion of this process and the subjects covered in the films.