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Apr 15, 2010

Interview: Don Boyd

by Patrick Hazard

Patrick Hazard (director of the LIDF) talks with Don Boyd.

PH: This retrospective of your work at the LIDF is the first to focus upon your work as a director of documentaries. Emphasising this is to beg the question of what you see as distinctive about documentary film?

DB: From a practical point of view, as distinct from the hullabaloo of making a feature film?

In contrast to the often unwieldy size of a movie crew, I love working with a tiny team of committed film-makers who want to use their skills to show something unique.

From an editorial point of view? In my case I have had complete freedom to create images as powerful as those that are constructed for fiction films. No scripts – often in my case a few paragraphs to describe my mission. No actors. I don’t think recreations or biopics can really claim the ‘holy ground’ as proper documentaries, however good they are as film entertainment.

An inevitably inadequate personal definition? The unique unmanipulated, subjective, but honest representation of our world as recorded by cameras and microphones which, when edited, give audiences the impression that they shared much the same experience as those who were there to ‘document’ it. As far as the people in my films are concerned I have always wanted to provide them the opportunity to present themselves as they would want to be presented, allow them their dignity, and yet provide that ever watchful extra perspective which gives them the context a member of the audience might pick up if they had been around at the time.

Subjective? Yes. All documentaries are inevitably subjective – especially when it comes to the choices. The cameras used. The lens. The shots. The movement. The order of presentation. The rhythm of the editing. How could anyone really argue that any of this represents objectivity in the final analysis. Even great anthropologists like Claude Levi Strauss recognized this. Some people might argue that we change people when we look at them through a lens.

Documentary film in the world of broadcasting has become such a loose corrupt phrase. Television journalism has hi-jacked what was once a great art form and uses the word documentary to describe what is also loosely called ‘factual’ or ‘reality’ television but is fact just bastardised cheap forms of manipulated invariably mendacious amateur entertainment masquerading as an honest representation of reality.

What is distinctive about documentary filmmakers as I would want to describe them? The great documentary film-makers use the art of film making to enlighten and stimulate their audiences with unique images and sounds captured and edited to reflect truthfully what they experienced and discovered in front of their cameras and tape recorders, without artificial distortion or cunning manipulation.

Their point of view is clear. They respect their audience as much as they value their almost obsessive desire to provide moral perspectives and so protect the dignity of their subjects with modesty, and without self glorification. (By the way, I hate this TV trend to use celebrities as the conduit to the truth under the guise that they are documentarists or filmmakers.)

Stylistically: This work can be as brutally realistic, as it might be abstract and poetic. Stylised visually with lenses or crude immediate representation, real images are the evidence of a film-making witness.

PH: Do you feel there is a different set of skills or sensibilities at play, as a director of documentaries then there would be as a director of narrative fiction?

DB: Yes, but a brilliant filmmaker will have no problem adjusting. Terence Davies is an example. His brilliant recent film about his childhood in Liverpool and that city’s metamorphosis, Of Time and The City, is an example of that adjustment.

Michael Apted’s work over 30 years on the 7 Up series is another – he makes feature films but also brings his special skills as a film director to the documentary environment and with a series of great filmmakers has fashioned an iconic body of insightful work which will provide a unique insight of the world we live in for centuries to come. Nick Fraser the great and enlightened commissioning editor – (I directed 8 documentary films for him both at Channel Four and at the BBC) – described documentary directors as the ‘mendicant priests of the modern world’. Constantly begging! Begging for subjects to immerse ourselves in.

Begging for the means and resources to explore them – often meagre in the extreme when doled out. Begging for the opportunity to reach audiences with our work. And I would say that we should be constantly ‘begging the question’. Especially in the context of the 21st Century media environment which is full of mendacious executives, the popes and cardinals of the commissioning and scheduling tyrannies of tv broadcasting.

PH: Everyone, it is said, has one novel in them – we all have one story to tell. This attitude has been reinforced somewhat by TV documentaries’ recent focus on confessional or diary-type documentaries. The problem is everyone seems to tell more or less the same story (perhaps due to susceptibility to influences – sparkling unoriginality, and/or a change in priorities of commissioning editors linked to market pressures). This emphasis has been helped also by new technology. Do you believe this so-called ‘democratizing’ process; this telling of everyone’s story, is what documentary should aspire to?

DB: I think the word ‘democratizing’ is somewhat misleading in this context.

The printing press took information and the spreading of filtered, highly contentious information out of the hands of the priest and into the hands of anyone who could wield a pen, and have access to a printing press – however crude. A similar revolution is happening with the use of audio visual technologies both in the arena of ‘capturing’ images and sound, and in the arena of making it available. This gives everyone the opportunity to create. If it gives more people the opportunity to make documentaries, I think that is wonderful. And if it help them tell their story truthfully, however familiar their stories are, that has to be good.

Great documentaries will come out of this revolution and in some cases these will be films which are as autobiographical as the confessional novel, or the published diary. Sometimes the insight that comes from a two minute clip made by an amateur and published on You Tube can be as poignant and powerful as the long form celebrity ‘portraits’ which proliferate television schedules.

PH: In this year’s LIDF we are including work that very clearly straddles the line, if not veers across it, into fiction. Your career has crossed this line, as have individual works. Do you welcome the introduction of fictional elements into documentaries (I don’t mean dramatizations), I mean creative reworking of material?

DB: Fiction is not an option in documentary film. Reconstruction equally dubious. In my career the line is clear between the work I have done in these two fields. I do not like reconstructions in documentary, however well done they are. They fudge the truth and are manipulative inevitably. But creative reworking of material – that’s called good editing. And is essential in any great work of art. If you mean the distortion of the material technologically – if the context is clear that can be ok, but in general I hate that too. For example an otherwise excellent and prescient documentary called Starsuckers employed very flashy techniques and audio visual gift wrapping to deliver the brilliant material it had garnered about our capacity to be manipulated and conned by the media corporations and yet it fell into the same trap in presenting its own arguments with a sexy, ironic sugar coating, editorially and visually, which in my case made me feel uneasy about its mission. When it comes to documentary I suppose, using a metaphor, I prefer the straightforward ‘missionary’ position! Having said that the exquisite use of archive film in the hands of masterful film makers like Adam Curtis or Kevin Brownlow demonstrates the value of manipulation, but then some might argue that in Adam’s case he is presenting an essay, and not a documentary. I think he ranks with the very greatest of television makers.

PH: The media landscape has changed a great deal since you set out. Good things have come and gone as well as bad things. The line into the future is not straight or even coherent, but are there any key delineating features, trends that you think are so persistent, insidious, or beneficial that you believe they will continue to determine, to a lesser or greater degree, the possibilities and opportunities for young filmmakers?

DB: Digital technology, as a means to create and as a means to distribute and exhibit has begun to provide young communicators with the same revolutionary opportunities that came for everyone when the printing press arrives 600 hundred years ago. With the privilege of access to the history of the development of film as an art form in their grasp, young filmmakers have unique exciting expansive possibilities which are still very much unexplored. And the same applies to beady old codgers like me! We can’t believe our luck! Mendicant? We won’t have to beg! And we can now ignore all those medacious patronising ‘popes and cardinals’ who have guarded the gates of access to audiences with provocative truthful films, who have denied us the opportunity we now have to express ourselves powerfully in the most powerful medium of our age. Sharp alert eyes, ever listening probing ears, inquisitive insightful provocative brains, cameras of all kinds, editing devices to analyse and construct, simple means for delivery, screens everywhere……. Great documentaries.

Read More information on the Don Boyd retrospective at the LIDF

Posted in: Interviews

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