Sandra J. Ruch, former Executive Director of International Documentary Association, talks about the genre and its various aspects.
Sandra J. Ruch, the former Executive Director, International Documentary Association and Publisher, Documentary Magazine, (2001 till 2008), was in Madurai to participate in a seminar on Documentary Filmmaking. Excerpts from an interview
There remains an ‘ever-present ambiguity’ on what is a documentary film. Can you elaborate? There has always been a debate on what documentaries are and it is always easy to say what is not a documentary. However, a documentary could be defined as an analysis of reality, real events and real people. It’s about telling a story of human beings in a real situation with the time-space continuum. There have been attempts to bring about different genres among the documentary films and now recently films with 90 per cent animated visuals claim to be documentaries. It’s is an important reality-shaping communication, because of its claims to truth.
What about the proliferation of images and the idea of cyber space as a platform?
Yes! It is now easier to make documentaries as anyone can afford a camera and do the editing. With this sort of space for participation, one can comment that democratisation of the usage has happened… However there remains a pertinent issue of quality of the information this process of democratised sphere provides. Documentaries and the camera have replaced formalism through immediately captured images. But photojournalism too claims to be a documentary but it is a scripted form; documentary is an art form. The importance of documentaries is thus linked to a notion of the public as a social phenomenon.
How important is the identity of the filmmaker?
It is not an important issue if the story is about a more universal human conditions that do not belong to a single sub-category of human experience. However, if the documentary is about the personal experience that the filmmaker has undergone, there filmmaking does become the expression of an individual’s worldview and all the insight and baggage that comes with it. It’s also important to note that the identity of a person is inextricably tied to what the person deals with in the films. Filmmaking style is more important than the filmmaker and there are different ones such as cinema vérité and interview styles that have made a mark.
How do you compare the Latin American documentaries made during the 1960s and 1970s and the present?
The documentaries made now are more socially active than what those made during the 1960s and 1970s. Ambulante, a travelling documentary film festival based in Mexico, which aims to promote the documentary culture across Mexico is doing a great job. Documentaries, highlighting the plight of Indians and how Amazon forests are being exploited for capital purposes, are being made consciously to bring about a change.
On the Indian situation?
There are a lot of documentaries made in India these days, but those on India are made by non-Indians. But films such as ‘Born into Brothels,’ even though made by foreigners, are an effective portrayal of the essence of the lost childhood of children (who were) born into brothels.
Documentaries as elitist?
Poverty as a condition here is an everyday affair and is also more tangible unlike what it is in the U.S. and that could be a reason why people may not be interested in watching documentaries. But another important thing is that this premise of virtual space is a good change as it provides a chance to express oneself, and there is also a chance for the viewer to choose his genre of films.
Documentary films as a harbinger of change…
Most documentary filmmakers carry the idea of making a difference or bringing about a change and if one watches documentaries such as the ‘Inconvenient Truth’ he/she develops a consciousness to save energy.