The Power of Aesthetics
I went to the workshop hosted by the performance/film creators Berlin at the Walker a few days ago. It was mostly a presentation of their projects with permission for us to interrupt at any time to ask questions and go off on different tangents.
The question of documentary vs art came up. One man was very invested in distinguishing between 'normal' or 'real' documentary and what he considered Berlin's film Bonanza to be- a work of art that used non-fiction subjects. He mostly saw the difference in the way they edited, what they chose to include or not, how they carved away information to create a piece of art versus showing all of the important information. Essentially he was getting at the fact that they weren't objective (and were perhaps even manipulative), and he thought of documentary work as objective. They were more concerned with the making of art than the presentation of facts.
Here's what my barely-repressed post-modern soul wanted to shout: documentaries are always subjective! There are always choices being made- in the framing, in the editing, in the very first steps of figuring out who to talk to, where to film, how much to pursue, what questions to ask. There are always agendas being forwarded, specific views being presented, material being manipulated. And these choices are integrally tied to aesthetics.
We have a specific aesthetic, a certain process, a set of familiar questions and a style of presentation that we have learned to view as 'factual', as 'real documentary', as an 'objective presentation of Truth'. But what we have made invisible is that that is only one aesthetic, one approach, and that is is as heavily laden with agendas and choices and subjectivity as anything else. Let's remember post-modernism 101: objectivity does not exist.
This distinction between 'art' and 'fact presentation' is denying the reality and power of aesthetics- a lie that only art is concerned with aesthetcs and documentary is concerned with content. Part of what makes a documentary powerful is its aesthetic- the aesthetic that allows it to pass itself off as Truth. The style and design that signify expertise, emotional distance. The design that does its best to make invisible the will of the documentarian, the choices being made. Aesthetics drive documentaries as much as they drive fiction, or art, or performance that is aware of and playing with it's aesthetic choices. Which is why it's a stronger decision to acknowledge those choices in the work- and the best documentaries and performances do.