Some of the themes approached during the discussion with Arun Khopkar and John Wyver at Ambika P3 was objectivity in documentary making, the documentary method and documentary evidence.
Both filmmakers worked extensively with artists and it took, for some projects, years before a film was even envisaged. It was the time necessary for the filmmaker to understand the work done by the artist and to build up a trusting relationship. “The contemporary documentary approach in the visual arts has buried once and for all the myth of the “disinterested’ or “objective observer” as Vit Havranek mentions in “The documentary method versus the ontology of “documentarism”.
Answering a question from the audience, Khapkor said he wasn’t worried about objectivity, “there is a moment when you feel that the voice is speaking to you. You have to respect the poetry of it.”
For Wyner, “the notion of subjectivity is not a concern” in art either. His motto is “the desire to evoke, create and experience an artwork.”
Author and director of 45 films on different artists, he regrets that television sees documentaries as “evidence” rather than a shared experience: “the BBC is dominated by the concern of documentaries “being about Art, knowledge and not about giving you (the viewer) an experience about Art”.
As I watched Khapkor’s second film “Volume Zero” on the architect Charles Correa, I learnt about his work, his ideas, his life and the impact of his genius on architecture. It was very informative but documentaries are primarily made to inform about a specific topic. If we look at the meaning of a document, “the basic unit of documentaries… etymologically speaking, (it) is defined as something to instruct” says Sophie Berrebi in” Documentary and the dialectical document in contemporary art.”
Far from being neutral though despite the apparent unobtrusiveness, documentaries plunge the spectator in the intimate universe of the artist filmed from the camera’s point of view. In the case of Khopkar’s “Figures of thoughts” – a 33 minute film on the work of three Indian contemporary painters – the director follows the artists in their own space, reconstructs their work environment and in some cases films the making of the paintings. Khapor chooses a specific cinematography for each artists and concentrate on either the work or the artist.
Documentaries are ” the result of observation and dual process of selection: in the “real world” and in the edit suite. What the viewer takes as reality is in fact a reality seen by someone else, it is a second order observation.” observes Kitty Zulmans in “Documentary evidence and/in artistic practices.
The debate between informing, giving an “objective” account – still seen to some extent as being the first goal of documentaries – and the given “subjective” approach of the director is at its high when speaking of documentary Art. As Wyner concluded, the notion of subjectivity is a problem in News and current affairs but not in Art.
November 2011, Sophie Meyer