Documentary politics

documentary politics


The documentary form had political and social ambitions very early on – Vertov uses it to praise the Soviet Society and Grierson considers it a “a new idea for public education” (Aufderheide: 35). After the Second World War, in a fast-changing world and time of political upheaval, many filmmakers took up non-fiction film as a political act. They thought of documentary as an object to engage in the politics of their time. Patricio Guzman’s Battle of Chile, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA and Mirra Banks’s Yudie, are three different examples of these “politics of the documentary”.  This broad term must be understood at several levels. It is first a politics of representation. Through writing, framing, editing, this representation actively constructs its object as political (and we shall see that the definition of what is political is changing over time). But politics of documentary extend further. E. Ann Kaplan (Rosenthal: 79) considers that feminist films deal with at least two levels: content, and also strategies of production, exhibition and distribution. This remark applies to political films at large. Indeed, as Jay Ruby recalls (Rosenthal: 63), a film is the product of a process, created by a producer. Thus “politics of documentary” extend to these three aspects: the content, the filmmaker and the making. Rejoining the double meaning of representation, aesthetic and political, we will also question the position of the filmmaker, its relation to his or her subject, and the making process as a whole. Finally, we will examine how these documentaries engage their audiences. Filmmakers chose documentaries to engage in politics because they expect to have a political impact of some sort on the viewer. To conclude, we will discuss the validity of such politics of documentary, acknowledging the critics that recent theorists have addressed them, to try and figure out which of them are still relevant to contemporary politics of documentary.



A convinced Marxist and Allende supporter, Patricio Guzman and his crew started filming in February 1973, after the Left’s victory in Congressional elections. Eight months later, the military junta bombed the Presidential Palace, killed Allende and took over power. Battle of Chile’s political significance is entangled to this dramatic context. It is a gripping depiction of history in the making, a social and political analysis of the reasons for the socialist defeat. It achieves an emotional and an intellectual engagement of the viewer.

The making of the movie was itself a militant act. Guzman’s collective never intended to record life in direct cinema style. He believed what mattered most was not technique but “a clear political vision” (60). The film was to be analytical more than  agitational: “the interesting thing was to represent all points of view within the Left” (Guzman: 50). The collective examined various possible structures, and chose a “dialectical sum” of chronological and “nucleus” (thematic) (Guzman: 55). The film was deeply researched and thought-out. They wrote a large map, with thematic sections, in which they would then classify scenes or rushes. This accounts for the small amount of rushes: only twenty hours of film in eight months, for a final film of three hours.

Team work had political implications too – and Guzman constantly insists on saying it is a “collective undertaking”: “Often we would sleep in the truck. There was a great sense of fraternity generated by this process, not just because we were all very fond of one another but also because we knew that what we were doing was of crucial importance” (Guzman: 56). The shooting was done under semi-clandestine conditions, so that the crew could have access to the right as well as the left. But after the coup, they became state enemies. The homes of director and editor were searched and Guzman spent two weeks in jail. The members of the crew managed to flee the country, except cameraman Jorge Muller who “disappeared”. The film is dedicated to his memory. Guzman eventually had the rushes smuggled out of Chile, and flew to Paris, where he got help from Chris Marker. He finally settled in Cuba to edit the movie. Made in exile and unseen in Chile, this film about a dictatorship became by its very existence, a political act. It defied the silence imposed by Pinochet and the Junta – it showed the world what socialism could be, and what had been destroyed. It was also the product of a leftist solidarity, displayed by Marker then the Cuban artists.

Battle of Chile records the last months of the Allende government. It is both a social analysis of its failure and a gripping dramatic account.

The film has a powerful dramatic structure: a countdown. Its dramatic opening of a cameraman being shot while filming sets the tone for what’s to come. Furthermore, the viewer knows the end of the story. The voice over indicates the dates, and the closer we come to September, the more gripping the movie gets. The dramatic curve ascents and the funeral scene of Allende’s aide de camp is the turning point. Just as it signals the start of the right’s offensive, it opens the descending tragic curve that leads to the bombing of the Palace. The close-ups on the faces of the officers, the soundtrack of a classical dirge: all converge in powerfully and emotionally engaging the viewer. Battle of Chile tells the story of a people in combining both chronological account of events, and a classic tragic structure. Its emotional impact is intertwined with a political reflexion.

Besides the chronological aspect, Battle of Chile is also analytical. It presents structural factors of the defeat. By combining scenes in various places: (the “cordones”, the Presidential Palace, the streets, the countryside, Valparaiso and Santiago), the film covers a wide space, and shows how crucial is the control over public space (through strikes, protests and ultimately military coup). In this wide frame Guzman presents the conflicting forces in action (in meetings, political debates), sometimes adding necessary precisions in the voice-over. One that is singled-out is the variety of opinions expressed on the Left (weapons or not weapons? Autonomy or party leadership?). It is a result of the democratic nature of this revolution and regime, who respects free speech. But it slows down the unification of the Left, while the Right is getting stronger. Battle of Chile is a political reflection on the dilemma of respecting political divergences while remaining a strong force. Tragically again the very democratic nature of the regime provoked its death.

Battle of Chile pays homage to the democratic nature of the dead republic. It constantly gives example of the exercise of this free speech – thought interviews with Chileans from various backgrounds, buts The film constantly insists on the freedom of speech there – everybody, regardless of their class, discusses politics at length. The MAPU meeting sequence is a striking example. All tendencies of the left are represented, and each expresses a different point of view on governance (grassroots autonomy or party leadership). The length of the shoots, the slow rhythm, indicates how much the cinematography itself respects the time and unfolding of the word. Battle of Chile implicitly constrasts this striving world for the word with with Pinochet’s deadly silencing terror.

Against the silencing of a people that has been robbed its political rights, Battle of Chile’ is a movie about a collective subject. It is not character-driven, it does not highlight individuals but contrasts antagonists groups: right and left, urban people and countryside farmers, bourgeois and workers. The editing goes back and forth from one to another, highlighting the increasing dissensions, but also weaving them in the movie rhythm as a social totality (which by no means signifies harmony). The film constantly avoids putting Allende at the center. The president’s speeches are intertwined with shots of the crowd, creating a vision of reciprocity, making cinematographically clear that Allende represents the people of Chile. The only “character” in the film, the “people” is never personified, but declined through the many Chileans who speak their mind in the film, always in a very articulate and highly politically conscious way.

The political circumstances of the editing and exhibition of Battle of Chile put the viewer in a particular position of witness. She knows she watches what Pinochet wants to erase, physically and symbolically. Allende’s last speech rolling on screen feels like a testimony, both appealing to responsibility of the viewer (to not forget) and to her emotions. The death of Allende symbolizes the death of something much bigger. As critic Pauline Kael writes (Kael) : “Chile is set up as a model failure.” But the sadness does not take over the intellectual content and political reflexion.


In the 1960’s feminists brought along a new definition of politics. By highlighting how patriarchal and capitalist powers structured the so-called “private sphere”, feminists enlarged greatly the definition of “politics”. They turned their attention to “private matters”: family, parenting, housework, romance, and sexuality. Private life became a favored observation field: “The personal is political”, feminists claimed. Feminist filmmakers strived for new ways of representing women, away from the mass media representations that feminist theoreticians harshly criticized. In a context “fueled by the revival of documentary filmmaking in the post-World War II period and by the recognition of the specifically cultural manifestations of women’s oppressions”, documentary appeared to many feminists as “an alternative representational practice” (Waldman Walker: 3). They started producing portraits of women, exploring personal lives and stories that echoed women condition and struggle. Yudie, Mirra Banks’ first short film, is an example of this new “politics of identity” form. It is a heartfelt portrait of Banks’ own aunt, an embodiment of feminist values as much as a wider story of immigrant in New York.


Yudie’s making embodies these new feminists “first wave” politics. It is a movie about a woman, that challenges assumptions about women and that is made by women. As wrote Claire Johnston, a feminist film theorist, to conclude her 1971 article “Women’s cinema as counter cinema; “The development of collective work is obviously a major step forward; as a means of acquiring and sharing skills it constitutes a formidable challenge to male privilege in the film industry: as an expression of sisterhood, it suggests a viable alternative to the rigid structures of male-dominated cinema . . . “  (Johnston : 192)

Indeed, the family relation brings much to Banks’ gaze. The intimacy and the trust between the two women are palpable in the film – Yudie speaks openly to the camera.

Yudie constructs an alternative figure of woman. Bank’s gaze counters the objectifying or fetishizing male gaze that shaped much of the mass media representation of women at the time (and much still today). Choosing as a subject an old woman who has always led a very independent life is in itself a political and feminist choice.

First of all, Yudie is not set up as an object of desire. Her face is often shown in close-ups and there is no attempts in hiding the traces of age. She is neither glamorized nor mythicized. The film opens with her combing her hair, in a night gown. The gesture here is taken far from its erotic significance in the Hollywood imagery. It is a part of a daily routine, a mark of an old woman’s care for herself. Yet, Yudie is beautiful. But her beauty comes from her energy, her smile, the marks of the years, her voice, and her gestures. The cinematography reveals it by the many close-ups on her face, the contrast between intense blacks and whites, the slightly overexposed light. They all give Yudie a radiance whose vibrancy and liveliness are very remote from the aura of the star.

Banks follows Yudie in her daily life. We see her in her apartment, peeling a fruit, reading, walking out on the streets, attending a charity business. She lives on her own and has no family. She is very active and works at her brother’s office. She is neither a housewife nor a mother, but an independent and strong-headed woman. Her life and attitude embody many feminist values. A short scene shows her having a bite in a dinner surrounded by young hip Black youngsters. She does not seem awkward one bit and puts calmly her lipstick. She radiates an impressive calm self-confidence. Yet, the film does not conceal the heavy weight of independence. Yudie regrets not having a family of her own, and briefly foresees a lonely death. Feminism comes with a price, and Yudie acknowledges it.

Yudie weaves together this personal aspect with a wider historical frame. The structure goes back and forth between Yudie’s daily life and archives about her past. Her voice constitutes the entire soundtrack. She talks about things she likes, her feelings… but also the story of her life. She grew up in the Lower East Side, then an immigrant place. Archives materials of the life in the Lower East Side illustrate her memories, and widen Yudie’s experience by relating it to a broader historical and social context.

Yudie is an example of a feminist politics. It is a portrait never idealized of a feminist life before the word even existed. By relating Yudie’s life to history, Banks applies the idea that the “private life” is always a window on society. And she puts into circulation fresh, alternative images of women, for women to look onto.



In 1973, Barbara Kopple spent a year living in Harlan County, Kentucky, a small town where coal minors had gone on a strike. Released in 1976, Harlan County USA combines labor issues with a feminist point of view. The film is an act of support, an exploration and unfolding of what is a strike, and an emotionally engaging one.

Kopple’s support of a community struggling against powerful corporations is expressed in the making process. Kopple and her crew lived with the minors for long periods of time, became fully part of the community.  At the 1976 Academy award ceremony, Kopple said “I accept this award on behalf of the minors of Harlan County, who took us into their homes, trusted us and shared their love with us. And it is their commitment and loyalty which is honored here tonight.” Her film is not about objectivity but advocacy. One of the rare women filmmakers, she worked with a female editor (Nancy Baker) and assisting director (Anne Lewis), but had a male cinematographer (Hart Perry). With coal minors and a feminist look, Kopple was unlikely to get mainstream funding, and gathered money over years from various sources. To film the struggle of a community, she herself had to rely on grassroots funding.

Kopple presents a deeply engaging portrait of a community, strongly oriented towards highlighting the role of women. She embeds her gripping storytelling of the strike with a wider exploration of its political and historical implications and significance.

Kopple do not show minors as victims, but as an active community, united by a shared identity and political tradition. Kopple focuses on this collective subject, and films only group scenes. Although some individual figures stand out, they are never made into symbols or extraordinary characters. Kopple focuses exclusively on their political activity. When we see a personal aspect of their life, such as funerals, it is only because their grief is entangled with the struggle. The film never gets voyeuristic. Besides, Kopple is interested in showing that striking is part of a political tradition and a source of pride in Harlan County. By combining interviews of elder, intervention of elders and archives, she shows how much this struggle is part of the identity of the minors. Much more strikingly and powerfully, the soundtracks literally feature this community’s voice: strike songs written by the minors and their wives.

During all the film (except maybe for the end), Kopple emphasizes the gender aspect (filming separate men meetings and women’s) and the prevalent role of women. Filming their meetings, them raising money or holding the picket line, or bathing kids, she shows the crucial role of the “coal miners wives”. Significantly, the first member of the community to be interviewed is a woman who recalls how her family has always been in the union, thus introducing the importance of the political tradition of unions. “The women for me were the strongest, the most passionate, the one who were not afraid . . . because they had seen their grandfathers, their fathers, die with black lungs.” (Kopple ) In Harlan County, the wives are not bystanders, but the more political subjects.

There is no voice over, but Kopple’s closeness and support of the miners is palpable in the movie. She is an insider and does not try to hide it. Against direct cinema orthodoxy, we sometimes hear her asking questions Significantly, she asks a minor “Do you think they will shoot at us again?”, sometimes somebody looks into the camera, or a bit of mike appears in the frame. Her direct cinema style intensifies the feeling of immediacy and closeness to the minors. Sometimes also, she becomes a witness and the camera records evidence – particularly after military violence, when she is shown brain on the tar or the holes of bullets in miners’ houses. The grainy and sometimes blurry images of other places or action moments (piquet lines) re-enforces the impression of raw material, truth caught live. Kopple’s involvement also appears in her addition of figures (contrasting coal companies profits with workers wages, for example), or captions. To the song “Which side are you on”, Kopple answers unequivocally.

A complex structure allows Kopple to place Harlan County’s miners’ strike in political perspective while maintaining a dramatic interest. Within Harlan community, interviews of elders and archive material show that this strike is just a new episode in an ongoing war between coal company and the miners.  Progressively, the film leaves Harlan for other places (Duke Power press conference, a court), and other actors are interviewed: union leaders, Duke Power representatives, doctors, officials. New themes are introduced: how union’s inner politics take over miners’ rights, and “black lungs”, showing the scale of the coal mining industry’s disinterest for the miners’ lives. The chronological line allows Kopple to intertwine these big issues with the grassroots level of Harlan. The intensification of the strike and company violence tightens the dramatic storyline, since the longer the strike the harder. The deaths that occur allow for both very emotional scenes and an opportunity for tying Harlan County to bigger problems. Kopple constantly goes back and forth, succeeding both in placing minors’ strike in political and historical perspective, and inversely relating big issues with the community. The struggle over Harlan County miners’ right to choose their own union becomes an episode of an ongoing fight between the exploited and the exploiters. The open ending, that refuses a full closure, makes crystal clear that the fight is not over.

Harlan County is also a deeply emotionally engaging film. The songs function like a commentary that often heightens emotion. The insider point of view film also means that the viewer sees events from the miners’ point of view. The most striking example is surely the shooting scene: the viewer’s eye gets literally shot at too. The shock of it (followed by random images of a fallen camera, accompanied by deep breathing) proves the viewer she now knows which side she is on, too.


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