UK Award-winning Arts Documentary Film-maker

Mike Dibb: UK Award-winning Arts Documentary Film-maker

This is an extended version of an article by MIKE DIBB, written for the ‘Stand’ column of The New Statesman, during the transmission of the 8 part BBC2 series Made in Latin America, for which he was the Series Producer and one of the directors.

Density, complexity, ambiguity, all positive qualities when talking about literature, painting, theatre and cinema, have a strange way of turning into sloppiness, muddle, lack of sign-posting and the absence of ‘proper’ authorship if encountered while watching a TV documentary. So chairperson Gillian Reynolds, personifying ‘rigour’, can say (in a Critics’ Forum discussion of Made in Latin America on BBC Radio 3) that the ‘the problem with the series as a whole’ (she had, of course, only seen 2 of the 8 films) ‘is that it's taken a huge amount of material and attempted to present it as a set of interlocking arguments, rather than each programme telling you a specific story. And I think there is a real problem with not having an authored view...(or) a presenter (or) a named scriptwriter even’. In just a few words she manages to beg the important questions and certainly misses the whole point of the method and approach the series was taking.

Of course, television is almost without a history and so ignorance debars no one from having his or her view of what passes through this widely watched but critically undervalued medium. It’s as if every film you make is your first. You cannot depend on a reviewer (with one of two rare exceptions) to connect a film (whether documentary or drama) to a body of work. So I couldn’t expect that anyone would notice that the point of departure of the first film Dreams of a New World was the problem of representation and historical knowledge in a continent that for 500 years has been a space for European projection and fantasy. This film was continuing an exploration of images and ideas that goes back to the series Ways of Seeing, which I made with John Berger almost 20 years ago and which, ironically, is now of course more familiar as a book than the 4 x ½ hour television films, from which the book was made.

In part, I know the success of ‘Ways of Seeing’ depended on the argument unfolding through a single, eloquent voice. But for me John, however radical, still represented a voice of authority, and when it was all over I realized I wanted to explore other ways of making films ~ which would be less dependent on a charismatic centre. Of course, many other documentary film-makers have been on the same quest, but I fear that we are working against the grain of an increasingly personality/product-led television, operating in a world of marketing and adspeak.

But sadly many, like those on Critics’ Forum, still yearn for a kind of ‘authority’ I don’t want. The underlying assumption is that either the on-screen presenter is ipso facto the author of a film, or that only something written by a writer – if possible, one you’ve already heard of – constitutes valid authorship.

I don’t think that any of the directors involved in this Latin American series would think of themselves as the exclusive authors of their films (on how many occasions from theatre to film can this ever be said to be true?). But this is quite different from saying that the films are unauthored. In fact, each film addressed a theme or topic with as precise an aim as possible and was developed through a complex, and collaborative, creative process. We worked closely with academics and consultants, cameramen and film editors, and, of course, met many new people along the way, some of whom made eloquent and spontaneous contributions on camera. This process doesn’t constitute a dilution of authorship, rather a refinement of it; a pulling together of texts, analysis, images and personal experience into a collage that, when deftly edited, combines the informality of conversation with the precision of a written script. It is a method that embraces diversity and argument. And in the end, the authentic ‘voice’ of the film becomes that moment when the final form seems most in harmony with its content.

Obviously this approach demands more of an audience because, often deliberately, images and arguments are left open and contradictory. It may demand greater attention but I hope rewards it. It also challenges the more relaxed comforts of the presenter-led films, which are increasingly (and depressingly) becoming TV’s dominant form.

Of course it’s easier in television, particularly when making A BIG SERIES, to use a single voice. The problem is that this single voice can smother other possible voices. And, as Latin America is a highly articulate and diverse continent, where thoughts and feelings flow freely from almost everyone, all of us who worked on the series felt the form of the films had to respond to that variety of voices.

Some years ago I made a film in Chicago with the great American oral historian Studs Terkel. He described his job as that of a prospector looking for gold, where the dust he was seeking was insight. This wisdom could come from art and literature, but equally it was lying in wait almost anywhere one cared to look, in a bus queue, down a mine, around the next corner. Studs quoted one of his favourite poems:

“Who built Thebes with it’s Seven Gates?
In all the books it says Kings.
Did Kings drag up those rocks from the quarry?...
…One great man every ten years.
Who paid the expenses?
So many statements.
So many questions.”

By coincidence this was one of two poems by Bertolt Brecht which for many years I kept pinned above my desk. The other was a poem by Brecht addressed to his actors ‘On the Art of Observation’:

“Your training must begin among
the lives of other people. Make your first school
the place you work in, your home,
the district to which you belong,
the shop, the street, the train.
Observe each you set eyes upon.
Observe strangers as if they were familiar,
and those whom you know as if they were strangers…
All this watch closely. Then in your mind’s eye,
from all the sruggles waged
make pictures
unfolding and growing like movements in history…
…To observe you must learn to compare.
From observation comes knowledge,
but knowledge is needed to observe.
He who does not know
what to make of his observation
will observe badly…”

Of course, the fly-on-the-wall documentary has its place but I'm more drawn to Bertolt Brecht’s idea of observation. I want films to include a consciousness more complex than that of a fly, but exclude the singular consciousness of wall-to-wall commentary. I believe that it’s more important to set off with questions you want to ask than conclusions you want to prove. The process of making the film then becomes a kind of answer to the questions. And people underestimate the richness that the language of film potentially affords.

Film may not be a very appropriate medium with which to analyse a novel but it does lend itself to another kind of exploration. For instance, in the film about dictatorship a quotation from Miguel Angel Asturias’ great novel El senor Presidente was read over contemporary images of Guatemalan life, in the context of an archive interview with Asturias himself, alongside a conversation with his son, a guerrilla leader calling himself ‘Gaspar Ilom’ after a character in his father’s novel; elsewhere a quotation from the Mayan text of the Popol Vuh was juxtaposed with paintings by Juan Sisay, an artist friend of Asturias, murdered just before filming began and mourned by his family and friends in a haunting ceremony and song. Only through the medium of film could all these different levels of experience be woven together in such a moving and complex way; and how much richer the experience becomes than if these same elements had been processed through a presenter.

Film also provides a wonderful opportunity to break down academic barriers and to pluck ideas from the pages of books and pitch them into the world outside. Anthropology can talk to painting, sociology to music, politics to sport, literature to life. Paradoxically, at the same time, television has, for the sake of its own order, created another set of departmental boundaries, such as art, sport, entertainment, drama, religion, education etc. And, as a TV film maker, I’m always trying to break down these boundaries from within. (And with reference to this aspiration, I should mention two very sad deaths that occurred during the making of this series. The writers Raymond Williams and CLR James were important touchstones in my life and with each I had the pleasure of making a film. What I admired about them both was that they always tried to connect everything to everything else in an exemplary way.)

One of the great things about Latin America is that it hasn't thought of erecting these artificial barriers in the first place. In no other part of the world have cultural figures held such prominent positions in public and political life. The poets Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz held important diplomatic posts. And everywhere distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ art are much more fluid. Thus a gifted Cuban student of classical piano could play the latest song by LOS VAN VAN with the same ease and pleasure with which she played a piece of Chopin. The Venezuelan poet Juan Liscano made the first field recording of his country’s folk music, and in Colombia Gabriel Garcia Marquez, an enthusiast of the popular song form known as ‘vallenato’, described his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude as a ‘vallenato’ 450 pages long. And when he received his Nobel Prize, he insisted on a group of Colombian musicians coming over to Stockholm too. And as for dancing... well, as Alan Lomax, the US musicologist would say: ‘Unlike Northern Europe, it all flows from the middle body...’

I don’t want to be romantic. There are many other divisions, sexist, racist, rich and poor and a history of violent conflicts and political and economic crisis. But (and maybe because of this) the urgency of cultural exchange still holds. The Made in Latin America series ends memorably and movingly in the city of Medellin, now notorious as a centre of the drugs cartel. Into a huge hall large enough to house an agricultural show, came 6000 people to listen to poetry; in fact, love poetry, read in protest against the escalating violence around them. In that sequence, in which the words of the poems are juxtaposed with the images of the violence, you can see culture literally putting its life on the political line. The final words of the film are: ‘Justice! Justice! Justice!’ chanted by angry crowds lining the streets for the funeral of the assassinated Colombian politician, Luis Galan. And it’s back to the poem by Brecht:

 “…Here is where you
can intervene from your stage
in the struggles of our time.
You with the intentness of your studies
and the elation of your knowledge
can make the experience of struggle
the property of all,
and transform justice
into a passion…”

Ironically, probably only in Britain would it be possible to have made a series like Made in Latin America. Whatever its faults, it is uncompromising in its attempt to find an appropriate filmic form through which to express a complex reality. But also, only in Britain could such a series meet with such a haphazard and fragmentary response, with not much comment even from within the organisation that funded it. Culturally we may have a great (if increasingly threatened) freedom, but often it is the freedom of indifference.

Mike Dibb November 1989