Can something be both political and poetic?
What is the role of formal experimentation in political documentary?
To be honest, politics are not my thing. In fact, political documentaries are so far out of my comfort zone, I’m really not sure how confidently I can answer questions over the form and role of documentary only a week into the studio, but I’ll give it a go.
I do believe something can be both political and poetic. I think in a lot of cases, the emotions stirred by the poetic qualities of a film or text can in fact be what makes it political, what causes a viewer to question something or move towards a particular stance or seek to understand more about an issue. I believe poetic devices can be quite effective in a political sphere, whether it be through the composition of images or the use of sound and music or the pacing of a film. Anything that manipulates emotion can serve a political agenda.
A good example of this is the film Liam showed us in our first week, where a sense of loss over a demolished neighbourhood (pulled down to make way for a freeway) is expressed by cutting up interviews of the people who used to live in these houses to compose a score, which accompanied with shots of houses slowly being demolished and discarded household items, makes a powerful, poetic piece of film that moves you to feel the remorse that these people are feeling, and perhaps side you with them out of sympathy.
I find it more difficult to think of my own examples, likely because of my own limited experiences with documentary. Benjamin Cook made a web-series back in 2014 exploring the growth of YouTube as a platform for you content creators, and although for the most part this is in no way political, there are a couple of episodes that spring to mind when I think of experimenting with the form of political documentary. There’s an episode called “The War of the Word” in which he covers the crisis in Syria, however the tone is kept light and he even opens the video with a comedy sketch about him an his friend Jack being approached to go to Syria. Perhaps it’s not all that experimental, but the idea of poking fun at such a big issue and adding in fictional and humorous elements to attract a young audience and position them a certain way to me feels like its at least playing with the established form. He also adds musical numbers into other episodes to discuss ideas such as female representation and gender issues, again lightening an otherwise heavy, political topic.
A more serious and respected example might be Werner Herzog’s “On Death Row”, where he interviews prisoners facing the death penalty about their lives and why they were charged. Each episodes begins with the statement,
“The death penalty exists in 34 states of the United States of America. Currently only 16 states actually perform executions. Executions are carried out by lethal injection. As a German, coming from a different historical background and being a guest in the United States, I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment”.
Despite this very subjective viewpoint, he is never seen in the videos. I find this interesting in how it is attempting to perhaps position you as the viewer against this form of punishment, but only really mentions it in this quick introduction each episode. The rest of the video is generally focussed on the life and crime of the prisoner, presented in quite an objective fashion, drawing from interviews with the police, the prisoner, family and others involved.