What is a Documentary?

While in the Greek island: Two mornings with film students from Romania, organised by Ana Vlad, documentary teacher at the university and a film director I have known for many years. Pleasure to work with her. I asked the students to take part in the game I have introduced on many occasions. Armine Vosgarian put the words together in an essay like this:

“Write down the first 3 words which come to your mind when hearing the word documentary.”, says Tue Steen Müller, the visiting lecturer for today. I haven’t written a single word on the zoom chat. My keyboard wasn’t responding to any commands. I even hit it, but no use. Ironically, I was chosen to write a tiny essay on the words that popped  on the chat. This was the first time I saw most of the students, online or offline, so I can’t grasp the meaning of those words in terms of the projects they are working on, but, from the discussions held during the session, I understood that forces such as: curiositypatienceand love drive us in our documentarian journey.

Curiosity drives every artist. There was another word used such as insight which is a consequence of curiosity focused towards one’s inner self. Curiosity is the first impulse of a child and this innocence is what saves the artist. This was one of the key elements we learnt in acting school. If you lose your curiosity, you are not willing to learn anymore, to love anymore and to, eventually, live anymore.

Some terms as authenticitytruthand purity were put on the table. One of the students placed Werner Herzogbetween words like reality and trust. Here we leave space for philosophy. If we are in search of truth as artists, we are saved, as long as we know we can never embrace it in its completeness. If we listen to Aristoteles, everything we see is a copy of a divine plan and art is a second hand copy. The purity and authenticity comes with the strength of the artist when he is open to the world. Even when he isolates himself from everything, he has to be open, like a medium for ligth or darkness, whatever suits him. 

Others proposed the terms like realand human. We, humans, are real and authentic through our continous struggle of moving on. Some believe that is human to forget, some say is human to forgive.

  We, as documentary makers, can participate in the process of our characters healing. While we observe and express our own emotions when choosing the angle and shots of that character’s space, we are entrusted with their exorcism. We are like guides. I believe the process is quite different from the fiction film because we hold a heavier responsibility.

  The connection we create with the characters who are human beings, breathing beyong our pixels, contributes greatly to the path of both the filmmaker and the one portrayed. When making a documentary, you are responsible for the message. We are still under the protection of the large umbrella of poetry and free expression, but all the politics brought on screen weigh more than in fiction. Even in feature films, we ingest the message differently when we see the words: based on real events. 

  In documentary making, we have a mission. We will never be able to point out the truth, but we have to try, relentlessly, to show what our characters believe to be the truth, especially when their voices were rarely heard.  If we doubt the people or the situation we chose to portray, then. with empathy and honesty, we have bring our own truth that counterpoints them.  

  Documentary is life, more than anything, with all its complexities and we need courage to hold on to it. Lord Byron sayd something like truth is stranger than fiction. Well,  we have a saying in Romanian. “Life beats film”

Photo: Ana Vlad

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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