16 Tons
17 Tons: Memory as practice
17 Tons: Memory as practice
2012 Architects & Refunc
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Docu-Modernism

‘Docu-modernism’ identifies an antinomy or paradox within modernism, based on the assumption that realist modes, and specifically documentary reportage, are antithetical to the central characteristics of modernism proper. It is a destabilising, yet false, oxymoron combining terms that, although apparently contradictory, are part of the history and set of negotiations (political-ideological, methodological and stylistic) that characterised incipient modernism. From the late 1920s to the end of the 1930s, documentary film freely traversed avant-garde, reportage and propagandistic fields creating hybrid forms that confound simplistic definition. Documentary also provided a fertile ground for ideological dispute in the interwar years. Marxist filmmakers, such as Paul Rotha, who believed that documentary should deal clearly with man’s place within society, criticised modes of documentary that embraced ‘romantic’ anthropology over urgent social issues, suffered from their concentration on ‘surface’ formalism, or from their tendency towards sentimentalism. John Grierson coined the term ‘documentary’ in relation to film but it was his more ambiguous call for a “creative use of actuality” and his montage film about herring fishing, Drifters, (1929) that marks him out as the progenitor of a British-based, though international, docu-modernism. Grierson was a Scott’s Fabian, liberal by background, versed in Carlyles’s and Ruskin’s social values, Kant’s idealist aesthetics, as well as the Marxist critique of formalism and Lenin’s writings and views on film as education and propaganda. He sought to establish a national cinema founded on Fabian values of social purpose and education, yet Drifters was located firmly within a context of experimental film, and was first screened by the Film Society in 1929 alongside Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), a film that was banned from public screening in Britain at that time, and Cavalcanti’s ‘city-symphony’, Rein que les heures (1926). Grierson headed a series of state-funded initiatives that were the formative context for early documentary film in Britain, for which he brought together a group of avant-garde creative talents, including important émigrés. Among them was Alberto Cavalcanti, a Brazilian modernist embedded within continental realist circles, whose short film Coal Face (1935), through a collective of creative effort, fused Modernist poetry, music, art and filmmaking to create a rhythmic-poetic collage delivering the message of the national importance of the coal industry. As such it reveals the legacy of the ‘symphonic’ approach of continental realism that viewed the documentary as art and yet it also answered some of the problems of style over serious social engagement raised by the Marxist left. G. W. Pabst’s socialist Kameradschaft (Comradeship) (1931) focused instead on a feature-length scripted and staged narrative of trans-national worker’s solidarity across the German-French border. Translating the events of a real-life, catastrophic coal mining disaster in 1906 to the years following the Great War, and incorporating flashbacks to the trenches, Pabst reinforces the political and thematic imperatives of the film but destabilises its status as a record of simple historical fact. Instead it embodies a more complex model for the documentary in its redeployment of recent history in the present. Such films established a practice and technique of combining verité representation with historical-temporal manipulation towards ideological ends. TB