Where might we go with a 21st century visual journalism model?
Andrey Tarkovsky made seven feature films in his 20-year career. He died at the young age of 54 in 1986, exiled in France. His continuing influence on filmmakers can be found in Oscar winning films such as The Revenant by Alejandro González Iñárritu (see video above).
His approach to film, as art, is redolent of former compatriots e.g. Eisenstein and Vertov, not because of similar styles, but by a creativity that was at times uncompromising. It marked his work too as an exemplar. Tarkovsky was continually figuring out a language of film in style, structure and composition, so it would leave an indelible feel with audiences.
Read here at CINEPHELIA for a rich account.
When researching spatial and linear cinema journalism (as both a 27-year career journalist e.g. Channel 4 News and PhD researcher), whilst I mined my knowledge from the development of the moving image, art (paintings) and television in particular, it became apparent the extent to which I found myself veering to the teachings of the likes of Vertov and Tarkovsky.
Both believed life yielded poetry, which needed to be searched out. Vertov applied his trade craft on forms we’ve come to label as documentary (all forms are documentary) or avant garde.
He however called it cinema and journalism. In Jay Leyda’s exemplary book on Russian filmmaking, Kino we discover the roots and thinking of pioneering Russian artists. [Side note] Aside from his Kino Newsreels, which were straight news, he delivered a limited number of cinema pieces. Crafting these takes time.
Tarkovsky searched for answers in scripts such as Vladimir Bogomolov’s novella, Ivan — an account of a 12-year old scout for the Russians behind German enemy lines in WWII. It’s thought this was based on a true story.
All work involves construction. Some events present themselves as a whole — a scene where an action is unfurling and exhibits a putative message, whereby minimal creative in filming is required.
A child blowing out candles, a confrontation between two people, a plane looking like it’s about to crash — in these instances we are inexorably drawn to point-and-shoot as we observe. This the citizen journalist’s oeuvre. It requires little in the way of film knowledge. We’re drawn into filming by using our senses unconsciously.
Some filmmakers employ intuition. This is useful, but also bound by problems. Intuition is learned behaviour that alerts you at times when you need to act without thinking. Yet if your training is lacking, your intuition is predicated on limited outcomes.
Other events require the development of ideas towards purpose and clarity. They require intervention. The scene did not exist and so we construct it to suit our intentions. Much of so called ‘News’ falls into the latter pointing a finger at the news package and its feature — elongated to form the television documentary.
Note here the actions which result in the flow of interviews within a news package. A journalist calls up a subject to participate; tells them what they’re looking for; even how the question should be answered. It must fit with an existing narrative, though in cases knowledge becomes referential, meaning the script alters dependent the revelations of an interviewee.
The news piece evolves in a neat, ready-made, linear manner. This is the mark of journalism’s efficiency. The journalist presents the argument as refined, free of conflict, debris, or concerns. This is a pseudo reality, we viewers have come to accept as the norm.
What underpins the craft of cinema journalism is memorability . Watch as one of the key BBC figures who shaped their output using single cameras for journalists, touches on this point.
A choice of mechanical reproduction is what many others aspire to. The image is representative of the news. Their product, as a construct is replete with conventions. This works, but can creep into tired motivations and staged performances to eke out truths.
If we needed to forward a journalism in the 21st century, whose origins emerged from conjecture (17th century) and then quasi empiricism (18th century), then we could do worse than trying to figure the story from its subtext. We could do ourselves no harm trying to find out the implicit in a story, particularly at of advances in public relations marketing practices.
In CJ, the filmmaker must acknowledge their subjectivity. It is after all their film, but that does not limit their acknowledgement of objectivity which is facts learned; impartiality — not being bias; or balance.
The CJs approach has to be, as the artist looks to sate their needs, honest.The search for authenticity is an inner tension between subjectivity and objective representation.
Just as fictional cinema involves a script, cinema journalism embraces an equivalence.
a. The pitch — the nub of the story
b. The story — an informed pitch, providing more detailed.
c. The plot — the hidden meaning of the film and how you intend to tell the story. Traditional journalism invariably equates the story and plot together. Yet there are separable.
d. The characters. Tarkovsky distinguishes between a character who evolves, develops throughout the film, based on situations they find themselves in. Or one whose intensity is evident whom is ‘outwardly static, but inwardly charged with energy by an overriding passion’.
NB. Though I have presented these in a linear fashion towards a formal filming prep process, (e) could be the reason why you’re filming first before (a).
Story of Masters students completing their final project and the mental anguish they go through.
Some stories you’ll be faced with provide an emotional tapestry that will have no resonance with you the filmmaker. For instance, would you know how to film a flower show? Or what approach would you adopt to filming a biker gang?
In fictional films a script can sometimes be at odds with the director’s style. There is an external wrestle, or internal struggle with reconciling the film. This happens and is part of the problem-solving pathway to being creative. It is to be harnessed, just as an athlete harnesses the fear at the start of a race.
Cinema journalism presents an immense broad palette, yet I subscribe to a Tarkovskian style of poetic logic. What does that mean? This is close to thought. Disparate, non-linear, dissociative. But there is a paradox. It is a learned trait, rather than an intuitive one from a novice.
Most news filmmaking, burdened by theatrical performances and the explicit is governed by a rationale, a causality learned from previous processes. We rarely question these. The news is THE NEWS.
In the poetic cause, the need for discovery is one that heightens the emotional quotient of the film. The logic of a thought-through sequence is challenged. This requires the filmmaker to be flexible and unburden themselves from the pre-visualisation, otherwise being unhinged from the causal laws of drama that is expected from an audience.
For Tarkovsky, poetry is not a genre in itself, but an awareness of the world. I would add a caveat. It is not an awareness that is conditioned but a tension that seeks to uncover new information in readily sought out, or deep mining data.
Consider this passage from Tarkovsky’s writings:
[The Poet] He is capable of going beyond the limitations of coherent logic, and conveying the deep complexity and truth of the impalpable connections and hidden phenomena of life.
To do so requires going beyond the cliches and routines of filmmaking, such as normalised geometric framing, (rule of 3rds) and prescriptive compositions. These expressions, handed down from theatre, to television, envelope the mechanical production, explained by Walter Benjamin’s eponymous essay.
Mis en scene is a term rarely used in journalism. We refer to it as a filmic backdrop, which radiates meaning. For instance when interviewing a scientist, visual journalism would prescribe the scientist be interviewed with an environment of electron microscopes and test tubes.
This labelling, Tarkovsky avers diminishes its inherent use. As short hand film makers seek cliched spaces to often compliment their characters. Otherwise these scenes are forced on the filmmaker to adopt. Note each time Trump speaks he is surrounded by two American flags either side of him. The mis en scene is contrived, and then adopted by media to echo power. Tarkovsky challenges the description of normative mis en scene as referencing ‘ the idea, point, of the scene and its subtext’.
In Tarkovsky’s cinema it is the characters and their relation to each other and the expressiveness from the incongruity of the compositional tableau.In other words, the less conventional or likely the setting the more visually arresting it is to the audience.
The way to poetic logic, however, is fraught with adversity. Opposition awaits you at every turn.
Our deepest, fondest memories invariably involve our childhood. These deeply embedded events rarely measure up to contemporary themes. What makes a film memorable.
An empirical exercise on the University of Westminster campus with the assistance of MA students Kait, Zayed, Ceci and Sara revealed people’s preferences when asked to name something memorable on film or video. It could be fictional cinema, news, documentary etc.
Given the choice, almost everyone surveyed picked a drama or fictional film. Their choice of scene too revealed that thing which is incongruous. Jon Snow’s return to Game of Thrones scored the highest. Notwithstanding the spectacle of publicity, his graphic end and come back is a cinematic moment.
You will face opposition to ideas which do not present themselves as causal. Causal structures invariably diminish aspects of the plot. Not because they’re not necessarily necessary, but because we’ve not gone behind the physical facade of the story to seek the mental.
This often means trying to understand, difficult as that might be, the symptomatic or implicit nature of the story and characters.
A visual history of cinema journalism
If you found this interesting do share with others. It’s a ripe area for debate. You can also find out more about story, news and its mechanics from @viewmagazine and my website www.daviddunkleygyimah.com