Dissections: Belin/Mosse, Donald McWilliams

Date and time
Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dissections: Belin/Mosse, Donald McWilliams

On January 21, 2015, DHC/ART Education hosted Dissections, a roundtable discussion about exhibitions Valérie Belin - Surface Tension and Richard Mosse - The Enclave. For this event, three speakers were invited to share their thoughts on these exhibitions and how they relate to their own research and/or practice. What follows is a transcript of Donald McWilliams’ presentation, which includes some additional content.

Being a filmmaker myself, it is not an everyday event to be in front of an audience talking about another filmmaker’s work, particularly one of whom I had never heard two months ago. In my comments, I can only react, therefore, as a mainstream filmmaker, not as a scholar of cinema.

From the early 1970s until the mid-1980s, there was an event held in Ontario called the Grierson Film seminar. It was a small international gathering of documentary filmmakers. Invited filmmakers showed their films with no introduction and a debate began which grew in intensity as the week progressed. What always surprised me was that no matter what the theme of an individual Grierson, the subject of Truth in Documentary seemed to take centre stage. The spectrum was that one could tell or find the truth with documentary or one could not, with every position in between. I was always reminded of John Grierson’s famous definition of documentary, that it was the “creative interpretation of actuality”. Note that he said actuality, not reality. Good Platonist that he was, Grierson spoke of what you saw in front of you, not that which lay hidden, the reality.

In 1970, I spent a couple of days in Boston with the Le Grand Maître of the ciné-verité or fly-on-the-wall school of documentary, Frederick Wiseman. Wiseman had, with other reformers, founded an organization in Boston, Massachusetts with the intent of bringing about social change. Wiseman’s tool would be film. So he filmed in institutions, then edited a non-narrated film. It was in the editing that his point-of- view emerged. But he was surprised to find, at screenings, that there would be a spectrum. Yes, there were those who saw a scene as Wiseman intended it, but there were those who saw it directly opposite to what he intended. He realized quote “the audience’s attitude is very dependent on the values with which they assess the subject matter”, [1] and Wiseman concluded that a film cannot itself change anything. It is a subjective opinion, not the truth, that you throw out into the world, into the marketplace of ideas, and it becomes part of the debate and may play a part in social change, or not. This does not mean, however, that one gives up the search for the reality underlying the actuality.

My mentor was Norman McLaren. He made abstract animated films for the most part. He thought of film as designed movements. He said to me once that “how it moves is more important than what moves, although what moves is important”. You will say, ah, yes, but that does not apply to documentary. Well, it does, if not to the degree it does to abstraction.

Walter Murch, the great Hollywood picture and sound editor wrote a book, “In a Blink of an Eye”, in which he argued that eye blinks told you about the inner man or woman. Where you cut in relation to the eye blinks, affected how the audience read the scene. This is one How.

A question as illustration: “which is the single most significant movement in Richard Mosse’s The Enclave? For me, it is the amazing tracking shot down into the refugee camp. It ends with a seated father (presumably) cradling his child. What happens?

The father stares at the camera, still, then takes the blanket enfolding him and wraps it around the child. If Mosse had left out that gesture of wrapping, the shot, the meaning would have been different. This is a “How”. The man then gestures to a child to get out of the way of the cameraman. If that had been left out, the meaning would have been different. This is a “How”.

I now come to a broader notion of How – the overall search for a truth or the reality.  The history of documentary is that of a search for tools, for better tools in that search. The gradual paring down of the equipment, the technology of making. We take so much for granted. Think back to 1935, the time of Voice-of-God narrations. A crew with a camera and truck which housed the optical sound recording equipment went into what were the slums of London, determined to interview residents, to put the poor and their voices on screen for the first time. A woman stands outside her rat infested home. As she waits to be filmed, she asks confused, “What shall I say?” From behind the camera, Ruby Grierson, the sister of John, replies. “Just give the bastards hell!” So the How is in the technology, the act of filming and editing, and above all, in the intelligence of the filmmaker.

Something interesting is happening the past ten years in the art world – I am referring to the exponential increase in musées and galleries of the photograph and the moving image. In the 60s and 70s, we saw the coming of what we call video art. I was peripherally part of that scene in the 70s. The video art was not widely seen – much video art seemed to make a virtue out of being boring. What I did is happily lost. Fortunately, some like Bill Viola who comes from that period have gone from strength to strength. Early video art was seen on regular TV monitors, usually black and white; but with technological advances that art has graduated to large flat screen monitors and big screens – as we see in the work of the admirable Shirin Neshat or Michael Rovner or Haroun Farocki or Canadian David Rokeby. Unfortunately, there is still too much that is boring and mediocre.

Again, the 50s, 60s and beyond, there were multi-media events – they were ephemeral – for instance, I was involved in one that used 32 pieces of projection equipment. This could not be saved for future use. But technological advances make it now possible to turn multi-media into installations or replicable events.

So we have an installation like The Enclave by Richard Mosse. And that raises a very, very interesting thought to me – and that is, that I look at the work and I see a six screen documentary shot in infrared film; but it is in a gallery and is, perforce, Art. Yet again, documentary though it is, such a film would not be seen in a documentary festival such as RIDM (Montréal). Because it does not fit the rules of cinema – the fixed single screen, the seated audience, the darkened auditorium, a beginning, middle and end – in that order (despite Godard).

But I noticed that at both the FNC (Montréal) and the RIDM this year, there were what I call sidebars – special places for installations of films that did not fit the bill, either because of inordinate length or unusual execution.

I always attend shows at the DHC – it does not matter if I know nothing about the artist – the gallery is provocative. I was swept away by Mosse. I went with a Quaker friend visiting Montreal who stood transfixed. She had worked in the same area as Mosse in the Congo and had barely escaped with her life. This helped ground my looking at Mosse. But why was I swept away? And what do I think about my being “swept away”?

Perhaps the best way to begin is to draw a parallel with a film I saw at RIDM. Maidan, 2 hours and 13 minutes – the events in that square in Kiev from December, 2013 to February 2014, which brought down the government of Victor Yanukovich. Maidan was made by Sergei Loznitsa, a Ukranian filmmaker, little known in North America. The film is electrifying – filmed with fixed cameras, a document of the events, soup kitchens, the crowd of all ages singing, Orthodox priests blessing the revolution, a woman facing the armed police with just an ikon, the police shooting and killing – AND not one word of commentary.

I spoke to someone else who had seen Maidan and who was also excited; but was critical of the viewer learning no facts – like who was in the square, the factions, who was the right wing, what was the roll of the factions, a clearer outline of events.

Richard Mosse’s The Enclave – a film of events in the old Belgian Congo in 2012 and 2013. Filmed with an ever-searching camera, much tracking, a document of events, and not a word of commentary.

But, as with Maidan, what is going on politically is unclear. Who are all the factions, the various militias. At one point, I thought these must be UN soldiers, but no they can’t be – their berets are red – then I had to remind myself that the film was shot in colour infrared. In other words, a need for contextualization. One has to read Mosse’s pamphlet on The Enclave to learn that there are least 30 different rebel groups and that over 5.4 million people have died since 1998.

Maidan, where occasionally there was printed text with some information on the state of the revolution, is, openly, a polemic – the people vs the State. That is the guide post. But in The Enclave, there are no guide posts.

The crucial difference between the two works is that The Enclave is an installation of six screens, which are not all visible from any one viewing angle. The film was shot in 16mm infrared – a reference back to use of infrared for military photography in WWII and Vietnam. But here used as an artistic tool, creating a world of rather unearthly beauty. And, although one can figure out where it begins, The Enclave is presented as a loop. One takes it as beginning at the point where one enters the room. Maybe Godard was right. All films have beginnings, middles and ends, but not necessarily in that order. So, I think the How is important here. Mosse has abstracted an actuality to a degree that is not usual in documentary.

I have a tendency to look for a structure when I watch something. As I watched The Enclave, I realized that the structure was rather simple. I am not being disparaging when I say this. It was Claude Chabrol who said “why make something complicated, when you can make it simple”. I must confess that that is a dictum I don’t always follow in my own work. But anyway, I thought that if one took the content of the six screens and strung them together for a single screen event, it would make sense. Let me give you a one-screen example.

Travelling down a road with detritus and a body.

Cut to a peaceful river.

Cut to a rocky shoreline and the sound of gunfire.

Cut to black, gunfire continuing.

Cut to pan along hills with clouds and continuing gunfire, sounds of animals and voices.

Cut to walking down a slope, past and through people of all ages finishing with seated man and child.

Cut to refugees, mostly children.

Travelling back up and along a road.

Cut to camp and residents and cemetery.

Cut to meal (Posho) on leaf with militia eating.

Cut to funeral

Cut to childbirth

Cut to moving a house

Cut to leaf – now empty of food.


Now this structure would work.

However, something linear, even with clever editing, is not Mosse’s intent. Loznitsa made a polemic, a film of a revolution under way, a chronological view albeit as confusing as the events must have been for the participants.

Mosse is after something more about simultaneity, something that will show the interrelationship of events. To take the list I just read out.

We have three or four screens with images of refugees, mostly children and on one screen a travelling back along a road. It is strange because a characteristic of the film is a travelling towards something. The meaning for me is that we the visitors/the tourists can leave, but the refugees cannot. Or take the images of the funeral, birth, moving house, the leaf with food. The simultaneity of these events has for me an emotional impact so different from what would be obtained in a sequential presentation. And it stimulates thought on these unchangeables in the human condition. In other words, Mosse uses the screens for forms of juxtaposition more original than one would get with a normal single-screen presentation. And the primary intent behind Mosse’s method is an emotional reaction from the viewer.

In the pamphlet, Mosse makes the point that the viewer is the editor but that really isn’t so. The viewer may be the editor in that he can choose which screen to watch, but Mosse orchestrates the screens cleverly. For instance, action, frantic action on two screens and static images on others. So one is drawn to the action. Frequently, though, the static images will be of Congolese people, obviously looking at the cameraman, but in this context now seeming to be an audience to the events  on other screens. And frequently, that audience is children.

Or again, suddenly all screens are in a turmoil that creates a vertigo in the viewer. Or again, a gunshot in the sound synches with a punch hole in a film leader.

I am reminded of something Norman McLaren said to me – that he sometimes dreamed of a film in which all the elements were given to a viewer and he/she edited and mixed it in his/her head. An impossible dream, but an illustration of the frustration some of us filmmakers feel with the medium.

So, whilst Mosse in, in fact, being highly manipulative, I grant him his ambition to make the viewer interact in his or her own way to these events.  We will bring, as Wiseman would put it, our own sets of values and life experiences to what we are seeing.

I should say seeing and HEARING.

The sound, about which I do have reservations.

After reading this pamphlet, my impression is that the sound track is location sound with electronic manipulation of some of that sound in a studio, particularly noticeable in the case of the frequently present drone.

Because of the nature of the presentation, one is not always aware that there maybe synch sound on an individual screen; one feels, in a general sense that we are being presented with an soundscape, an immersive soundscape, that is frequently beautiful, e.g. the solo girl’s voice singing as we see a mountainside panning to a valley. Yet, I feel I was often being manipulated – I refer particularly to the powerful drone, the basis of which, if understand Mosse’s pamphletcorrectly, was children singing.

I read an interview with a composer, recently in DOX, European documentary magazine. She spoke of doing wall-to-wall music for documentaries providing, with great pride, music to help bring out emotion and meaning in interviews. I personally find this insulting. I often felt that the track was telling me what to feel about what was happening on the screens or about to happen. I believe that sound should aim to be another layer of content, or of meaning, bringing something new. A model for me has long been the CBC 1960s/70s radio documentaries of Glenn Gould in which he played with the layering possibilities of sound in a remarkable way.  I became very curious to see The Enclave silent.

Since this talk on January 21st, DHC kindly granted my wish and set up a silent screening of The Enclave for me; and I saw the installation in new way; it was less frantic, less foreboding. To be precise, I became much more aware of the shifting moods orchestrated by Mosse in his editing, and of the complexity of that editing. So, whilst, as I said before, the piece would work as a single strand film, that would not do credit to the intent of Mosse’s craft.

Because there was no longer a distracting aural presence, things which I feel I should have seen before now leapt out at me – for instance, how movements would echo each other across screens, how movements would run in differing directions, how a movement of a camera would share the sinuous path of the river between Rwanda and the Congo. The whole piece became more dance-like in the motion of characters across the screens, in the beauty of the swaying grasses and so on. In other words, The Silent Infrared Enclave became more abstracted, more unearthly – surely not Mosse’s intent – it would be beauty that would distance the viewer too much from his purpose.

I did hear sounds in my head as the piece progressed – sounds there but not there, coming, going – but I must stop. The Enclave is not my piece. I can merely say that the existing soundscape works against the piece, hides things – in other words, more is less. But watching The Enclave silent was an exciting experience, even though I believe a sound track is necessary.

So, we are back at the How.

A lengthy quote from a video interview with Richard Mosse.

“The prime importance for me is beauty; beauty is one of the main lines to make people feel something. It is the sharpest tool in the box. If you are trying to make people feel anything, if you are able to make it beautiful, you are able to make them sit up and listen. And often if you make something that’s derived from human suffering or from war; if you represent that with beauty and sometimes it is beautiful – a great ethical problem in the viewer’s mind – then they are confused and angry and disoriented – and this is great because you’ve got them to actually think about the act of perception and how the imagery is produced and consumed.”

For me, Mosse generally succeeds in his honorable intention to make me think about what I was seeing. I was, however, diverted into thinking about his and his crew’s relationship to the events. Because of the mode of presentation, the lack of context, the documentarist can be seen as a predator, as a voyeur. How do the Congolese feel about these white men and their first world technology? And I find myself remembering Wiseman –, what are about the values the viewer brings to such an installation? To take an extreme position – you know there are those who say “Africa is a basket case”. They could well look at this film and say, “I told you so”.

One could, therefore, even see the film as neo-colonial, even if that is not Mosse’s intention. So how do we rethink our relationship to the Other, to the Others that we have damaged with our history. Artists like Goya who dealt with human suffering several centuries ago aroused controversies. But one could say that it was drawn, that it came from the imagination not necessarily from direct experience. We live in an age where people are attempting to make art from actuality, from the photographed image. The worlds of reportage and art overlap. Mosse is digging around in dangerous waters.

So, there is a central question in social documentary - that of balance between distance and emotional involvement., or perhaps better described as the balance between the intellectual and the emotional.  I can immediately think of a film on the horror of the holocaust that brilliantly achieves a balance between the emotional and the intellectual – Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard – Night and Fog. And one can think, too, of Patricio Guzman’s recent Nostalgia for the Light which deals in part with the legacy Pinochet left in Chile.

I have been told that my own films contain a certain ambiguity, obliqueness. I think this is true. They reflect my own uncertainty in this métier. That a film is a journey in search of understanding, but at the end there is always an enigma, a new set of questions. So The Enclave is a journey – but I am uncertain of my footing at the end of it, even though Mosse has made an awful situation more tangible for me – and moved me.

As I said earlier, there is a sort of convergence happening. Galleries like DHC are, happily, taking on the necessary task of presenting new ways of looking at the world, new ways that are largely ignored in the usual outlets, whether cinema chain or repertory house.  But what are the rules one must develop to look at experimental works like The Enclave?


Donald McWilliams is a documentary filmmaker who uses both live action and animation in his work. His movies include Impressions of China (1973), Creative Process: Norman McLaren (1990), The Passerby (1995), for which he was awarded Best Cultural Documentary at the 1997 Hot Docs festival. In 1999, McWilliams was nominated for an Oscar® as producer and editor of Sunrise over Tiananmen Square. In 2009, he directed, edited and narrated A Time There Was: Stories from the Last Days of Kenya Colony, an autobiographical documentary that revisits the Mau Mau Rebellion of the 1950s and McWilliams’ own participation in the conflict as a young British soldier.

[1] Frederick Wiseman by Donald McWilliams, Film Quarterly Vol xxiv Fall 1970, Pages 17 to 26.

Photos: Lorna Bauer

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