Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.
—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926
Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.
—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’
In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.
‘Fragments of actuality’.
That’s the driving force often behind documentaries, to weave together the fragments of actual life and present them to us in only a way a film can. Life weaves its own path, with no regard for anything other than what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. It can be frustrating though, to try and map the complex nexus of life onto a couple hours of experience.
Especially with a story such as this one.
Because sometimes stories in the real world, though they may not reach the operatic heights of fiction, matter and reveal a lot more to the world, simply because they’re true. They’re true, but more importantly they need to be seen to be believed. The story of Edward Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran is one which should be logged in humanity’s ‘bizarre’ folder indefinitely. Three identical brothers separated at birth for reasons which rapidly are revealed to be ominous at best, who come to know and meet each other at the age of 19, before their lives take off into a media whirlwind and into a spider’s web of secrecy, pain and scientific investigations. The film circles deeper and deeper into an ethical maelstrom of human nature which eventually spins you out back into the world, drenched in the knowledge of a story which is real, and shocking.
But a documentary is not just a 1:1 representation of real life, and director Tim Wardle delicately sutures the entire story together, drafting and redrafting the story as it continues to unfold. Each interview is a Russian doll, exposing the secrets and the hidden figures lurking in the wings of the story. Archival news clips are strung together under a common narration, emphasising the audience to see what is necessary at the time, only for those same clips to be reconstituted later under a deeper layer of understanding. What is beautifully drawn out of the film’s subjects, not through any particularly intense interrogations, is the continued revelations of information becoming part of the story. The events and timeline of the case are not depersonalised, it is not a maze to be solved.
One of the reasons for this is simply because the film is so earnestly concerned with the real tragedy, the real existential story of the brothers themselves. Audiences love thrillers, and conspiracies are notoriously tantalising, but the film really only goes as far as to show how the mechanisms at work have so deeply affected and grown the colossal void or absence that being separated did to the brothers as a whole. More than anything, the film frames their experiences, their resilience and sense of loss as the centrepiece of the story. It’s documentary 101: show the humanity, whatever the form, and it pulls it off in a deeply moving, mind-boggling way.
But another reason for this, is that the film is also hampered by (and excellently shows) the process by which legal institutions and places of power protect themselves, not through any obvious displays of power, but simply by abusing the regulations and understanding of the law. The documentary process usually does its’ best to not make you aware of its inner skeleton, of all the boring record hunting and the other parts of the production process. Usually all the information is streamlined into the documentary, with some nice appealing visual aids and appealing narration. But a documentary is always limited by how much information the story and its participants will reveal, and the legal entrenchment of power and silence hurts the truth of many, many stories. So by Wardle displaying that process, that invalidation and silence and refusal to partake in the story’s necessary revelations, it takes the story and the film beyond that of a conventionally great documentary, and highlights a deeper, more disturbing truth of the world that is being reflected; that it doesn’t have to give you the answers you’re looking for.
With a story such as this it’s always best to take it with a pinch of salt anyway and not buy into it 100%, simply because it so complex, so tangled, and still open-ended. In fact Wardle does seem to encourage it, keeping the film more balanced towards to the human truths of the brother’s experience as opposed to any irresponsible speculation or hypothesis making. The indictments it makes are more delicate than damning, but the film doesn’t play down the colossal scope and weight of the story. Most importantly it speaks truth to power, it exposes the internal workings of a story too surreal not to be real, and it uses self-aware and acrobatic documentary techniques to sculpt the story into something stylistic, beyond just the straight raw material of life.
What more could you want from a documentary?
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