Originally published in Screenworks Volume 7, which can be accessed here
Author: Mark Chapman
Format: Creative Documentary
Duration: 13 Minutes
Camrex is a short documentary film about life in a notorious homeless hostel in North East, England. Based on interviews with hostel residents, the film constructs a series of visceral sequences to reveal a hidden social microcosm. The film forms part of a multi-platform project consisting of an experimental documentary film and a set of stills. The film’s sister photographic project can be found here: mark-chapman.co.uk/three/
This research draws upon my background in both filmmaking and still photography to explore how material drawn from reality –that is, subjects, images or stories founded in ‘documentary’- can be used to visualize and interpret unpresented subjective spaces, which here I term the ‘documentary interior’. Specifically, I investigated how to use the expressive tools of cinema, such as sound, construction, performance and editing, to render visible the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of real-life contributors.
I have also identified this formal tendency in significant recent nonfiction works such as Robinson Devor’s Zoo (2007), Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (2010) and Peter Middleton & James Spinney’s Notes on Blindness (2016). In these films spaces previously thought to be out of bounds for the documentary camera have opened themselves up for exploration, including non-physical, internal spaces. Similarly, my documentary film Camrex seeks to explore both the inner and the outer worlds of its characters; however, unlike the aforementioned films that utilize actors to portray on screen events drawn from reality, I develop performances with my real-life contributors, i.e. they are essentially actors in their own stories (and in this way aligns the work with the Fonthainas-set docufictions of Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa, the most widely seen being Colossal Youth (2006)). My intention is to use nonfiction material to engage with the world around us from the inside out and as such render private, personal spaces as political ones.
1. How can a documentary visualize the interior life of its contributors?
2. What are the formal characteristics of the documentary interior, and how can one differentiate interior space on screen?
3. What kind of cinematic techniques are employed in the documentary interior?
4. How does a focus on the interior impact relationship between filmmaker and contributor?
My intention is to foreground personal stories rather than using a more ‘social issues-based’ approach. This focus on using the documentary form to interpret the interior, subjective space is an explicit rejection of a journalistic, evidentiary approach to stories drawn from the raw material of reality as it accepts that documentary narratives are always at the mercy of the filmmaker’s own creative sensibility.
Identify new approaches to the documentary film that contribute to production methodologies
Demonstrate how cross-disciplinary methods of production founded in creative arts practice can contribute to the development of a nonfiction film
Explore how nonfiction stories can access the interior life of their contributors through formal exploration and reflection
“The creative documentary is an art form. The documentary-maker is therefore an artist – not a journalist. Where the journalist attempts with his or her reports to present reality as objectively as possible, the artist follows his or her own idea’ Mission Statement, International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam
Camrex is the first practice-based research output from my PhD exploring the documentary interior. The film was originally made for cinema exhibition.
My research into the documentary interior is a response to the changing position of the documentary form within an industrial and academic context in recent years. Technological advances such as inexpensive HD video cameras and digital distribution have aided modes of production and audience access, as evidenced by the steady output of formally challenging and commercially successful films, the popularity of documentary-focused festivals (IDFA, CPH:DOX, Sheffield Doc/Fest, FIDMarseille, et al) and the conspicuous presence of nonfiction titles on streaming sites such as Netflix. With these technological advances making modes of production (and thus filmmaker intention) more visible, recent debates have evolved into a complex discussion of the ethics of the image – often led by practice-based researchers (see Oppenheimer & Ten Brink, 2013; Greene, 2014; MacDonald, 2015).
In 2013, I curated a season of artists’ documentary films called The Invisible and the Real, which took place at the Star and Shadow Cinema in Newcastle upon Tyne (https://www.starandshadow.org.uk/on/season/132). The season brought together documentary and contemporary art practitioners in an attempt to locate the boundaries of their respective practice: documentary makers who experimented with form (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Clio Barnard), artists who used real stories and contributors (Andy Warhol, Richard Billingham). The season also this included my own film TRANS (2013) – an experimental hybrid of still photographic and cinematic technique exploring the inner life of a transgender female. It proved to be a primary inspiration for this PhD project. In this boundary-challenging context, the documentary image, willfully compromised by the acknowledged manipulations of a diverse set of creative sensibilities and disciplines, and thus robbed of an uncritical indexicality, exposed the underlying fact that truthful manipulation (a form of creative interpretation) has always been an inherent part of the documentary impulse.
The critical context of this project is informed by the work of theorist Michael Renov who has consistently sought to redefine the boundaries for the nonfiction film. Renov rejects Brian Winston’s (1995) dismissal of the expressive in documentary as a merely ‘prettifying’ element and declares, ‘The formal regime is the very portal of sense-making; it determines the viewer’s access to the expression of ideas, its power to move and transform an audience’ (Renov 2013: 348). Even though the aesthetic function of the form has traditionally been overlooked, Renov believes that through this paradigm he can show that it is inseparable from the documentary’s rhetorical function. The aesthetic realm, Renov says, is where the traditionally socio-historical and avant-garde tendencies (embodied by the documentary maker/contemporary artist divide) are finally merging to create the formally exciting, politically challenging new work evident in cinemas, festivals and galleries, ‘The recalibration of practitioner classification is already well under way’ (Renov 2007: 18).
Renov also suggests that a visible breaking down of disciplinary boundaries constitutes a new phase for documentary practice as ‘Artists are drawn to the world ‘out there’ as documentarists have since the Lumieres but shaped and informed by the world ‘in here,’ by their personal experience, cultural and sexual identities, their political and aesthetic engagement’ (Renov 2007: 14). Renov has sought to present a rather less sobering approach to the documentary discourse by repeatedly emphasizing the form’s capacity for expressivity and its close relationship to fictional works, particularly regarding semiotics, narrativity, and performance. Nonfiction, according to Renov, has long treated aesthetic innovation by the likes of Vertov as anomalous or amusing, but fundamentally unimportant diversions, however, ‘A view of documentary which assumes too great a sobriety for nonfiction discourse will fail to comprehend the sources of nonfiction’s deep-seated appeal’ (Renov 1993a: 3). This anti-aesthetic tendency has prevailed since the 1930s and 1940s, and was compounded by the emergence of factual television. Renov suggests that creative intervention, the construction of certain fictive elements through an expressive conceptualization of the historical world, is an essential part of the documentary tradition; a nonfiction work is always the result of an encounter between the subjectivity of the filmmaker and objectivity of the historical world (Renov 1993a: 2).
Betsy McLane has stated that traditional documentary films, unlike fiction, have ‘concerned public matters rather than private ones’ (McLane 2012: 2). Renov, via his Poetics paradigm (1993), has shown us that the documentary impulse has always been closely associated with the fiction film, and, with recent films such as Waltz with Bashir and The Arbor focusing on the inner life of their central protagonists, ‘(The) sensory experiences and psychic processes of everyday life (are) increasingly the terrain of the new documentary’ (Renov 2007: 20). By foregrounding aesthetics, subjectivity and ideas relating to performance, this new work suggests that the interior landscape is the next frontier for the documentary film and for new critical studies of the form.
My intention was to make a fifteen-minute film suitable for exhibition at film festivals; this was an important guiding principle in order to conceptualise the material, for instance, selecting the contributors whose story suited such durational strictures. Though the short form film is defined by its brevity, the variation in maximum acceptable running times for programming at notable international film festivals suggests that there are varying opinions regarding optimal running times. A running time of around fifteen minutes was considered desirable because it was within the recommended guidelines for events targeted in our festival release strategy (Edinburgh IFF, Clermont-Ferrand ISFF, et al) and also allowed for an appreciable demonstration of both character and narrative.
Prior to production, I had spent months casting a BFI-funded drama feature and the project involved extensive work with non-actors and lots of street casting (talent-spotting in everyday situations). My experiences with people from a range of backgrounds who had never before performed scenes in front of a camera gave me invaluable experience of working with non-professionals to craft performances.
My method of working engages cross-disciplinary creative art practices, namely filmmaking and still photography. For Camrex, I began by working alone with a stills camera –in this instance, an old Polaroid SX-70 – to explore the subject, reveal the location and develop an image system. However, the primary focus of this exploratory phase was to build relationships with potential contributors. Throughout this stage, the involvement from the hostel residents remained fleeting (accounting for the direct presentational form of many of the images), but this initial interaction with the camera allowed me to evaluate their suitability for a more protracted collaboration.
Once familiar with the residents and environment, I then introduced a video camera; obviously, with the switch in medium comes a new set of logistical and creative challenges, but by that point the residents were used to my presence and I had developed a good working knowledge of the hostel. Throughout production the crew size was restricted to a sound recordist and myself. This was essential in order to develop an intimate creative space with the contributors.
The filming process was a confluence of elements that constantly evolved throughout production: first I recorded a series interviews with the contributors and then constructed scenes in response. These scenes also incorporated off-camera discussions with the residents and my own observations and ideas.
Filming for Camrex lasted for around eight days spread across a few months. This allowed time for the two main contributors, cast via the original photographic project, to invest deeply in the filmmaking process. That kind of investment is always important, but particularly so here due to the performative nature of the scenes we were shooting. They are essentially actors in their own stories and we did as many takes as was necessary.
Through this method, the film’s grammar developed alongside the revealing of the characters’ relationship to each other and the hostel. I always felt that the film existed in the space between the sedate everyday routine of the hostel and the fierce, barely supressed emotions felt by the residents. This guiding conceptual idea informed the production methods and it was clear it would not have been possible to achieve the kinds of images needed through observational filming techniques alone. This meant attempting to move beyond mere observable behaviour and actually meaningfully interpret their words through an expressive cinematic rendering, e.g. hyper-real sounds motifs and montage of the building walk (04:09) and destroyed hostel walls sequence (04:41).
John Corner (2008) suggested that the documentary has traditionally been associated more with the knowledge systems rather than the art-systems of society, and consequently ‘Documentary is widely seen to lack the symbolic richness of narrative cinema both in its visual design and its textual organisation’ (Corner 2008: 21). The next step for scholarly discourse, continued Corner, is to develop a more sophisticated understanding of aesthetic practices (which in turn is likely to present new ethical issues). It is my intention that a discussion of work founded in creative arts practice, such as Camrex (and my PhD project into the documentary interior), can contribute to an expanded and evermore nuanced reading of the documentary form.
The work demonstrates the formal variation evident in the documentary form and suggests possibilities for interdisciplinary connections, in this instance, between photography and filmmaking practice. I expanded these links in a presentation Making Things Move: The Concepts and Connections, which explored re-configuring a work founded in still photography into a moving image work. The presentation was delivered at the AHRC Commons event at York University in June 2016.
As the Camrex project draws upon my experience of industry practices, my research also provides an opportunity to connect scholarly activity to the film industry. The film has been the subject of industry processes such as funding applications, festival screenings, Q&As and has featured in industry-focused articles (see below).
Camrex was largely self-funded though with some in-kind support. Northumbria University funded part of the film’s post-production and initial release.
British Council also kindly supported the film through their Travel Grant scheme.
Edinburgh International Film Festival (UK) – International Competition
Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival (France) – nominated Lab Competition
Leeds International Film Festival (UK) – winner ‘Special Mention’ Best British Short
Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival (UK) – nominated International Competition
Hamburg International Short Film Festival (Germany) – nominated NoBudget Competition
São Paulo International Short Film Festival (Brazil)
‘This is England’ Rouen British Short Film Festival (France) – winner Best Film
Magma International Short Film Festival (Italy) – winner ‘Special Mention’ International Competition
London Short Film Festival (UK) – nominated Best Documentary
Glasgow Short Film Festival (UK) – nominated Bill Douglas Award for International Short Film
DocuTIFF Tirana International Documentary Film Festival (Albania) – nominated Short Film Competition
Montecatini International Short Film Festival (Italy) – winner ‘Special Mention’ Best Documentary
Sunderland Shorts Film Festival (UK) – winner Best Documentary
Minimalen Short Film Festival (Norway) – nominated International Competition
Tabor Film Festival (Croatia) – nominated International Competition
DocsMX International Documentary Film Festival of Mexico City (Mexico) – nominated ‘Fragments’ Competition
Iran International Documentary Film Festival (Iran) – nominated Best International Short
Berlin British Shorts Film Festival (Germany) – nominated Jury Award
Film fest Eberswalde (Germany) – nominated Best Short Documentary
Cheap Cuts Documentary Film Festival (UK) - winner Best British Documentary
Open City Documentary Festival (UK)
Aesthetica Short Film Festival (UK)
DC Shorts Film Festival(USA)
Filmets Badalona Film Festival (Spain) – nominated International Competition
Pravo Ljudski Film Festival (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Aix-en-Provence International Short Film Festival (France) – nominated International Competition
FRONTDOC – International Border Film Festival (Italy) – nominated Best Short Documentary
Kinodot Film Festival (Russia) – nominated Observer competition
Atlantidoc – International Documentary Film Festival of Uruguay (Uruguay)
Ânûû-rû Âboro International Film Festival (New Caledonia) – nominated International Competition
Psarokokalo – Athens International Short Film Festival (Greece) – nominated International Competition
DOCfeed – Eindhoven Documentary Festival (Netherlands)
Carmarthen Bay Film Festival (UK)
Festival Chalon tout Court (France) - nominated International Competition
FICSAM International Mental Health Film Festival (Portugal)
Central Doc – Tlaxcala International Documentary Film Festival (Mexico)
RTS North East & Borders (UK) – nominated Best Factual / Non-broadcast
National Film Awards (UK) – nominated Best Short Film
AHRC Research in Film Awards (UK) – nominated Innovation Award
Tabakalera Centre for Contemporary Culture (Spain)
Selected Press Articles
Cineuropa Shorts interview with Mark Chapman: http://shorts.cineuropa.org/sh.aspx?t=article&t2=interview&did=294436
Clermont-Ferrand 2016: Breakfast with Camrex: http://labrasserieducourt.com/en/breakfast-avec-camrex/
Q&A with Mark Chapman, dir. of Camrex at Clermont 2016: http://mydylarama.org.uk/Q-A-with-Mark-Chapman-dir-of-Camrex-at-Clermont-2016
Sight & Sound’s preview of Encounters 2016: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/comment/festivals/encounters-2016-preview
BFI: Preview of the 69th Edinburgh International Film Festival: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/preview-edinburgh-international-film-festival-2015
The AHRC Commons – Common Ground, York University
‘Making things Move: The Concepts and Connections’
Re-configuring a work founded in still photography into a moving image work
Edinburgh, Clermont-Ferrand, Hamburg, Glasgow, Kinodot, Encounters
The screenings listed above and accompanying Q&As have facilitated discussions and raised awareness around the issues raised in the film regarding private inner-city hostels.
The Arbor, 2010, UK, dir. Clio Barnard
Camrex, 2015, UK, dir. Mark Chapman
Colossal Youth, 2006, Portugal/France/Switzerland, dir. Pedro Costa
Horse Money, 2014, Portugal, dir. Pedro Costa
In Vanda’s Room, 2000, Portugal/Germany/Switzerland, dir. Pedro Costa
Notes on Blindness, 2016, UK, dirs. Pete Middleton, James Spinney
TRANS, 2013, UK, dir. Mark Chapman
Waltz With Bashir, 2008, Israel/France/Germany/USA/Finland/Switzerland/Belgium/Australia, dir. Ari Folman
Zoo, 2007, USA, dir. Robinson Devor
Corner, J. (2008) ‘Documentary Studies: Dimensions of Transition and Continuity’ in Austin, T. & de Jong, W. (eds.) Rethinking Documentary: New Perspectives, New Practices (2008) pp13-28, Open University Press
Greene, R. (2014) ‘Flights of Fancy’ in Sight & Sound, September 2014, Vol 24 issue 9, pp52-55
MacDonald, S (2015) Avant-Doc: Intersections of Documentary & Avant-Garde Cinema, Oxford University Press
McLane, B (2012) A New History of Documentary Film, 2nd edition, Bloomsbury
Oppenheimer, J. & Ten Brink, J. (eds.) (2012) Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory, and the Performance of Violence, Wallflower Press
Renov, M. (1993a) ‘Introduction: The Truth About Non-Fiction’ in Renov, M. (ed.) Theorizing Documentary (1993) pp1-11, Routledge
Renov, M. (1993b) ‘Toward a Poetics of Documentary’ in Renov, M. (ed.) Theorizing Documentary (1993) pp12-36, Routledge
Renov, M (1999) ‘Documentary Horizons: An Afterword’ in Gaines, J.M. & Renov, M (eds.) Collecting Visible Evidence (1999) pp313-325, University of Minnesota Press
Renov, M (2007) ‘Away From Copying: The Art of Documentary Practice’ in Pearce, G. & McLaughlin, C. (eds.) Truth or Dare: Art and Documentary (2007) pp13-24, Intellect Books
Renov (2013) ‘Art, Documentary as Art’ in in Winston, B. (ed.) The Documentary Film Book (2013) pp345-352, BFI/Palgrave Macmillan
Winston, B (1995) Claiming the Real: The Documentary Film Revisited, BFI Publishing
Review 1: Accept work and statement with no alterations
This is a beautifully produced piece of creative documentary that accesses important issues around mental health, class, institutional life, and masculinity in contemporary society. The film skilfully deploys the formal cinematic elements of camera, sound, location and editing to create a highly effective montage of the lives of the hostel residents that it portrays. This is furthered by the use of techniques such as construction, collaboration and performance, that begin to break down some of the conventional expectations of observational documentary, allowing the film to reveal the inner lives of its subjects, which is clearly stated as one of the central elements of the research project: namely, to explore the use of documentary as a means of visualising the interior life of its contributors.
This approach has been enhanced through the development of a multiplatform process, that has used stills photography, but also the casting of a BFI funded fiction film, as the means of developing the crucial relationships between filmmaker and the film’s subjects. This has in turn led to an evolving and organic production process, where interviews have been conducted and then scenes have been constructed with the film’s subjects that respond to those interviews. This has enabled the film’s participants to invest deeply in the film’s production. The film’s grammar has clearly evolved through this process of exploration and revelation, and the camerawork and sound and are beautifully combined in a dynamic edit that enables the material to transcend the reality that it describes.
The supporting statement is well written and well organised, and posits the creative process of the film’s production within a theoretical framework that challenges the notion of simple observation as the most effective means of portraying the lives of its subjects. In particular, the statement references Michael Renov’s redefinitions of the boundaries of the nonfiction film, and makes a clear case for the expressive documentary as a valid vehicle for the further exploration of the interior landscape as a new frontier of documentary film. The statement reveals a clear understanding of how formal elements of film, often considered the preserve of fiction, can be redeployed to create a documentary aesthetic that effectively reveal interior space on screen. In this respect, among others, useful comparison is made in particular to ‘Waltz with Bashir’ (dir. Ari Folman) and ‘The Arbor’ (dir. Clio Barnard).
There is a very clear correlation between the aims of the research as described in the statement and the realisation of the completed film. Mixing together the use of the constructed scenes of some of the film’s main characters (for example in the shooting of the hostel walls), with voiceover testimony from a range of the hostel residents, together with what are evidently more observational elements (for example, hoisting the bed out of the window), all create an effective tension or balance between ‘the sedate everyday routine of the hostel and the fierce, barely suppressed emotions felt by the residents’, ‘which it was clear would not have been possible … through observational filming techniques alone’. The statement goes on to describe how the residents have clearly become willing participants and collaborators within the film, so that the documentary filmmaker ‘develops performances from real life contributors … (who) are essentially actors in their own stories’. Although none of these elements individually are necessarily new, their combined deployment at the service of revealing interior space in the documentary form probably is, which absolutely qualifies it as genuine screen based research.
Finally, the quality of the finished piece is clearly evident from its success in a wide range of film festivals and also in the discussion that has evolved from it in conferences and print media. ‘Camrex’ deserves to be widely seen, as an expressive but unflinching piece of filmmaking that genuinely pushes at the boundaries of documentary.
Review 2: Accept work and statement with no alterations
This film is a striking and aesthetically effective portrait of homeless men living in a particular hostel, with the director working with the men to create a series of evocative and atmospheric subtly fictionalised scenes. The aesthetic photographic, rather than cinematic/televisual reconstruction. The result is both a sensitive and powerful film, hearing fragments of personal stories of men that is seldom heard. The unique aspect of the film is that it presents a narrative with a visual style that is engaging and not the usual approach for documentaries on this topic, in a refreshing way, and critically engages with the research questions as discussed in the supporting statement.
The statement is strong and presents an informed argument regarding the context and methodology of the work, underpinned by theoretical references and critical thinking. The context of the film is well thought out, with informed reflection on the discourse of ‘inner and outer worlds’ and approaches to film narrative. The research questions are pertinent and the resulting film engages with them in a thoughtful and convincing way. The text draws upon the ideas of Michael Renov and his notions of the form and function of nonfiction film, and the interplays between the aesthetic, conceptual and historical references with creative approaches to film narrative, and the challenge for nonfiction film to build an aesthetic language whilst maintaining the integrity of documentary principle.
The writing is clear and reflective, and is a suitable analysis of the film’s approach to ‘inner and outer’ narrative worlds, and also a discussion on the discourse of documentary practice, and film theory. The writing convincingly engages with the research questions, which all, in different critical ways, engages with ideas relating to approaching the interior narratives of contributors to nonfiction film. The films provided as contextual references, such as Waltz with Bashir, The Arbor, and Notes on Blindness, demonstrate a convincing engagement with the discourse of documentary aesthetics and interior narrative. It was also good to see mention that this film engages more with the personal stories of the contributing men, rather than work with looks into the social issues of homelessness more directly. This subtlety of narrative approach is effective, and compliments the ambiguous quality of the visual aesthetics, and how the director with the contributing men. The writing presents a suitable description of how the film was approached and the method of engagement, offering a background context of the film production, through to reflecting on how the film was made in practical terms, and how the men were worked with directly.
Presumably it was due to a restriction in their word count, but it would have been good to see more discussion with regards the relationship between the filmmaker’s related photography project and the subsequent film. This would have encouraged an analysis of how the different mediums may have fostered different approaches to collaboration, and also how the aesthetic approach and narrative style may have complimented or transformed when moved from still to moving image.