‘Between fact and fiction’: speculating on the documentary with John Hughes

‘Between fact and fiction’: speculating on the documentary with John Hughes – Interview

Paul Davies

JOHN HUGHES TRAINED AS A news cameraman with the ABC before turning to the world of independent film-making where his documentaries have been remarkable for their social and political content as well as their stylistic and visual experimentation. His credits include Menace, Film-Work, Traps, All That Is Solid, One Way Street (Fragments For Walter Benjamin), River of Dreams, and After Mabo. John also directed the feature What I Have Written based on a novel by John A Scott. He recently completed a term (1998-2001) as Commissioning Editor with SBS Independent.

Paul Davies: What is the documentary script? Is it a kind of contradiction in terms–given that documentaries sometimes are observational and only really exist in the film form first?

John Hughes: There is a tradition of the observational documentary but it’s only one tradition. There’s obviously an absolutely central tradition of the carefully, skillfully crafted documentary script from Humphrey Jennings, Joris Ivens, Grierson and so on … But the term ‘script’ is, in this context, a kind of generic term.

Then is it more accurate to say that what you start with first is the ‘documentary treatment’, which sometimes bears very little relationship to what ends up on the screen, and may be just a process you go through to open up the money box at some funding body?

Well the treatment is an inherent part of the process. Because in a sense you’re writing all the time.

I remember Pat Laughren giving a paper at the Woodford Festival recently where he claimed that writing a documentary was really about writing a series of begging letters–first to the funding bodies to get the money to make it, then to the people you want to be in it …

That’s stretching it a bit to consider the release form as part of the process of documentary writing. Or indeed signing cheques … (laughter).

I think Pat was joking (sort of).

Different people work in different ways. And everybody produces different genres of writing at various stages of the production of the documentary. ABC and SBS for example, have recently been saying they don’t want thoroughly developed proposals. What they want is very short outlines of an idea and if they like it they’ll tell you about how they think it should proceed from there. Both networks now have development money for documentary (something which has been very difficult to get in the past) and that is part of a shift that seems to be taking place where the desire of television is occupying some of the territory that has previously been occupied by film-makers themselves in producing critical or observational intervention in the culture.

So when you had your hat on as head of SBS documentary and people were coming forward with their projects, what is it that you were looking for in a particular proposal or treatment?

If we can take a step back for a moment–let’s say that an early document is a ‘Proposal’–it’s the description of the project–a few pages giving some background to the material that the filmmakers want to work with, and some information about what the narrative strategies are and what the treatment idea is–all of this is what you might call: ‘The Proposal’. If it’s a reasonably thought-out Proposal it will have a treatment element as part of it. Which is not necessarily a synopsis of how the film will appear on the screen–that depends on the material it’s dealing with. If it’s dealing with an event that’s unfolding in the present, then all the treatment can talk about is how it proposes to engage with those unfolding events.

So something like Year Of The Dogs for example, is going to be a film that follows a footy team through a season. But it’s impossible to predict what will happen to the team and therefore what the film will be about?

Yes, but the proposal is not going to be persuasive unless it’s able to give you the information about what the context is and what’s at stake for the team. Why is it likely to work dramatically? What is the treatment? Is it narrated? Does it position one ‘character’ in the foreground? What is the point of view? Whose story is this?

So you’re looking for the dramatic potential in a given idea?

You’re looking for engaging story elements certainly. But you’re also looking for the pertinence of it. What does it have to say that is insightful more generally about the culture of the place. So–if they want to follow events during the course of a year in this particular football club then the question is, why? And the available answers are, ‘because they’re really amusing people and they’re great to watch’. Okay, that’s fine. That’s one approach. Or it’s ‘Because the issues the football club are dealing with have much broader significance’. There are any number of possibilities.

So in a film of yours like Traps say, the subject is the Australian Labor Party and the way it is transformed by a key player like Bob Hawke, and the moments around which you build that story are things like the ALP conference in 1984.

Well Traps is a particular’ case because it’s explicitly about trying to play with a mix of fiction and non-fiction. So it’s a complicated example. But it’s interesting to note that during the making of that film we were writing all the time, continually coming up with possible sequences to tell certain stories that were pertinent to what was going on around us in those months between 1983 and 1984. And that’s one way that documentary script writing works: in that you will always be trying to find–in the material that you’re dealing with–treatment ideas to get on screen what you think is important about the subject you’ve chosen to film.

And then there is this thing you once called the ‘Speculative Documentary’.

That was about one way of thinking through this question, because one of the factors at that time (and it remains a problem) was that people used the term ‘documentary’ so generally that it became very difficult to talk sensibly about it because there are so many different approaches involved. So the term ‘speculative documentary’ was an invention of mine to try and specify a particular subcategory of the essay which performed the idea that: ‘what we’re dealing with here is a work of the imagination’. At the same time, of course, in a sense all documentary is ‘a work of the imagination’.

So we’re talking about a genre here that is neither fictional nor documentary. But as you say, more like an essay or speculation on certain ideas …

Which doesn’t make it other than documentary. It just means that the term ‘documentary’ has to be recognized as a word that encompasses a wide range of traditions. So you can look at a particular film and find the fine threads of a variety of traditions that constitute its particular form.

Is it more appropriate therefore to think of all films as basically telling some kind of story, whether it’s preconceived and acted out (the narrative drama) or whether it’s captured and reassembled in different ways in the editing suite (the documentary). And in both cases what we’re really hoping for is some kind of engagement with an audience in order to bring about change–or at best distraction …

I think a lot of my stuff has got an agitprop dimension. But there are other agendas too.

So what prompted you to undertake a project like What I Have Written? Was the narrative feature a step you’d always wanted to take?

Not really, it was simply getting hold of a manuscript of John Scott’s novel as a work in progress and finding it very engaging and feeling that it was dealing with important material and then thinking that the only way to do this was as a narrative drama.

And yet the style (for want of a better word) of What I Have Written, the use of stills, gives it a kind of documentary feel. The frozen images in that film are like captured moments of reality. It also shares with your other work a kind of excitement about the image, a kind of playfulness with form and editing.

When the Philippine bishop, Cardinal Sin, was asked how, as a committed Christian, he could justify the relationship between his church and the dictator Ferdinand Marcos he said it was a form of ‘critical collaboration’. So I guess the ‘playfulness’ you talk about there in the films for me, is a ‘critical collaboration’ with orthodoxy–both in narrative drama and documentary. And that comes up in films like Traps and All That Is Solid–all of the films really, each is engaged in a critical collaboration with orthodoxy. And part of that is an exploration of the poetic dimension of image and story. In relation to What I Have Written you’re right, the themes that are central to that narrative are exactly concerned with the telling of stories and their relationship to actuality–and the troublesome status of that relationship.

It’s also a film about a specific ‘document’–a piece of writing that has a disputed authorship.

Yes. That’s one of the things I responded to in the book that Scott was writing. They were parallel concerns to what I had been doing in my previous work.

So what role is there, if any, for the dramatic reconstruction in the documentary? Does it depend on the project–is it a matter of what’s appropriate or is it just part of the tool box of the film-maker? Because I suppose it’s also about resources …

Well there’s dramatic reconstruction and there’s dramatic reconstruction.

For example, in One Way Street–it took the form of a kind of ‘speculative reconstruction’ perhaps? I’m thinking of the scenes there between Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis–which are not even pretending to be real in a sense, but are a kind of ’embellished drama’?

We used to call it ‘stylized reconstruction’. But the word ‘reconstruction’ becomes a bit redundant in that sense. And ‘dramatic reconstruction’ in documentary at this stage doesn’t have a real lot of use for me. It’s not the kind of taken for granted form that it once was–you know the ‘dramatic documentary’–the drama which sought to tell a true story as accurately as it could using actors, dialogue, sets and costumes–that’s much less common now. But the tradition lives on and you see it in carefully scripted works like The Realm of the Hackers (Written and Directed by Kevin Anderson, Produced by John Moore)–where what you have on the screen are illustrations of events the protagonists in the film describe. There’s a certain kind of realist naturalism that occurs in that tradition. At some point there was a strong critique among documentarists of that realist naturalism as a mode in documentary on the grounds that it made claims about its legitimacy which were very hard to sustain.

So it became a suspect methodology.

Yes. And there are a couple of ways that criticism emerged–partly through people writing about it and also through the development of strategies in certain films that directly attack it. It’s not necessarily a recent thing–it goes back to Dziga Vertov, Godard, Marker, that kind of thing. It may be something to do with a kind of British and American pragmatism on the one hand and a European critical sensibility on the other. One way to directly attack it has been to make those moments of illustration explicitly fictional–to estrange them–and not seek to have them perform as realist naturalism. But have them perform as a kind of poetic moment. And once you decide on that strategy it’s about finding the aesthetic means to achieve it.

Which is the quality of those scenes in One Way Street that are quite deliberately unrealistic. Staged almost.

In that case and in other cases, the strategies used have readable significance which is not explained but have to be teased out of it by the spectator. They can either read it or not. But the poetic, fragmented images in One Way Street are much more set pieces. Whereas, I think of things like 50 Years Of Silence that Carole Sklan wrote and Ned Lander directed, which sought to produce emotive and evocative historical moments in the life of the protagonist (events from the 1940s). In that film there were a series of highly stylized poetic images that the writer designed which allow you to connect with the story in an emotional way without implicitly making the claim that ‘this is what it was really like’. And of course this strategy also becomes a convention and orthodoxy in itself.

So the speculation about what happened (in the past) needs to be transparent speculation?

It’s not as though people who are watching realist drama don’t know they’re watching something that has been written and manufactured for that purpose. It’s about how the work positions the spectator: as an active, critical spectator or as a less critical, more ‘taken for granted’ spectator.

There’s a suspension of disbelief though, that goes on in narrative drama to the extent that a lot of the audience apparently think the actors make up the words themselves. (laughs)

In the documentary, of course, they actually do. And in Traps so did the actors–I’m thinking of John Flaus’s priest for example. But that was part of the playfulness of that film.

So was Walter Benjamin a major influence on your work–‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, the fragmentary nature of existence and creativity? Searching for the divine revelation that has been lost, the aura of a particular work of art …

Yes, I’m interested in Benjamin and I’m still discovering things. Working my way through. It’s not so much the Artwork essay. It changes at different points. Trying to understand his work. I keep going back to it. One of the reasons it’s so rich is because in some ways it’s very complex and has so many layers.

And lots of readings.

I think so. But part of the beauty of it is that you can use it–both the methods Benjamin employs to write and the material that he’s dealing with, and the creative ideas that he develops. You can apply them critically.

A recent project you were working on was First Australian Nations.

Yes, I spent most of last year working with Rachel Perkins, Darren Dale, Erica Glynn, Julie Nimmo, basically helping with research for their series of seven or eight one hours on an Indigenous Australian history. I’m now working on a project inspired by a recent book of Dennis Altman’s. And I’m interested in some Australian film history. Victoria Lynn and John Smithies at ACMI are being very supportive of that, so is ScreenSound, which is terrific. But that’s at an early stage.

And the title of your company, ‘Early Works’. Does that imply the best is yet to come?

Of course. (laughs)

This interview was conducted over lunch in St Kilda, 22 February 2003.

Paul Davies trained as a script editor on Homicide and has since written for many series including: The Sullillvans, Against The Wind, Rafferty’s Rules and more recently Blue Heelers, Stingers and Something In The Air.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Australian Teachers of Media

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