David MacDougall
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in The art of the observer


THIS book was written for the most part during 2020–21 when there was little else I could do, since we were all to varying degrees immobilised by the Covid pandemic. I tried to take one or another aspect of filmmaking and say what I knew about it, returning more than once to my own filmmaking experiences. For this I can only plead that I know more about my own experiences than those of other filmmakers. In what follows, several of the same films and people crop up in different chapters, but I hope always within the context of that chapter’s topic. My intention is that each chapter should stand alone as well as contributing to the book as a whole, and that examining certain films from several different angles may lead to a better understanding of how they were made. I have tried to work my way around most of the situations that documentary filmmakers are likely to face, together with the problems and pleasures of what is admittedly a rather unusual way of engaging with the world.

A few chapters deal with ethnographic film, but the underlying subject of the book is observational filmmaking and the ideas and practices surrounding it. We are all actors and observers in the world, and observational filmmaking attempts to translate this to the broader canvas of documentary cinema. In doing so, certain skills are required and, I would argue, the cultivation of a particular sensibility and set of filmmaking strategies. These involve an openness to what exists, but also, I believe, a deeper interest in how certain aspects of a subject are chosen and how they are presented to an audience. In this process the filmmaker’s own presence becomes inscribed in the film, and the film’s aesthetic and ethical stance becomes inseparable from the connections established between filmmaker and subject.

A film is made in the same sense that a chair or table is made. Whatever skills are employed, the grain shows through, and I have tried not to forget the primacy of the subject in all that we do, or the practicalities of engagement between filmmaker and subject. In the end a film is a product of that engagement and the chance circumstances that surround it. We can have no guarantee that our films will survive, for history tells us that most films do not. The most that filmmakers can do, I believe, amidst the pleasures and disappointments of filmmaking, is keep alive for a few hours or a few years what would otherwise be forgotten.

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The art of the observer

A personal view of documentary


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