The debate about form and content is ongoing and rightly so. For filmmakers every project requires us to understand the objectives of our work, gauge who the audience is, and reflect on the challenges this presents. Many choices are made in the process, none of which are apolitical. My last film, Miners Shot Down, has travelled widely, allowing me to see similar films to mine and hear the ongoing debates around the genre. This has led me to various conclusions.
The desire to hear and tell stories is a feature of all societies and it has been since time immemorial. Indeed, the right to tell stories in an unhindered, uncensored manner is considered by many as a fundamental human right. The question is: why do we need stories and which ones endure? Richard Francis Kuhns reminds us that “storytelling is not only entertainment, it is also thinking through human conflicts and contradictions”.
The term entertainment in film has become synonymous with light amusement, thanks to the dominance of Hollywood, and has even entered into our dictionaries as such. However, the acclaimed writer Graham Greene divided his output into two categories: novels and entertainments. The latter went far beyond amusement and sought out a form that was akin to thrillers with fast-moving plots but containing moral and political complexity that challenged the reader to think through a myriad ambiguities.
This is where the best documentary film is often situated. It sits somewhere between classic film narrative, journalism and TV entertainment. Unfortunately, many so-called intellectuals are unable to wrap their heads around a form that is not easily categorised, and documentary therefore remains something outside the art world. It has not been thoroughly commodified, perhaps for the best, but the downside is that this often leaves serious documentarians in difficult economic circumstances.
We should be concerned with entertaining people. In many ways our primary concern must be to keep our audience engaged. This is the very art of storytelling. We must reclaim the term entertainment from Hollywood, not to dull people’s senses but rather to sharpen them: this is the rationale of progressive art, even though the space for such work is gradually being eroded by TV channels in South Africa and generally across the world.
Entertainment is learning
It is now increasingly recognised that most people learn more from their interaction with a story than they do from a lecturer who sees learning as providing answers and people’s heads as empty vessels to be filled. We cannot give ground to the do-gooders, to liberals who believe context must be given primacy over story, because knowledge can only be owned by the individual when people arrive at their own conclusions: when people discover the truth for themselves.
The problem arises when some become so taken with Western enlightenment that they believe meaningful truth can only be garnered if the wider picture, context, is constantly in the frame. In film this is a recipe for boredom, the antithesis of entertainment. It is also the limitation of film and its core element, drama, which can only provide a slice of life, or a segment of actual life experience.
Film’s strength is being able to evoke an emotional reaction and, in doing so, open people to thinking differently, so that they ask themselves “what should I do?” or “what can I do?” I would contend that the majority of people can only be moved to action by being emotionally moved to do so. Film is not primarily about information or facts but rather about the production of images, points of view, sounds, in a manner that is able to create an emotional mood that opens audiences to the message/ truth the filmmaker seeks to relay. In this sense, it remains one of the highest art forms of the modern age.