Week 4 - Learning Journal - Poetic Documentary

One of documentary’s earliest forms, the “poetic mode” as Nichols describes it, was the focus of the lecture this week. Nichols says a major difference with poetic over most other forms of documentary is that it “sacrifices the conventions of continuity editing [..] to explore associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions” (Nichols, 2001: p.102). Nichols is describing the focus on providing a rhythm to the film, typically made through the varying parameters with camera movement, editing pace and style, and the actions depicted on screen. The construction of how clips are put together, sometimes to create a montage edit, is important for the poetic mode as it dictates the pace of the film and what story emerges. For this reason, the poetic mode is a very subjective medium, as the messages conveyed within the film usually have multiple interpretations, compared to expository where the messages were objectively conveyed, with little room for ambiguity.

              The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term ‘poetic’ as a text “composed as poetry, consisting of or written in verse” (OED, 2021). In relation to poetic documentary, the visuals shown on screen create a rhythm for the film, and it has emphasis on the form in which the film has been constructed, rather than the content of the film. As described above, the poetic documentary mode is simple in how it presents the world, as it uses ‘metaphoric associations’ rather than literal meanings to allow the audience to decode the messages in an open way. Keeping things simple but allowing for a large range of responses, the films typically focus on everyday objects and movements within society, with little emphasis or focus on the social actors themselves.

              As the poetic form is constructed based on rhythm and pacing, the filmmaker, whose perspective the film is focused on, is in control of the pacing through editing, sound, and the shots themselves – further adding to Nichols’ point that it usually doesn’t follow continuity editing. Because of this, the films create a mood or tone for the situation, rather than trying to convey specific messages or ideas.

Screening – The Gleaners And I (Agnès Varda, 2000)

The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000) has an unusual feeling at the start, with Varda setting up the situation of the film through shots of a dictionary and reoccurring shots of an art gallery. The framing of the shots is beautiful, but I felt a bit disorientated at the start. This film, which has Varda’s narration throughout, is very much a participatory documentary due to her personal quest for understanding of the ‘gleaning’ process and her desire to meet the people who take part in the practice. However, when we look at the visuals of the film and how it has been constructed, we also see poetic elements shining through.

              The film has interesting music in multiple parts, with violins and strings at the start of the film, which create a busy pace for the opening. Accompanying this is the timelapse of the art gallery, with people flooding in and looking at the different paintings. A few sections of the film have a rap song playing, accompanied by shots of the ‘urban gleaners’ picking up trash and trying to source scraps of food. The music feels like it adds a negative representation to the gleaners, representing them as poor, as they “search for titbits”. However, the filmmakers argue that “rappers are familiar to denunciations of injustice, racism and everything going wrong” (Zeitgeist Films, n.d.: pg. 8), which is something I completely overlooked. It certainly is a clever technique and decision made by Varda.

              Varda takes the time to interview people, following the participatory mode, for their backstories and involvement to the ‘gleaning’ issue. It is, in a way, similar in construction to Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (2007) in this sense. However, what makes this film poetic is Varda’s own visual aesthetics, with her frequent use of handheld, point-of-view camera shots. Following the typical conventions of poetic documentary as I discussed earlier, this film is very much through Varda’s perspective.

            Even though it does not follow the poetic form exactly, with its mix of the participatory form, The Gleaners and I still manages to provide the audience with an interesting and peculiar look at the ‘gleaners’ from a gleaner’s perspective, whilst also providing the perspective of the filmmaker themselves. I also find it quite interesting how Varda’s team choose to put Varda on screen at different points, further showing her commitment and allowing us to see how Varda used the camera.

Screening – Regen (Joris Ivens, 1929)

Joris Ivens’ 1929 film “Rain” captures a busy city as the rain approaches, attacks and passes. This film uses a lot of close-up shots to create a lot of exaggerated on-screen movement, adding to the fast and rushed pace of the film, further aided by quick cuts. Although this film has no audio (at least in the version I watched), you don’t need any sound to feel the panic of the city inhabitants as they rush for cover. Following the point on poetic films focusing on everyday movements and objects, Rain focuses on people caught in a rain shower, with emphasis on the everyday objects such as doors closing, people walking, cars driving past and barges going down the river.

              Before the rain starts, Ivens focuses on the wind through handheld shots, showing clothes being thrown around by the wind. One sequence, at around the 3:20 mark, incorporates montage as seen in Fig. 2. A man puts his hand out to feel for rain and looks up, at which point it cuts away to a shot of rain splashes. Then, it cuts back to the man who walks away and pulls his collar up, putting his hands in his pockets to keep himself warm and dry. That was quite possibly my favourite sequence in this film, as it perfectly captures people going about their day whilst trying to avoid the rain.

            Rain doesn’t feature any interviews or ‘social actors’ per se, rather it is just a generalised representation of an ordinary social pattern that is up for audience interpretation. The pacing of the film is what makes it work, as it makes it fast paced and rushed, creating the sense of panic and annoyance as I discussed previously.


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