Thomas Balmes on Documentary Democracy

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Thomas Balmes (23 minutes, 11 mb mp3).

Thomas Balmes is a global filmmaker from France who commits anthropology with his camera. He is coaching us here in how to make expressive use of the new video democracy on YouTube — how to adapt our own anthropological eyes to see and perhaps reveal what’s lurking in plain sight all around us.

I go by an amateur’s notion of anthropology, as the social science of spotting, as they say, what’s familiar in the strange … and what’s strange in the familiar. Thomas Balmes has improvised his way to mastery of the art all over the planet.

Damages is his rare American film, by turns grotesque, hilarious and perversely winsome, about lawyers in a litigate-or-die law firm in Bridgeport, Connecticut haggling over personal-injury and wrongful death claims.

You’ll feel a certain shock of recognition hearing Thomas Balmes say why the US is heaven for documentarians: because we Americans (unlike, say, Japanese or French folk) will talk openly on a stranger’s camera (or into a cellphone, on a bus) about anything, including dollars for death.

Most of the Balmes movies are made elsewhere: looking at the tribal wars in the Balkans, for example, through the eyes of tribal warriors from Kenya who went to Bosnia as peace keepers; or watching McDonalds market its burgers in India, the land of the Sacred Cow. The next big Balmes production will track four babies from birth to walking – in Namibia, Japan, Mongolia and San Francisco. Everywhere Balmes uses the fly-on-the-wall “direct cinema” technique. No shooting script, no voice-over commentaries: just looking, listening, and leaving viewers to make sense of whatever it is we catch – as in that Bridgeport law office:

My questions to Thomas Balmes have mainly to do with the lessons for journalism or anti-mass media: how might we all learn to shoot the scene outside the window with freshness, ambiguity, tolerance, humor and entertainment value? (His answer boils down to: Just do it.) What if in place of television “news” we could call on Thomas Balmes and his inspired imitators to show us what and who they’re looking at tonight?

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  • nother

    Of In Cold Blood, Capote said, “This book was an important event for me. While writing it, I realized I just might have found a solution to what had always been my greatest creative quandary. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.”

    I once heard David Fanning – the founder of FRONTLINE on PBS – say that “literary journalism is the high calling.” That sounds a lot like what Mr. Capote found is his “search.”

    A major misconception about the genre of documentary is that the objective is to be objective…that is a bunch of crap. The bottom line is that all filmmaking…all storytelling for that matter…is subjective, seen through a personal lens. The question is one of earnestness…as it is with all truth seeking.

    “Facts” you want? My favorite documentary filmmaker, Werner Herzog, states that “facts do not create truths, facts create norms but they do not create illumination.” Werner says he has always been after “an ecstatic truth, and ecstasy of truth.”

    It sounds as though Mr. Balmes has discovered some of that truth with his lens. I look forward to seeing it.

  • Yo, Brother Nother: Check out the video clip from Thomas Balmes’ “Damages” on this site. We posted the wrong excerpt before, but the right one now is a neat demonstration, I think, of the slippery effect that Balmes strives for. Do check it out, above, and then I’d love to read your impression of the norms, facts, truths, illuminations and such that he’s sharing. Thanks, CL.

  • Potter

    This reminded me of Fred Wiseman’s films.

    I get riveted, feel like a voyeur.

    No writer or filmmaker can be unbiased- there are choices:

    Wiseman: “[My films are] based on un-staged, un-manipulated actions… The editing is highly manipulative and the shooting is highly manipulative… What you choose to shoot, the way you shoot it, the way you edit it and the way you structure it… all of those things… represent subjective choices that you have to make…”

    There is some magic at work. This gets under your skin, sucks you in and then as voyeur you can see another perspective. The less clouded the filmmaking is the better the effect, the closer to real life.

    I think there is a lesson here for journalism, for reporting. There are too many complaints that reporters don’t take strong enough ( read that- obvious) positions in their reporting when they actually are subtly doing so in their choices, their anecdotes, stories. They are allowing the reader or viewer the space to get involved, to feel something.

  • nother

    About 40 seconds in there is a collective giggle from the group in response to a witty repartee between two of the lawyers about the “electronics whiz,” who makes 32 K a year. There is a perverse weight to the laugh; it’s the laugh of God, the omnipresent power to value life. Inherent is that power is a whisper of immortality. During that precious moment of roundtable judgment…each one of these otherwise nondescript Brooks Brothers buying ponytail people rise above being judged. They – with that ironic and sardonic laughter (that which I want to slap off their face) – do the judging around here, and if you want to peer up to our bench with your tiny little camera and your tiny little responsibilities, be our guest…sit down shut up and be our guest.

    Ok says Mr. Balmes, I’ll be your quite little guest, and I’ll peer up to your perch with all my little tiny friends packed into my little tiny camera.

    It’s apparent that Mr. Balmes does not use his camera as a noose, he uses it as the rope…and he’s happy to share it.

    I for one can appreciate what Mr. Balmes is doing with his work. For my thesis I did a documentary on a U.S. Army recruiter who was trying desperately to stay honorable while he recruited 17 year-old girls to fight in a bullsh*t war. I also did a short documentary on a private contractor who tried desperately to stay honorable as a mercenary. These lawyers are desperate to stay honorable in a system of faux values.

    The common theme for these subjects is they want their cake (money, etc) and they want to eat it too (to be good people).

    But the bottom line is they are humans and flawed as they may be they deserve dignity for their intentions.

    And I believe Mr. Balmes’s message is the same as my own (although he is much better at delivering it) the people you see in our documentaries are victims too…of a system. It’s the various systems that need to change…only first they must be acknowledged.

  • Nother Man: You have a great eye and (better) a great heart. I was trying to tell Thomas Balmes about The Wire on HBO. The Wire is made to feel like direct cinema and a sort of anthropology of the ghetto and the police department. (And now William Julius Wilson, no less, has declared that The Wire goes deeper, more authentically into urban life in America than any social science.) At the same time The Wire is artful melodrama, brilliantly written, cast, acted, directed and shot. Meanwhile, David Simon also tells us that his series represents both Dickens in our time and place (yes, The Wire looks to me like the 21st Century American Bleak House, a sort of homage to the greatest urban novel of the 19th Century), and also the New Journalism, growing out of the commercial unreality of the Baltimore Sun and the late great American newspapers. Watching The Wire, as I’ve been doing compulsively, gives you a lot to follow, a lot to think about, a lot to try to explain to Thomas Balmes, who hasn’t seen it yet. I note this just to say that I think Balmes is giving us an example of how everyman might make conceive The Wire of our own experience and our own imaginations.

  • nother

    Thank you, Chris. Thank you. The Wire has been on my list for some time but it just shot to the top. It’s a great example, I’m glad you brought it up. The first and some would say greatest documentary is the silent film “Nannok of the North” – It’s the first film Mr. Balmes would have learned about if he ever took a documentary class. In 1922 Robert Flaherty took his camera to the Canadian Arctic to follow Nannok (one of the Inuk) and his family.

    Flaherty has been criticized for staging certain sequences, but it wouldn’t have been a great film otherwise.

    One of my favorite recent docs is Manda Bala” about corruption in Brazil – it’s the Wire in Brazil. I’ll watch the Wire, Chris, if you’ll watch Manda Bala!

    Here is the trailor: (the trailer doesn’t do justice to the amazing cinematography)

    You can watch it instantly on Netflix:

    The filmmakers do some staging, for instance they set up lights and cameras at the police station…so when something does go down, they can film it just right. Consequently, they catch real drama in a beautiful way.

    Jean-Luc Godard has said that the best fiction films are like documentaries and the best documentaries are like fiction.

    Godard, Simon, Herzog, Capote, Balmes, they tap into that dreamworld devoid of genre, fact, and artifice. Maybe It’s only in that elusive space that one can stay true to the subject and yet still leave room for the imagination you spoke of Chris – both of the filmmaker and the viewer.

  • Potter

    I suppose this is why M. Antonioni’s documentary film on China during the cultural revolution Chung Kuo (1972) for Italian TV (RAI). PBS played it, if I remember, in English ( there was narrations but I don’t remember that- it was neutral as could be)- all 3 and a half hours. This was never to be seen again, banned (and panned) in China and elsewhere ( not to offend).

    I was riveted, the color cinematography or the scenes especially of Suzhou were gorgeous. But this was no travelogue and the powers that be in China knew it.

    Google video and you tube have excerpts. I still can’t find a decent copy of the whole film.

  • Potter

    Sorry for that screwy mis-punctuated etc comment but I hope it was evident that I was saying that the Antonioni documentary made Chinese leaders at the time nervous and I could never understand why until perhaps now. It seemed absolutely neutral and of course fascinating.