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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