Amy: the girl behind the nameAsif Kapadia (UK 2015) Janis: Little Girl BlueAmy Berg (USA 2015)
Beware films bearing colons: in their titles.
Film is one means of probing a truth content of a subject matter.Although documentary and drama framed movies (and there are hybrid types of doc/dramas) are different approaches are there particular characteristic features that distinguish them from each other?
Watching Amy and Janis,two feature docs, made me think about the differences between drama and doc as film expression.Documentaries seem to be a particular type of film expression that lays claim to the actual.But documentary films in relation to: subject matter, contents, structure and even form are often substantially the same as drama.So, what of a film like Kapadia’s Amy whose content comprises only of actual documented footage and archive material without any externalities of input such as voice over or extranuous music. You might think that produced in this form using only originary primary material that Amy’s expressive content makes it completely distinct from any drama based production.
However it might be possible to make a film, that used only actual material originating as documentary or archive recordings, whose purpose was to produce an intentional fabrication.You might call such a film a piece of propaganda (Riefenstahl’s work for Hitler) or perhaps a fabricated documentary and the latter type of production would almost certainly borrow heavily from dramatic form to fabricate its story, and to that extent would present many of the markers of a drama in making its claim to present truth content.
In relation to Kapadia’s ‘Amy: the girl behind the name’, this is the sort of claim that has been made by some of her family.
The overwhelming pressure on film makers from distributors producers commissioners is to have a strong story line.Narrative is king.So both drama and documentary types of film have to conform.To find the line through the material that best delivers a story.To disregard elements that don’t fit the story, to draw out their characters in those expressive clips that clearly define their role in the story.This pressure is most strongly exerted on contemporary documentary makers, looking for theatrical release, whose editing of originatory material now has to comply with the rules of dramatic form.
Both Amy and Janis conform to the pre-packaged populist narrative of the tragedy of the flawed female performer.The message that female emotional frailty combined with isolation and inability to cope with the ravaging demands made by the image of success, lead on to recourse to drinkdrugs and death.Both films in their different ways package this story and present it as the primary truth content without too much complication or digression.
The music of Janis and Amy is folded into the warp of both films.Music which is intense and personal, expressive of states of mind embedded in the films, but not necessarily definitive of either singers’ life.
It is perhaps in the expectations of the audience, rather than form, that documentary and dramatic material may be significantly different.Audiences for films presented as docs are more concerned with the truth content of the material.Audiences for drama,more concerned with dramatic effect.
Dramatic productions are subject I think to different criteria of appraisal by their audiences.In dramatic performances, actors are appraised for their bodies, their physiques, their voices, the delivery of their lines (sincere, authentic) and their mimicking abilities. In dramatic scripts the audience is happy to accept a large measure of dramatic license in the film scenario. Dramas are understood as fabrications.For the audience the issue is whether at some level the drama can be understood as sincere and authentic.
In a film presented as a documentary, the audience attends the material with a different subjectivity.In docs the makers and contributors are judged almost exclusively for their honesty.In the documentary film the audience to some extent play a forensic role, almost a type of jury, examining the film looking for signs confirming the veracity, the relatedness, the frankness, the repleteness and moral stature of interviewees and material as it is presented
Amycomprises an overwhelming intimacy.The film consists of home movie footage, archive and selfie material: a door, an opening into Amy’s life.It presents as intrusion: like looking through someone’s diary or going through their room. The mood created is one of privileged access to the private sphere, a construed invasion of privacy.The film, reinforced with Amy’s self referential songs defines the mood of its expressive material shaping it into a tragedy, that entwined emotionally with her music, tells the story of the inevitable rise decline and death of Amy Whitehouse.
Berg’s ‘Janis…’ also makes use of archive and personal footage.At the core of the film’s narrative drive are the songs, interpreted and reinformed by extensive use made of interviews with those who knew and worked with her.The songs speak for themselves: the emotional authenticity of the story of‘Janis’.But the interviews seem to me less satisfactory.They all conform to the expected image of Janis, and come across as perspectives of the past seen through the filter of the present.A present where the hot issues of the past, its conflicts and antagonisms, have all comfortably melded.The interviews seem to reconstruct an idealised version of Janis that seems at odds with an actual Janis, a demanding out of control hurricane of life.
Both Amy and Janis are formulaic but each offers a quite difference experience of subjectivity to the viewer. Amy asks the viewer to conspire with the film makers conceit that their film allows them to understand the music by allowing them into the domain of the private. Janis, keeps the viewer on the outside of the material, asking them to understand the music by believing the word of a number of interviewees talking many years after the events they are remembering.