With a critical response size probably disproportionate to its viewing figures, Mark Cousin’s cine-docu-essay-poem Atomic, Living in Dread and Promise aired on Saturday as part of the BBC’s coverage remembering the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings 70 years ago. The manner in which the film was constructed, while typical of Cousin’s singular style, stands out for the most part as unique in field of documentary films, and it could hopefully signal a very promising change for TV documentaries.
Concisely and accurately described by the BBC as “an impressionistic kaleidoscope”, Atomic details the nuclear age, good and bad, micro- and macrocosmic, through a voiceover-less collage of archive footage. This form relies on active viewer participation to discern threads and ‘arguments’ in the mesh of images, occasional on-screen text and Mogwai score. Even for the BBC and their Storyville strand, it’s a rarity.
Many of the most acclaimed and widely popular documentaries are prescriptive, wherein the likes of Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and, similarly, Louis Theroux and Nick Broomfield are making an argument and you’re damn well gonna listen. This kind of polemical filmmaking has its merits, for sure (just ask Randall Dale Adams, who was freed from years in prison as a consequence of The Thin Blue Line), but thanks to the format’s popularity it has become the de facto approach to TV documentaries and renders them creatively stale, if comfortable ratings-earners. With the more descriptive approach a film is not precisely making a point and guiding viewers, merely presenting facts, images, voices or any combination of the three, and this approach possesses more vitality, not just for its comparative novelty on the small screen.
The main reason for the vitality is how this type of documentary communicates. The primary mode here is montage, where the sequential sum is greater than the choice parts. It’s a strain of documentary whose origins lie in the ‘city symphony’ films of early cinema, where the rush and exhilaration of booming metropolises were rendered through a variety of then-innovative cinematic techniques and effects in a filmic representation of Futurist ideals, as well as the notion of Pure Cinema (Cinéma Pur). Pure Cinema aimed to return filmmaking to its roots through the honest interplay between image and motion, where often what felt right was more important than “what are we trying to say?”
The cinema inspired by and abiding by the non-specific ‘rules’ of Pure Cinema are often described in terms like ‘lyrical’ and ‘poetic’, and appropriately filmmaker Herbert Revol believed that “documentary must be made by poets”, further tying these strands into an interrelated mesh of creativity and ideas, not dissimilar to the works created under this schema. Despite the movement cropping up in all manner of unexpected filmmaking niches – ‘70s and 80’s Italian horror films with ‘dreamlike’ narratives owe quite a debt to the Pure Cinema approach, for instance – it mostly survives today in the documentary genre.
But enough context, what does the form mean for the documentary?
By eliminating specificities, those nuanced details found in the best polemical prescriptive documentaries, there’s more room left for questioning. If one wants a thorough investigation of a subject, it’s probably best to read a 700-page tome. This is a medium best utilised when exploring the unsure and the vague, for the unfixed points and the relations between them. It’s for the ambiguities. These ambiguities also help separate and distinguish between the dictatorial polemics of prescriptive documentaries and this looser, freewheeling, more contemplative strain of descriptive.
In a rare negative response to Atomic, The Telegraph’s Rupert Hawksley claimed that it was “alienating” and mostly “there was so little explanation about what we were seeing that the film felt prohibitive”. Essentially, there was no third party voice lecturing a single train of thought. I argue however that that is what makes it such an honest and rewarding approach to filmmaking. It is interesting because the approach goes against the grain of general, mainstream understanding of what a (TV) documentary ‘should’ be – a visual tool of education. It treats the viewer with respect and intelligence, never pandering or patronising with explanation. The faith that one will invest time and effort into the work in question, and that they should be able to read the style, drawing their own impressions and meaning not as a fortunate side-effect but as the central expectation, is sadly still a revolutionary notion.
It’s a belief more reminiscent of the more daring days of cinema and TV’s interactions, such as when ‘kitchen sink’ British TV realism like Up The Junction borrowed from French cinema’s New Wave antics. The notion people would approach brave filmmaking with an interest to engage and maybe to learn seems to have died down, but that’s inaccurate. It’s merely changed form.
Viewers today are arguably more readily able to read media like this, as the proliferation of a kaleidoscopic media culture – both visually based (YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram etc.) and predominately text-based (Twitter, Facebook and ‘listicle’ sites) – has resulted in more active, self-conscious viewing. We instinctively are able to read small fragmented pieces of information, naturally finding and inserting narratives and discerning meaning through comparisons. Multiple tabs, multiple screens, this technique was once only found in the avant-garde art world. Now it’s many people’s standard modus operandi and it opens up a massive array of visual media possibilities. You derive– no, make the meaning from these strands and shards of ideas. The audience has always finished artworks; now it’s more explicit.
To pretend that such filmmaking is free of ideological concerns is erroneous, however. Selecting one piece of footage to exhibit to an audience is a conscious decision, one with personal and political ramifications. To select another piece is another decision with further consequences. To place them in sequence creates a whole third distinct meaning, regardless whether intended or accidental, and one which will no doubt vary viewer to viewer. This is the known as the Kuleshov Effect, and is the founding principle of all film and television editing. It is one of the most powerful tools in the moving image kit (possibly the most, next to the generalised ‘image’), yet for the most part unshowily operates ‘under the radar’ of audience consciousness (critics included).
Hitchcock explaining the Kuleshov effect in a frankly creepy manner
Thus, despite ostensibly being free of the prescriptive restrictions of more explicitly and consciously structured filmmaking, there are and will always be influencing factors shaping audience reaction, no matter how much filmmakers may wish to create works in a vacuum. Similarly, one other element which majorly steers audiences is present in Atomic, only this one more recognisably manipulative. Sound. Music provides narrative threads and emotionally controls just as much as a voiceover would, only we enter the realm of feeling rather than knowing, of being suggested to rather than being told.
This more ambiguous form of documentary then is unique for its blend of honesty and purity, as created by the synthesis of form and content, and for its premeditated techniques that are readily found in other filmmaking forms. One may argue that this is a dangerous combination, allowing for manipulation and, dare we say, propaganda to slip into homes under this guise of films handing the reins to the viewer. If someone thinks they have to wilfully do work to understand what they are witnessing they believe they are not being played and moulded, ironically making them more vulnerable to such action (maybe this was Rupert Hawksley’s real concern?). But simply, the fact that this approach instigates active viewing ensures that self-awareness is present; it encourages vigilance and intelligent viewing to better and more fruitfully respond to the media before them.
Ultimately then it’s an approach to documentary making that is – currently – all pros. The novelty is energising. It encourages and fosters hands-on, intelligent consumption and reaction. It loses some of the dictatorial style TV docs predominately feature. It’s a truly interesting, intriguing direction for documentaries to operate in, yet TV has historically seen little of it in favour of talking head austerity and Louis Theroux’s manipulative shenanigans. Based on the power of Atomic, that’s a damn shame.
Atomic, Living in Dread and Promise is available on BBC iPlayer till the 6th September.