Jewel Maranan’s Sa Palad ng Dantaong Kulang (2017) is a documentary focusing on four separate families living in the port district of Tondo. In Palad, Maranan follows the families for years as she records their struggles trying to fight relocation up to the very moment when their homes are demolished. Kristoffer Brugada’s Elehiya sa Paglimot (2020) is also a documentary. But this time, it’s a deeply personal story that affects Brugada’s own family. In Elehiya, Brugada films his father as he slowly succumbs to his Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
Brandished by wide shots depicting the port area and its infrastructures as intimidating towering behemoths, Maranan’s Tondo is constructed with a sense of the fantastic. It is as if to contrast the grounded suburbs of the settlers which are her subjects there. Maranan, as an outsider, is afforded with creative allowances that portray Sa Palad ng Dantaong Kulang as one would create a fiction narrative.
It is contrasted by the diary approach of Brugada’s Elehiya sa Paglimot. He captures scenes at their most raw. You can sense a strong conviction emanating from Brugada himself while watching his documentary. Either he really loves his father so much or is so numbed already by emotions that he was able to film his father at his weakest – fits, seizures, and death bed included – to be exhibited as if the audience are intruders or perverted voyeurs into the lives of his family.
Oftentimes, it takes years to complete a traditional documentary. It’s because as documentaries are usually non-fiction, narrative progression happens in real-time. But it is also because documentarists need to immerse first with their subjects. Immersion is a common and necessary practice in documentary filmmaking. Here is when the documentarist familiarizes themself with their subject, and when they figure out how they will tackle the narrative they are aiming to tell. It is an ongoing process even after the documentary is done filming. As Maranan is an outsider to the world of her subjects, she needed to immerse first in Tondo to know their plights. Brugada’s immersion is different – his immersion is coming to terms with his emotions. The finished documentary can even be a tool to process what he has filmed and has experienced making it.
But there is a more solid difference between the two – a distinction that is ingrained in the history of documentary filmmaking. Two basic genres: direct cinema and cinema vérité.
“French for “film truth”, cinema vérité was first developed by French ethnologist and filmmaker, Jean Rouch during the early 1960s and brought to documentary filmmaking a natural dialogue and authenticity of action. But unlike its direct counterpart, the philosophy behind this technique was that the filmmaker actively participates in the film as a subjective observer where necessary; combining observational AND participatory filming in the same breath. Essentially, there is an awareness of the camera that is filming the scene, thus establishing a connection between the cameraman/filmmaker and those who are being filmed (New York Film Academy).”
Being direct cinema, Maranan is nowhere in her film as she lets her scenes and subjects speak for themselves. Being cinema vérité, Brugada is center in his, providing the narration that makes sense of the clips he shot. “In comparison, both direct cinema and cinema vérité aim to uncover truth in two different ways. The former hopes to unveil truth through the camera’s observation of events and subjects; the latter uses any means possible to seek out truth and is intrinsically an internal process being gradually revealed.”
Of course, the two oftentimes overlap. They are not exclusive, but are supportive, of each other. Nor does it mean that direct cinema and cinema vérité are the only two styles of documentary filmmaking you can utilize.
Last year’s DaangDokyu shed much needed and deserved exposure to local documentaries. Furthermore, it showed creative ways of conceptualizing documentary filmmaking: from Aswang‘s (by Alyx Arumpac) weaving of mythology into its rhetoric to For My Alien Friend‘s (by Jet Leyco) completely fictional narrative framing of alien correspondence for a humanist mood piece; from the stylistic choices of TV dramatizations to student filmmakers’ use of animation and mockumentaries bending truth, documentaries do not have to be just talking heads spitting out facts.