Had the opportunity to take in a piece of “ethnographic” history today: Robert Gardner’s Deep Hearts. The film is well-known not for being a particularly early documentary (made in ’79) but for following in the vein of Robert Flaherty, whose Nanook of the North on one hand practically defined “documentary” in its early days but on the other hand raises lots of important questions about the nature of the genre. Nanook has Flaherty not so much as the documentarian but as the explorer, at least, as he would have viewers interpret the film. Both he and his wife Frances were outspoken regarding the exploratory nature of his films, especially of Nanook. Problem is, numerous incongruities have been noted both from within the film and from outside sources undermining the notion that Flaherty was doing “documentary” in the sense in which we commonly think of it now.
For example. The igloo in which he films “Nanook” and his family is not enclosed. This is noticeable in the film to the naked eye; one can see shadows being cast by the sun from the film crew, the edges of the half-igloo, and the family clearly colder than normal as they “go to bed” and “get up.” Also, it turns out that the name “Nanook” was utterly fictional, though Flaherty’s film tells us that this is his name. (Heretofore the quotes will be omitted out of laziness.) Nanook’s reaction to Flaherty’s gramophone apparently was disingenuous, or at least staged. At this point in history, inhabitants of the area would have already been exposed to such technology, which would not have been shocking to them. Along the same lines, Flaherty rid Nanook and his family of any evidences of industrialization, including weapons and tools. So when Nanook goes fishing, the spear he uses is a much more primitive version than he would have actually used. This list could go on to include the staged fishing fight, the dead penguin, and other things, but we’ll stop here.
The question is, should Flaherty (and for that matter, anyone) make such use of this idea of preservation of a culture? In Flaherty’s thinking, a previous form of Nanook’s culture was more desirable, more exotic, but above all more authentic. By staging his film the way he did, he attempted to document a culture that no longer existed and may have never existed. Does this not rob a documentary of its authenticity? Of course, it may be that Flaherty did what he did for entertainment value, as he hinted. He famously made a statement to the effect of, sometimes you gotta bend the truth to make it interesting. It seems, though, that it would have been more ethical of him to inform his audience that they were not watching something purely “true.” Others here will point out that Flaherty never actually claimed that it was all accurate, and since the idea of “documentary” was not even established yet, Flaherty was in fact embarking on a new form of filmmaking. If his audience misinterpreted the film, it’s their fault. Maybe. But Flaherty’s own insistence that he was, above all, an explorer, and only a filmmaker secondarily, implies to his viewers that they can take in Nanook of the North as factual.
But back to Deep Hearts. Whereas Nanook held the pretense of truthfulness, Deep Hearts is more like, to quote the great Stephen Colbert, “truthiness.” This is not, however, to say that Deep Hearts is void of pretense; on the contrary, its main pretense lies in the realm of the aesthetic/artistic/poetic. Very light on narration, more stylistic attention is given to structure and camera work. The film begins with the natives preparing for a yearly ritual. Then they have the ritual. Then they make their way back home. By structuring the film in this way, Gardner avoids shooting any footage of these people in their homes or even villages. Rather, he sets the film in a mythic realm. Geographically apart from any community, various natives from different villages meet in a wilderness area for a traditional rite, which Gardner seeks to capture. Such a structure, in a sense, is the opposite of documentarian pretense, for it does not convey to the audience that they are viewing something normal, something by which these people can be known. The intuitive viewer understands that a “third-world” people can no more be judged by an annual activity than a Western people. Were a third-world culture to have a window into, say, the Macy’s Parade, they would see Western (or at least American) culture in a skewed way.
Second, Gardner’s camera style attracts a lot of attention in Deep Hearts. Characterized by quick movements, pans, zooms, arbitrary slow-motion, and freeze frames (with continual sound), Gardner seems more interested in entertaining himself with his camera work than in documenting the people before him. There are moments in the film when Gardner seems oddly mesmerized with feet. During one such occasion, Gardner seems to notice the shadow of a figure next to him being cast on the ground, so the camera jerks quickly to focus on the shadow. At one point while shooting feet, Gardner cuts to the feet of a camel, offering a disturbing equivocation between native and animal.
There are those who insist that science and art are separate, and therefore ethnography cannot be judged at all on aesthetic terms and art on ethnographic terms. (This is not a straw man; just read it today.) This atrociously false dichotomy is exactly the problem in films like Deep Hearts. When you try to separate your art from your whatever (in this case a documentary of facts), you do violence to both. In this case, the real problem seems to be that a white guy went to Africa, captured the images of some native people, edited it together as he saw fit, and released it, all without having cared to represent these people in a fair and ethical way. Some at this point will (and actually do) say that representation is unethical, period. This is at least as ridiculous as the dichotomy. As soon as you “know” someone, you’ve represented him/her in your mind, creating an idea of who s/he is. Gardner was free to make a documentary on an “Other” people group, but he ought to have been aware of the impediments that lay before him. Instead, he gave little thought to the ethnographic aspect of the film and fooled around with his camera, trying to make it artistic. Consequently, Deep Hearts ironically but appropriately falls prey to the notion behind its title that Gardner as narrator explains at the film’s beginning: an effort to create a strong façade results in never knowing what lies underneath. In Gardner’s case, only the façade mattered, so nothing actually existed underneath it.