I was having a discussion recently about objectivity in documentaries. My argument was that as soon as a filmmaker chooses to point the camera in one direction instead of another there is no longer objectivity.
Despite my opinion, I think that one documentary filmmaker who comes as close as possible to pure objectivity is Frederick Wiseman. In contrast to a documentary filmmaker like Michael Moore, whose films tell stories and present a strong point of view, Wiseman’s style is “fly on the wall” observational. He presents what he sees without commentary or judgment.
“La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet” is Wiseman’s 38th film. The subject is the world renowned Paris Opera Ballet. Wiseman’s style did take a little getting used to. There is no narrator to guide us, no titles to let us know where we are, no interviews, no one or two subjects to latch onto and follow. There is also next to no conflict except for some of the ballet’s administrative discussions about upcoming seasons and a discussion about retirement benefits for dancers.
Apparently, Mr. Wiseman was given unrestricted access to the Palais Garnier (I got the name from the press notes not the movie) where everything from rehearsals to lunch happens for the Paris Opera Ballet. We are shown dancers rehearsing with choreographers, we see the food in the cafeteria, cleaning people and costume-makers. Administrators plan upcoming seasons and have conversations with dancers. We witness discussions about lighting plans and then more rehearsals.
Later in the film are the actual performances, which run the gamut from classical ballet to modern dance. Mostly there is lots of dancing. What I appreciated about Wiseman’s camera is that he knows how to shoot dance. So few directors know how to do this and yet it is so simple. Wiseman knows to pull his camera back to show the entire dance with the dancers framed head to foot. There are no gimmicky quick cuts to close-ups of the dancers’ feet followed by close-ups of their faces, torsos or arms. His subjects know how to dance and do not need any help from the editing room.
Wiseman also shoots on 16mm film, which is very rare for documentaries nowadays as it is not as cost-effective as, and requires more skill than, shooting on video. The results are beautifully shot dance sequences that have a distinctive look still only attainable on “old fashioned” film.
I appreciated “La Danse” but it took a little doing. At first, I was impatient with Wiseman’s observational style, which I found slow and repetitive. I wanted a story. Gradually though, I felt myself surrender to the movement and imagery of the dances. So, while I liked “La Danse” I also recognize that this is not a documentary for everyone. Certainly ballet enthusiasts will enjoy it. As for people who just like good documentaries “La Danse” might be a mixed bag, especially at 158 minutes.
“La Danse” opened at Film Forum on Nov. 4. This film is not rated. Director Frederick Wiseman, 2009. Running time: 2:38. Released by Zipporah Films.