Coverage and Montage

The conceptual dimension of ubiquitous filmmaking decisions.

Buffet Željezara (English title:The Steel Mill Cafe)
dir. Goran Dević, 2017, Croatia
genre: poetic/observational, character-driven

I wonder if there is anything so ordinary yet so important as the filmmaker’s decision on when and how to shoot and edit coverage.

Particularly when I watched Buffet Željezara, a follow-up to Goran Dević’s Two Furnaces For Udarnik Josip Trojko, one of the documentaries that hooked me into festival films and led me to this project. Buffet is different in style. Whereas Two Furnaces includes a good amount of archival footage and sound, juxtaposed to present-day observational footage, Buffet hews more closely to the poetic documentary side of things. It observes the daily routine at a bus station cafe in a steel town (near Sisak Croatia) that’s been affected by closures.

The documentary is multi-layered, particularly given its mid-length running time.  But I want to focus on something more banal: the way the film uses multiple angles in its editing. Poetic documentaries often favor a locked-down static framing and a long-take refusal of shot breakdowns within the scene (or only minimal scene analysis). Here, though, there’s considerable variety of shot distance, generally along perpendicular angles. For instance, one scene starts with a medium close-up of one of the owners, then a side extreme-long shot of the same man, and finally a rear medium-long shot as he talks to a bus driver. Other scenes work in a similar fashion.

Perpendicular cutaways are very common in popular documentary and television interviews, such as those in 13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016). The ones in Buffet Željezara are slightly different but serve some similar functions. They add production values by de-flattening the image and providing variety for the spectator. They create a fiction-like space out of the profilmic space. For this reason, they raise the issue that Hayden White raises about historical discourse and the desire to achieve fictional coherence out of nonfiction material.

This film is self-reflexive about its coverage, partly through the figure of an amateur photographer who wanders by at several points in the film. But I’m less interested in whether scene analysis is good or bad in a documentary but rather how a filmmaker like Dević or his editor Vladimir Gojun, make decisions for the camera setup and montage. There are two basic considerations I see:

  • Where to place the cameras. Can coverage be achieved with multiple cameras or is reshooting the profilmic necessary? How much should shot distance vary? And by what angle?
  • When to cut in, or out, in the montage. How frequently? And at what pace.

Again, this is nothing that filmmakers don’t know and think about a million times. Or that an astute viewer picks up on. But I’m also posed with a few questions:

  • What aesthetic decisions go into the practical choices above? Do makers like Dević try to avoid seeming too much like a popular doc, either consciously or unconsciously? Or, in this case, it seems possible that he is avoiding too much of the detachment common in poetic docs. Ultimately, Buffet Željezara is a more humanizing film.
  • If coverage mimics the experience of fiction film (to some extent I believe it does), then why resort to a perpendicular montage of the sort you’re more likely to see in Muriel (Resnais, 1963) than a commercial film? I imagine it’s because documentary subjects tend to look at the camera and because documentaries tend not to show the cameraperson or crew, at least not regularly.
  • Why cut backward in the shot-reverse shot patterns? It inverts the normal spatial logic we might expect. Productively, I think, but it’s an unusual choice.
  • What is the tension between the montage and the “close-up” radio mic? This is common in poetic docs, and I would argue the sound is what smooths over the spatial dislocation of the image.

The above does not a theory make, but I do think it’s worth asking how more micro-level stylistic choices often build up into systematic aesthetics – or how the broader aesthetics trickle down to style.