Internal Framing

Are certain directorial choices of framing foreign to documentary?

Close Ties
dir. Zofia Kowalewska, 2016, Poland
Genre: character-driven, observational, short

There’s a lot to say about the short Close Ties, Zofia Kowalewska’s poignant portrait of her grandparents, who have (partially) reconciled after separation. It economically manages its observational material and forms a tidy and affecting narrative structure in the editing. It has one of my favorite dénouements in documentary.

But one smaller thing I noticed was the tendency for the shooting to frame its two characters with internal framing as they spend time in their Krakow apartment:

There may be spatial constraints that lead to this choice, but it’s hard for me not to read the choice as a thematically important one, suggesting the division between the two, literally and figuratively. Some shots even use the wall as a divider between the two rooms as a kind of split screen.

In a fiction film this would not be remotely unusual (one of my favorite examples is In the Mood for Love). But I cannot recall consistent internal being used extensively in a documentary. Maybe I’m overlooking plenty of other docs, but as practiced here it’s a technique which feels fictional to me. Which raises the question: why do some camera techniques feel fictional? I think it boils down to the reactive camera summarized by Leacock’s “uncontrolled cinema” idea. The newer festival documentary has introduced the carefully composed image as a dominant approach. Whereas this latter approach can favor a locked down camera and tableau composition, that is not the only possibility. What makes Close Ties so interesting, and moving, to me is the way it manifests its observational eye through a more composed fictional aesthetic