The Documentary Hypothesis

A good documentary can start with an idea but hopefully not one too developed.

dir. Anna Zamecka, 2017, Poland
genre: observational/character-driven

I know people get cynical about filmmaker interviews, or more precisely the need for filmmakers to perform a role in marketing their film instead of being able to let their films speak for themselves. But I found Anna Zamecka’s interview in Filmmaker magazine to articulate so many useful issues in Communion (2016), a powerful observational documentary about a young teenage woman taking care of he autistic brother.

One passage I found telling was this account of how Zamecka came across her subject, Ola and her family:

She told me that the mother didn’t live with them but that she was hoping that if Marek renovated the bathroom, she would come back. It was a very naïve, but very touching, dream of having the whole family together. All three had very strong faces, and the flat itself was very special – the wallpaper in the living room, everything about it. [It] was a natural set for a film, right down to this beautiful light that came in and this messed up bathroom that if only renovated would bring the mother back. So all these fantastic elements were there. All I could think about was how to make a film out of all this. But there was no story.

One one hand this is the story: Ola wants her family reunited and tries to see that happen. This conflict has not developed out in a meaningful way at the start of the film, and there was no guarantee for the filmmakers that it would. There’s such an imperative for documentary filmmakers to find a “story” in their material. But sometimes viewers can sense, sometimes not, how much of a film’s formal strategies have been retrofitted to give form to the story that was already there. (A sentiment I gather from the comments on a recent discussion of Fire at Sea.)

One quality documentary can bring to this imperative is the sense of the unplanned. Many scenes in Communion seem desultory, like Ola dancing with other teens. These moments serve a function, in the overall structure, but the way they play out speaks to the textures of everyday life. Despite the film’s economy, Communion  manages to observe its characters.

The communion itself is a structuring conceit, but it’s not even what makes the film for me. Rather, I’m intrigued by the way the initial idea serves as a hypothesis that the filmmaker explores. The final film confirms many of her initial instinct but the end result is not preordained by these initial instincts.